Miller’s first “fictional-diary novel” depicts his life in Paris as a failed writer — or upcoming one who hasn’t yet find the right path to fame — who struggles to get his daily food and encounters a colorful variety of personalities.
The main character is Miller himself, going from one Parisian hotel to another, squatting where there is place and, if he can grab a free meal in the process, so much the better. His second home (or rather shelter) consists of prostitutes’ rooms, a place that disgusts him but also allow him to fall in love, for a few seconds, a few minutes maybe.
Miller’s life is a series of small jobs and redundancy, time that he spends in the various cafes of Paris, making acquaintances with people he loathes (alcoholics, ideologists) but to whom he can still connect his shredded life.
The book is at least as shocking as it is poetic. Every part of the woman is lust for, tasted, tried and described, almost reviewed in the most gruesome manner but that end up being genuine prose. No wonder why his books were banned from the US conservative readership for a good thirty years.
Being the first author’s book, you’d expect it to be a first try. And in a way, it is. You can see Miller’s improvement in writing during the first 100 pages. You can see the confusion at first, the jumble of ideas. It’s almost as if it was written at once, without being reviewed — an impossibility when you know one of his jobs was proof-reading. Only after 100-130 pages, descriptions become deep, very long and clear as pristine water.
By the end of the book, you don’t know if you have to pity the writer for his poor life or praise him for his intelligent views on the society and the people who surround him. You don’t know if humanity is some kind of “lice” (as Miller often describes it) or some manure that lets exotic, eccentric vital flowers to eventually blossom. It depends on your personality, I guess.
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller, published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 318 pages, £9.99.