Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller 
Reviewed by Steve Rudd


“You can get something out of a book, even a bad book.”

First published in France in 1934, this extraordinary piece of writing never saw the light of day in the United States and the wider world at large until after 1961, following a mighty legal battle that resulted in the book finally being published elsewhere.

“Human beings make a strange fauna and flora… More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space – space even more than time.”

Why was it banned? Well, let’s just say that it was deemed a little too controversial and potentially offensive to the masses.

Here and now, in the 21st Century, it seems to take a lot to shock people. American Psycho, the Bret Easton Ellis novel, is one of the most controversial novels of recent years. Back in the thirties, Tropic of Cancer set mouths agape and widened the most open-minded of eyes.
Tropic of Cancer really has to be read, though, even if you are ‘of a nervous disposition’ and don’t take too kindly to reading about graphic sex acts. In truth, Miller’s writing is usually so poetic that his prose shouldn’t really cause that much offence.

Set in Paris, the novel brings to life an incredible way of life, and there’s little wonder that this novel has been likened to the Jack Kerouac masterpiece On The Road for the zestful way in which the characters that Miller introduces in his novel really do live life to the full – whether they are eating, drinking, meeting up with friends, or merely thinking.

As for when they are making love, lust plays a huge part, and neither love nor lust know any bounds: “I don’t want to be reasonable and logical. I hate it! I want to bust loose, I want to enjoy myself. I want to do something. I don’t want to sit in a cafe and talk all day long. Jesus, we’ve got our faults – but we’ve got enthusiasm. It’s better to make mistakes than not do anything.” 

Miller was actually born in New York (“It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea…”), and though Tropic of Cancer - and his Tropic of Capricorn follow-up – are both resolutely set in Paris, there are still references to his homeland. Still, one of the most interesting aspects of his writing is the way that one minute there seems to be a definite story being narrated, only for the main thread of such a story to be regularly overthrown by some extravagantly abstract diversion into sheer poetry of the most philosophical sort.

Rest assured, there is never a dull moment where the writing of Henry Miller (who died in 1980) is concerned, and I really hope that his work is long regarded for the life-enhancing entity it is.

As Miller himself wrote, “Today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul.” I wholeheartedly agree, firmly believing that the answers to many of life’s little mysteries are just waiting to be discovered in books.

“Even as the world falls apart, the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair. On its wobbly axis the wheels roll steadily downhill; there are no brakes, no ball bearings, no balloon tires. The wheel is falling apart, but the revolution is intact…” So long as that revolution is collectively against pettiness, dull routine and mundanity, then it should be championed to the bittersweet end.

ISBN 0-00-711520-2 (Flamingo)

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