Sunday Book Club

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
14 June 2020
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Sunday Book Club

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
SUNDAY BOOK CLUB: This week’s recommended read

“There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt.”

Many have cited Henry Miller’s 1934 scandalous masterpiece Tropic of Cancer (working title: Crazy Cock) as the trigger to their sexual awakening, therefore it should come as little surprise that the period of time Miller penned the book marked a shift in values, mentality and location within his own life.

Working on the novel between 1930 and 1934, the text was written during Miller’s “nomadic life in Paris”. Leaving behind a disintegrating marriage and an unhappy career in America, the author moved to the French capital and immersed himself in its heady bohemian world

Within the text, Miller fictionalises his racy adventures as a struggling writer, living amongst the prostitutes and pimps of the city’s Left Bank streets and the down-and-out painters and writers of Montparnasse. Cutting autobiography with fiction, real-life friends with imagining figures, a crude charm surges throughout as the reader is taken on a romp through Paris’ wild nights – via Miller obsessively reporting his erotic exploits. Yet it’s not all fun and smut: Miller mediates on the human condition throughout, contemplating his own emotional state as he suffers from hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness and despair.

Written in a rhapsodic manner that pulls the reader along like a troublesome friend, Tropic of Cancer’s renegade prose and lack of traditional plot carved a genuinely new and exciting avant-garde writing style that proved a major inspiration on Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, and beyond.

Yet not everyone saw the book for its brilliance. Banned in the US and the UK for more than thirty years because it was considered pornographic, even in liberal Paris, bookstores sold the novel under the counter; smuggled home disguised under dust jackets from other books. And when the novel was first published in the US in 1961, it led to more than 60 obscenity trials until a historic ruling by the Supreme Court defined it as a work of literature.

However, Miller got no enjoyment from the ruling, claiming that readers were consuming his work for its shock value, getting off on its vulgarity while completely bypassing the hypocrisy and shame that lay behind them. In a 1972 interview with Digby Diehl published in the Los Angeles Times Miller said, “More and more I’ve grown disgusted with my readers. I revealed everything about myself, and I find that they’re interested in this sensational life. But I was trying to give them more than that.”

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