Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

[Signet Classic, 1995.  Photo is from original publication, cover illustration by a child, his editor's son? lover's son?]

I have reached the limits of endurance.  My back is to the wall; I can retreat no further.  As far as history goes I am dead.  If there is something beyond I shall have to bounce back.  I have found God, but he is insufficient.  I am only spiritually dead.  Physically I am alive.  Morally I am free.  The world which I have departed is a menagerie.  The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws.  If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one:  I go forth to fatten myself.

Wowsa wowsa wowsa! what a book.  At infrequent times irritating and a slog, at more frequent other times a glorious prose poem.  The prose is first-rate throughout.  As a novel, it lacks a plot, and the characters tend to run together.  But the narrator's voice is unimpeachable, a modulated brilliant scream against existence that by its very beauty argues the opposite. It is much a time and place (Paris, 1932-1934) that I will ever get to know.  Published in France in 1934 (the year my mother was born) and only published in the US in 1961 (the year I was born), it appeared in bootleg versions around the world immediately and had a great effect.  It's not the 1940s Paris of Hemingway -- it's the weak-currency, shit-smeared version of Paris in the early 1930s.  And Paris is the star character, in all her glory and decay, her civilization and her madness.

I have taken my time and dogeared many pages and will take care to re-type them here, just for the beauty of the sentences.  And the quotes are long:  Miller was not an epithet-er, but a spinner of great paragraphs.

"'This fucking business is bad, Endree,' he says.  'But I will give you a word that will always make you lucky; you must say it every day, over and over, a million times you must say it.  It is the best word there is, Endree... say it now...OOMAHARUMOOMA!'

'No Endree... like this... OOMAHARUMOOMA!'
'No, Endree... like this...'
...but with that the murky light, the botchy print, the tattered cover, the jigjagged page, the fumbling fingers, the foxtrotting fleas, the lie-a-bed lice, the scum on his tongue, the drop in his eye, the lump in his throat, the drink in his pottle, the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind, the grief from his breath, the fog of his brainfag,, the tic of his conscience, the height of his rage, the gush of his fundament, the fire in his gorge, the tickle of his tail, the rats in his garret, the hullabaloo and the dust in his ears, since it took him a month to steal a march, he was hardset to memorize more than a word a week."

[on Van Norden]:  In a sense Van Norden is mad, of that I am convinced.  His one fear is to be left alone, and this fear is so deep and so persistent that even when he is on top of a woman, even when he has welded himself to her, he cannot escape the prison which he has created for himself.  

You can be brilliant sometimes, when you're drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department... Just the same it's hard to talk to a man when you have nothing in common with him; you betray yourself, even if you use only monosyllabic words.  He knew god-damn well, the boss, that I didn't take the least bit of interest in his yarns; and yet, explain it how you will, it gave him pleasure to wean me away from my dreams and fill me full of dates and historical events.  It was his way of taking revenge, I suppose.  [p. 168-169]

One can live without friends, as one can live without love, or even without money, that supposed sine qua non. One can live in Paris – I discovered that! – on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment - perhaps the best there is for some people.  At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope.  I was only flirting with disaster.  I had time and sentiment enough to spare to peep into other people's lives, to dally with the dread stuff of romance which, however morbid it may be, when it is wrapped between the covers of a book, seems deliciously remote and anonymous. [p. 172]

So true is it that I am almost tempted to say: "Show me a man who over-elaborates and I will show you a great man!" What is called their "over-elaboration" is my meat: it is the sign of the struggle, it is struggle itself with all the fibers clinging to it, the very aura and ambiance of the discordant spirit. And when you show me a man who expresses himself perfectly I will not say that he is not great, but I will say that I am unattracted . . . . I miss the cloying qualities. When I reflect that the task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life, then it is that I run with joy to the great imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears. [p. 232]

This is from the marvelous penultimate scene in the novel, where the narrator has gone to Dijon as an unpaid English tutor at a monastery school:  Everything frozen tight as scum, the mind locked and rimed with frost, and through the melancholy bales of chitter-wit the choking gargle of louse-eaten saints.  White I am and wrapped in wool, swaddled, fettered, ham-strung, but in this I have no part.  White to the bone, but with a cold alkali base, with saffron-tipped fingers.  White, aye, but no brother of learning, no Catholic heart.  White and ruthless, as the men before me who sailed out of the Elbe.  I look to the sea, to the sky, to what is unintelligible and distantly near. [page 255]

Going back in a flash over the women I've known, it's like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery.  Each one bound to the other .  A fear of living separate, of staying born.  The door of the womb always on the latch.  Dread and longing.  Deep in the blood the pull of Paradise.  The beyond.  Always the beyond.  It must have all started with the navel.  They cut the umbilical cord, give your a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder.  You look at the stars and then you look at your navel.  You grow eyes everywhere -- in the armpits, between your lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet.  What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant.  Inner-outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins,a turning inside out.  You drift around like that for years and years, until you find yourself in the dead center, and there you slowly rot, slowly crumble to pieces, get dispersed again.  Only your name remains. (260)

George Orwell on Henry Miller, from "Inside the Whale":  Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.  It is perhaps significant that he looks exactly like everyone's idea of an American businessman.

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