Buy Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
(buying through that link supports Expat Chronicles)
Tropic of Cancer was first published in 1934, but only in Europe. It was banned in the US for almost 30 years under obscenity laws. It was censored because of its graphic portrayals of sex, which caught my eye since I have also written graphic portrayals of sex.
[M]aterial dealing with sex in a manner that advocates ideas, or that has literary or scientific or artistic value or any other form of social importance, may not be branded as obscenity and denied the constitutional protection.
So Miller was allowed to sell in the States. I bought the book almost 50 years later. When the physical copy arrived I was shocked at the jacket summary:
Now hailed as an American classic, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller’s masterpiece, was banned as obscene in this country for twenty-seven years after its first publication in Paris in 1934. Only a historic court ruling that changed American censorship standards, ushering in a new era of freedom and frankness in modern literature, permitted the publication of this first volume of Miller’s famed mixture of memoir and fiction, which chronicles with unapologetic gusto the bawdy adventures of a young expatriate writer, his friends, and the characters they meet in Paris in the 1930s.
I was shocked. Not only does he write explicitly about sex, but his subject matter sounds a lot like mine. Am I a sequel? The jacket even includes the words “expatriate” and “chronicles.” AM I A SEQUEL?
This comment from Justin:
Gringobianas, and gringowherevers, from this generation think that they are the first to experience expat life. One can travel to anywhere on this planet and they will meet people from the western world from generations past that have blasted paths through foreign cultures. Examples are 60′s hippies living in the jungles of Guatemala fluent in aboriginal languages and friends of mine who have assisted in surgical procedures in tent constructed “hospitals” in the jungles of Camaroon. We all go through the party-fuck-drunk-this place is shit-I gotta live paradigm …
This is very true, and something I haven’t written about yet. Especially in Colombia, many gringos believe they’re “blasting paths” or blazing trails where no gringo has gone before. There’s sometimes a pretension among expats who’ve been here longer, as if they blazed the trail. I consider The Mick pretty hardcore for arriving in 1986 and doing his first four years in Colombian prison, during the Escobar-era. But even before 1986 there were gringos in Colombia. Gringos have already run up in every corner of this world, with bullets or dick (most places, both). I’m a sequel. You’re a sequel.
If I’m a sequel, I had to see the first act. I gave Tropic of Cancer a whirl during my polyphasic sleep accident. Before reading the book, I highly recommend seeing the 1990 film, Henry and June. I love reading, but video better delivers imagery. This film beautifully captures 1930s Paris, the setting for all the wildness in Tropic of Cancer. Warning, the film is sexually charged. You may have to stop to relieve yourself before finishing (as I had to).
The film’s based on a book written by Anaïs Nin and focuses on Miller’s relationship with his estranged wife, June (played by Uma Thurman in the film, known as “Mona” in Tropic of Cancer). At the end of the film, Miller writes Tropic of Cancer. Here’s the trailer:
Miller was a member of the Lost Generation, the generation of Americans after World War I who roamed aimlessly. Paris was a hotbed of debauchery and whoremongering. The second page, Miller warns us:
This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing or you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty little corpse.
This sets the tone, again similar to this blog. His descriptions of 1930s Paris could apply to 21st century Latin America. For the entire book, substitute “Europe” with “Latin America,” “France” with “Colombia,” or “Bogota” with “Paris.” Here’s one (talking about his estranged wife):
If she ever does arrive she can look for me downstairs, just behind the lavatory. She’ll probably tell me right away that it’s unsanitary. That’s the first thing that strikes an American woman about Europe – that it’s unsanitary. Impossible for them to conceive of a paradise without modern plumbing. If they find a bedbug they want to write a letter immediately to the chamber of commerce. How am I ever going to explain to her that I’m contented here? She’ll say I’ve become a degenerate. I know her line from beginning to end. She’ll want to look for a studio with a garden attached – and a bathtub to be sure. She wants to be poor in a romantic way.
This next passage strikes a personal cord with me and Bogota:
Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.
Too many times.
Here’s a rant from an expat fed up:
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. I’d rather be a bum in America than to be sitting pretty here. Maybe it’s because I’m a Yankee … You can’t become a European overnight. There’s something in your blood that makes you different … We can’t make ourselves over, however much we admire the French. We’re Americans and we’ve got to remain Americans. Sure, I hate those puritanical buggers back home – I hate ’em with all my guts. But I’m one of them myself.
The eternal conflict of being an outsider. That gets to me and anybody who’s spent enough time in Latin America. Your patience for their shortcomings gets shorter. You’re easily annoyed at the typically Latin American inconveniences. Whether it’s the people who don’t know how to wait in line at the store, the incompetent customer service, the stinginess, whatever. Every expat I know complains about the locals. But if you suggest we go back to our own countries, we’d be even more horrified. Well, things aren’t that bad. We’re just venting. Good God, no, don’t send me back to live in the States, PLEASE! You feel that sentiment throughout Tropic of Cancer.
Also from that passage: “sit in a cafe and talk all day long.” Of course I don’t speak for every expat, but for most of my friends, this is life in Bogota. It’s incredibly ironic how we’ll call the locals lazy when, if we cross paths with another gringo on the street, we easily shelf our errands and to-dos to sit down for a quick coffee. And these quick coffees easily run into hour- or 2 hour-long affairs. My expat experience in Bogota has been one with little work, and lots of 5-minute coffees and lunches and joints and chats that last all day.
Once we get a few years under our belts, gringos act like they own the place. Here’s such an ugly American illustrated:
The maid comes in to see if he’s ready – he’s supposed to have vacated the room by noon. He’s just in the act of slipping into his trousers. I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t excuse himself, or turn away. Seeing him standing there nonchalantly buttoning his fly as he gives her orders I begin to titter. “Don’t mind her,” he says, throwing her a look of supreme contempt, “she’s just a big sow. Give her a pinch in the ass, if you like. She won’t say anything.” And then addressing her, in English, he says, “Come here, you bitch, put your hand on this!” At this I can’t restrain myself any longer. I burst out laughing, a fit of hysterical laughter which infects the maid also, though she doesn’t know what it’s all about. The maid commences to take down the pictures and the photographs, mostly of himself, which line the walls. “You,” he says, jerking his thumb, “come here! Here’s something to remember me by” – ripping a photograph off the wall – “when I go you can wipe your ass with it. See,” he says, turning to me, “she’s a dumb bitch. She wouldn’t look any more intelligent if I said it in French.” The maid stands there with her mouth open; she is evidently convinced that he is cracked. “Hey!” he yells at her as if she were hard of hearing. “Hey, you! Yes, you! Like this …!” and he takes the photograph, and wipes his ass with it. “Comme ça! Savvy? You’ve got to draw pictures for her,” he says, thrusting his lower lip forward in absolute disgust.
If you like this blog, you HAVE TO read Tropic of Cancer. All the quirks of being a foreigner in a strange land, plus the sex and debauchery, are on display.
One way I couldn’t identify with Miller was his brokeness. He’s a degenerate bum. A begging, freeloading mooch. Pages and pages he spends complaining how hungry he is, but he rarely tries to work. He just walks around Paris taking in the same sites, surviving on scraps and charity. Here’s a taste of his endless quest for the free lunch:
Left the Villa Borghese a little before noon, just as Boris was getting ready to sit down to lunch. I left out of a sense of delicacy, because it really pains Boris to see me sitting there in the studio with an empty belly. Why he doesn’t invite me to lunch with him I don’t know. He says he can’t afford it, but that’s no excuse. Anyway, I’m delicate about it. If it pains him to eat alone in my presence it would probably pain him more to share his meal with me. It’s not my place to pry into his secret affairs.
Dropped in at the Cronstadts’ and they were eating too. A young chicken with wild rice. Pretended that I had eaten already, but I could have torn the chicken from the baby’s hands. This is not just false modesty – it’s a kind of perversion, I’m thinking. Twice they asked me if I wouldn’t join them. No! No! Wouldn’t even accept a cup of coffee after the meal. I’m delicat, I am. On the way out I cast a lingering glance at the bones lying on the baby’s plate – there was still meat on them.
At one point Miller finagles a proper dinner every night of the week from different hosts. And he even fucked that up:
One by one I’ve fucked myself out of all these free meals which I had planned so carefully. One by one the husbands turn against me, or the wives. As I walk along with the rubber plant in my arms I think of that night a few months back when the idea first occurred to me. I was sitting on a bench near the Coupole, fingering the wedding ring which I had tried to pawn off on a garçon at the Dôme. He had offered me six francs for it and I was in a rage about it. But the belly was getting the upper hand … To make it brief, I got a meal and a few francs besides. And then it occurred to me, like a flash, that no one would refuse a man a meal if only he had the courage to demand it. I went immediately to a café and wrote a dozen letters. “Would you let me have dinner with you once a week? Tell me what day is most convenient for you.” It worked like a charm. I was not only fed … I was feasted. Every night I went home drunk. They couldn’t do enough for me, these generous once-a-week souls. What happened to me between times was none of their affair. Now and then the thoughtful ones presented me with cigarettes, or a little pin money. They were all obviously relieved when they realized that they would see me only once a week. And they were still more relieved when I said – “it won’t be necessary any more.” They never asked why. They congratulated me, and that was all. Often the reason was I had found a better host; I could afford to scratch off the ones who were a pain in the ass. But that thought never occurred to them. Finally I had a steady, solid program – a fixed schedule … They were curious about one another, my hosts. Would ask me which place I liked best, who was the best cook, etc.
Miller writes a lot about sex and banging whores. In this scene, Miller watches a friend with a hooker. Here’s his description:
As I watch Van Norden tackle her, it seems to me that I’m looking at a machine whose cogs have slipped. Left to themselves, they could go on this way forever, grinding and slipping, without ever anything happening. Until a hand shuts the motor off. The sight of them coupled like a pair of goats without the least spark of passion, grinding and grinding away for no reason except the fifteen francs, washes away every bit of feeling I have except the inhuman one of satisfying my curiosity. The girl is lying on the edge of the bed and Van Norden is bent over her like a satyr with his two feet solidly planted on the floor. I am sitting on a chair behind him, watching their movements with a cool, scientific detachment; it doesn’t matter to me if it should last forever. It’s like watching one of those crazy machines which throw the newspaper out, millions and billions and trilions of them with their meaningless headlines. The machine seems more sensible, crazy as it is, and more fascinating to watch, than the human beings and the events which produced it. My interest in Van Norden and the girl is nil; if I could sit like this and watch every single performance going on at this minute all over the world my interest would be even less than nil. I wouldn’t be able to differentiate between this phenomenon and the rain falling or a volcano erupting. As long as that spark of passion is missing there is no human significance in the performance. The machine is better to watch. And these two are like a machine which has slipped its cogs. It needs the touch of a human hand to set it right. It needs a mechanic.
I get down on my knees behind Van Norden and I examine the machine more attentively. The girl throws her head on one side and gives me a despairing look. “It’s no use,” she says. “It’s impossible.” Upon which Van Norden sets to work with renewed energy, just like an old billy goat. He’s such an obstinate cuss that he’ll break his horns rather than give up. And he’s getting sore now because I’m tickling him in the rump.
That was the most extreme sex scene in the entire book, a book censored for obscenity in 1930s – 1950s America.
Miller fell in love with a few whores. Here he contrasts two of them, Germaine and Claude:
Germaine … “All the men she’s been with and now you, just you, and barges going by, masts and hulls, the whole damned current of life flowing through you, through her, through all the guys behind you and after you, the flowers and the birds and the sun streaming in and the fragrance of it choking you, annihilating you.” That was for Germaine! Claude was not the same, though I admired her tremendously – I even thought for a while that I loved her. Claude had a soul and a conscience; she had refinement, too, which is bad – in a whore. Claude always imparted a feeling of sadness; she left the impression, unwittingly, of course, that you were just one more added to the stream which fate had ordained to destroy her. Unwittingly, I say, because Claude was the last person in the world who would consciously create such an image in one’s mind. She was too delicate, too sensitive for that. At bottom, Claude was just a good French girl of average breed and intelligence whom life had tricked somehow; something in her there which was not tough enough to withstand the shock of daily experience. For her were meant those terrible words of Louis-Philippe, “and a night comes when all is over, when so many jaws have closed upon us that we no longer have the strength to stand, and our meat hangs upon our bodies, as though it had been masticated by every mouth.” Germaine, on the other hand, was a whore from the cradle; she was thoroughly satisfied with her role, enjoyed it in fact, except when her stomach pinched or her shoes gave out, little surface things of no account, nothing that ate into her soul, nothing that created torment. Ennui! That was the worst she ever felt. Days there were, no doubt, when she had a bellyful, as we say – but no more than that! Most of the time she enjoyed it – or gave the illusion of enjoying it. It made a difference of course, whom she went with – or came with. But the principal thing was a man. A man! That was what she craved. A man with something between his legs that could tickle her, that could make her writhe in ecstasy, make her grab that bushy twat of hers with both hands and rub it joyfully, boastfully, proudly, with a sense of connection, a sense of life. That was the only place where she experienced any life – down there where she clutched herself with both hands.
Germaine was a whore all the way through, even down to her good heart, her whore’s heart which is not really a good heart but a lazy one, an indifferent, flaccid heart that can be touched for a moment, a heart without reference to any fixed point within, a big flaccid, whore’s heart that can detach itself for a moment from its true center. However vile and circumscribed was that world which she had created for herself, nevertheless she functioned in it superbly. And that in itself is a tonic thing. When, after we had become well acquainted, her companions would twit me, saying that I was in love with Germaine (a situation almost inconceivable to them), I would say: “Sure! Sure, I’m in love with her! And what’s more, I’m going to be faithful to her!” A lie, of course, because I could no more think of loving Germaine than I could think of loving a spider; and if I was faithful, it was not to Germaine but to that bushy thing she carried between her legs. Whenever I looked at another woman I thought immediately of Germaine, of that flaming bush which she had left in my mind and which seemed imperishable. It gave me pleasure to sit on the terrasse of the little tabac and observe her as she plied her trade, observe her as she resorted to the same grimaces, the same tricks, with others as she had with me. “She’s doing her job!” – that’s how I felt about it, and it was with approbation that I regarded her transactions. Later, when I had taken up with Claude, and I saw her night after night sitting in her accustomed place, her round little buttocks chubbily ensconced in the plush settee, I felt a sort of inexpressible rebellion toward her; a whore, it seemed to me, had no right to be sitting there like a lady, waiting timidly for someone to approach and all the while abstemiously sipping her chocolat. Germaine was a hustler. She didn’t wait for you to come to her – she went out and grabbed you. I remember so well the holes in her stocking, and the torn ragged shoes; I remember too how she stood at the bar and with blind, courageous defiance threw a strong drink down her stomach and marched out again. A hustler! Perhaps it wasn’t so pleasant to smell that boozy breath of hers, that breath compounded of weak coffee, cognac, apéritifs, Pernods and all the other stuff she guzzled between times, what to warm herself and what to summon up strength and courage, but the fire of it penetrated her, it glowed down there between her legs where women ought to glow, and there was established that circuit which makes one feel the earth under his legs again. When she lay there with her legs apart and moaning, even if she did moan that way for any and everybody, it was good, it was a proper show of feeling. She didn’t stare up at the ceiling with a vacant look or count the bedbugs on the wallpaper; she kept her mind on her business, she talked about the things a man wants to hear when he’s climbing over a woman. Whereas Claude – well, with Claude there was always a certain delicacy, even when she got under the sheets with you. And her delicacy offended. Who wants a delicate whore! Claude would even ask you to turn your face away when she squatted over the bidet. All wrong! A man, when he’s burning up with passion, wants to see things; he wants to see everything, even how they make water. And while it’s all very nice to know that a woman has a mind, literature coming from the cold corpse of a whore is the last thing to be served in bed. Germaine had the right idea; she was ignorant and lusty, she put her heart and soul into her work. She was a whore all the way through – and that was her virtue!
On my brothel tours I always advised clients to forget about the hottest chick. The best experiences come from the girl who wants to fuck you. Even if she has stretch marks from pregnancy or a missing tooth or what have you, it’ll be a significantly better experience than a cold stallion. You want a work horse – I’d say – not a show horse.
Although at contrast with the last passage, Miller has a sensitive rebuttal for that attitude:
When I listen to the reproaches that are leveled against a girl like Lucienne, when I hear her being denigrated or despised because she is cold and mercenary, because she is too mechanical, or because she’s in too great a hurry, or because this or because that, I say to myself, hold on there bozo, not so fast! Remember that you’re far back in the procession; remember that a whole army corps has laid siege to her, that she’s been laid waste, plundered and pillaged. I say to myself, listen, bozo, don’t begrudge the fifty francs you hand her because you know her pimp is pissing it away in the Faubourg Montmartre. It’s her money and her pimp. It’s blood money. It’s money that’ll never be taken out of circulation because there’s nothing in the Banque de France to redeem it with.
Aside from his astute analyses of sex and whores, Miller writes about hilarious exploits with other expats partying in Paris. He often makes fun of the people he hangs out with, as I do, while keeping a straight face among them. He uses a lot of shock value, as I do. Finally, he doesn’t make the slightest pretense about being a good or caring person. Just as I don’t.
My main complaint with Miller is his tendency to ramble. They called themselves “surrealists,” but it’s nothing like magic realism in Latin American authors. It’s just rambling. Often I’d jump entire pages to skip past the incoherence. Here’s an example of a LESS boring diatribe, on the vagina:
Suddenly I see a dark, hairy crack in front of me set in a bright, polished billiard ball; the legs are holding me like a pair of scissors. A Glance at that dark, unstitched wound and a deep fissure in my brain opens up: all the images and memories that had been laboriously or absent-mindedly assorted, labeled, documented filed, sealed and stamped break forth pell-mell like ants pouring out of a crack in the sidewalk; the world ceases to revolve, time stops, the very nexus of my dreams is broken and dissolved and my guts spill out in a grand schizophrenic rush, an evacuation that leaves me face to face with the Absolute. I see again the great sprawling mothers of Picasso, their breasts covered with spiders, their legend hidden deep in the labyrinth. And Molly Blood lying on a dirty mattress for eternity. On the toilet door red chalk cocks and the madonna uttering the diapason of woe. I hear a wild, hysterical laugh, a room full of lockjaw, and the body that was black glows like a phosphorus. Wild, wild, utterly uncontrollable laughter, and that crack laughing at me too, laughing through the mossy whiskers, a laugh that creases the bright, polished surface of the billiard ball. Great whore and mother of man with gin in her veins. Mother of all harlots, spider rolling us in your logarithmic grave, insatiable one, fiend whose laughter rives me! I look down into that sunken crater, world lost and without traces, and I hear the bells chiming, two nuns at the Palace Stanislas and the smell of rancid butter under their dresses, manifesto never printed because it was raining, war fought to further the cause of plastic surgery, the Prince of Wales flying around the world decorating the graves of unknown heroes. Every bat flying out of the belfry a lost cause, every whoopla a groan over the radio from the private trenches of the damned. Out of that dark, unstitched wound, that sink of abominations, that cradle of black-thronged cities where the music of ideas is drowned in cold fat, out of strangled Utopias is born a clown, a being divided between beauty and ugliness, between light and chaos, a clown who when he looks down and sidelong is Satan himself and when he looks upward sees a buttered angel, a snail with wings …
I’ll cut him off there, but he keeps going on with whatever the hell he’s talking about. That passage is less boring because he’s talking about vagina. You can imagine how boring the non-vagina rants are. If I could edit the book, it’d be at most 250 pages – down from 318.
Miller makes no pretense of being a good or caring person. Nothing illustrates this like the ending.
(stop now if you don’t want the ending spoiled)
The ending spans several pages, so too much to include here. Here it is one paragraph – one paragraph that does NOT do justice in hilarity nor reality to Miller’s accont:
One of Miller’s American drinking buddies knocks up a French woman of peasant breeding (who probably had prostitute experience). He shacked up with the family and publicly committed to marrying her. They took him in, showed him off, and took care of him while he was ill. A month before the wedding, this American was horrified at his future. Miller convinces him to split, to escape France without notice. He holds the guy’s hand and coaxes him all the way to a train to London. He doesn’t let him think twice. The American gives Miller 2500 francs and a postcard explaining everything to the pregnant fiance soon to be single mother. After the American goes, Miller throws away the postcard and goes on a splurge with the money. He leaves the French baby mama high and dry. Not a good person, and not pretending to be.
If you’re a fan of Expat Chronicles’ sleazier posts, you’ll love Tropic of Cancer.
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