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Book Review: "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller

2.5/5 - written well, but has some serious flaws of character...

By Annie KapurPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 3 min read
From: Amazon

“...the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses. For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured- disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui- in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable. And all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off.”

'Tropic of Cancer' by Henry Miller

During living a nomadic kind of life in Paris, Henry Miller penned the book Tropic of Cancer over a few years in the 1930s. Set in the 14th arrondissement, it takes place in a fictional villa based on a real place. The writer Anais Nin helped to edit the book and financed its publication along with Otto Rank. Published in 1934 in France, it was originally banned in the United States due to obscenity laws that France did not have. In 1961, it was published in the United States but still lead to obscenity trials. It was not until 1964 that the book was declared not obscene.

The book deals with the author's struggles with being a writer, an autobiographical novel, it tells of the uniqueness of Paris - sometimes it is great and other times, it is the epitome of boredom, a kind of prison or a personal hell. Obviously, the whole point of the book is that the writing is supposed to be beautiful without making the subject matter beautiful itself. This is something that is an advantage in the book but apart from this, the author's melancholy from time to time (no matter how much he says he loves his life) sends the atmosphere swinging. Let's take a look at some of the images in the text that I somewhat enjoyed.

From: Vulture

More than often, the images of Paris as being both a great city and a horrid prison seems to work in the book. It is Henry Miller's writing that makes this brilliant. Intertwining the images of Paris and its atmospheres with the author's state of mind at the time seems to make a wonderful mixture of perception and reality. There's a part where Miller talks about how everywhere he looks, people are making messes of their lives and how 'everyone has his private tragedy'. I think that the state of mind of the protagonist definitely impacts the way he actually sees the city. There is something empty and angsty about it, which is completely different to how Paris is seen in the 1930s. Be that as it may, if we are looking for angsty books about Paris in the 20th Century we may as well read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast instead.

However, there are things that I didn't enjoy in this book - even though it is a well-written book, there are things I couldn't stand. The first thing is that the protagonist is wholly unlikeable as a character. He has literally no redeeming qualities as a person and often gets under the reader's skin as being a misogynist and someone who isn't really a good friend to the men around him either. There's a part where he is enjoying his life and so he doesn't want to speak to his friends who aren't enjoying theirs because they might bring him down. Yeah, this guy sounds like a good friend. (Yes, I was being sarcastic).

I was also not a big fan of the casual anti-semitism in the book and it made me pretty uncomfortable whenever it was brought up. Also, is it just me or is this guy a serial sexual assaulter as well? I mean, when I say the narrator is massively unlikeable, this guy is bordering on criminal. Miller seems to think very highly of himself through all of these faults and we cannot just blame 'the times back then' for this. It wasn't like this stuff wasn't prosecuted at all - but his thinly-vieled narcissism comes off as wisdom and I don't think it should really be seen like that at all. The narrator's personality definitely ruins this book.

All in all, Henry Miller's book might be well-written and there is a clear talent for writing there. The problem is not the writing, the problem is the person writing it. If we are to take this as an autobiographical novel then we should be quite concerned about who Henry Miller was because he doesn't seem like a nice person - not even remotely.


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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  • Kendall Defoe about a month ago

    You and me share the same complaints about Herr Miller. I find that I cannot read him without wanting to edit a third of his work. And did you read Orwell's essay on his work, "Inside the Whale"? It is still accurate. Excellent review, Ms. K!

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