Book Of A Lifetime: Tropic of Cancer, By Henry Miller
Friday 26 June 2009
The only book in my parents' bookcase which was turned the wrong way round with the spine hidden was Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller. Their idea was, no doubt, one of caring parental censorship: they didn't want the novel that led to the rewriting of US laws on pornography to fall into my 13-year-old hands. Copies had to be illegally smuggled into the US until the 1960s and a publisher did ten years in jail. Given that my parents were liberal leftists and their bookshelf also included texts by Erica Jong, Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre and Vance Packard, I realised that the hidden book had to be pretty radical. I stole it and hid it under my bed.
One might worry that I would have been corrupted by the book. Thankfully, at that point I found it totally incoherent; the page-long sentences unwinding like the ramblings of some drunken poet, wandering from meal to meal, drink to drink, from one sexual adventure to the next through the streets of Paris and Brooklyn. The surrealist stream-of-consciousness style, the impossible mixture of social commentary and autobiographical rantings, did not provide me with the tools I required from so-called pornography. The behaviours described were no more extreme than those that happened weekly in my hippy household. I mentally filed it away under "pretentious modernist experiment".
It took me 20 years to come back to Miller, and when I found him again, he was a life-saver. Ironically, I found myself living within a mile of his old home in Brooklyn, wandering from drink to drink and bed to bed, dangerously close to total collapse. In many ways, I blamed my downfall on the permissive society that Miller had helped spawn through his influence on the Beats.
Along with medication, a doctor prescribed that I cut out all destructive behaviour and sit quietly each day, taking stock. I needed the company of a book. In a bookshop on Park Slope, Brooklyn, my eyes came to rest on a book, the title of which had worn away. When I picked it from the shelf it fell into three pieces. I bought it for 25 cents. Beneath a cherry tree, I started again to read Tropic of Cancer. What came across was not the graphic sex or the experimental prose, but the generous spirit of an author who had made a total mess of his life and somehow from it, created an even bigger mess of a book (that, somehow, saved him).
Rambling, rambunctious, aimless, vain, flawed, with no methodology, a diary of a living catastrophe, it had more heart and vulnerability than any book I have read since. Beneath the cherry blossoms, I started to write a diary as Miller had done, and I learned that even if you have no direction, writing can give you the strength to go on, at least to the next line.
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