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.
Ewan Morrison's 'Ménage', the story of a modern ménage à trois inspired by Henry Miller, his wife June and Anais Nin, is published by Jonathan Cape next week
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Frankie Boyle on Scottish independence: 'In the Interests of Unity, F**k Off'
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils