Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What I Read: Tropic of Cancer

I confess to not knowing a whole lot about Tropic of Cancer before I started reading it, except of the infamous smut charges brought against it back in the day. Speaking of smut, let's have a Tom Lehrer aside:

Stockholm Stadsbiblioteket even classifies this as "erotic." Which is great, there's nothing I love more than walking out of the library with a book that says EROTISK in big, bold letters on the spine. This is the same category with 50 Shades of Grey and all of its derivatives, by the way. just to give you an idea of how what this library system considers erotic. Suffice it to say, between that and the obscenity charges I was expecting one thing, and very much got something else. Miller talks very frankly about sex, and the human anatomy, and particularly the female anatomy, but it's about as erotic or as obscene as an edition of Grey's Anatomy. I suspect it was his gratuitous use of the word "cunt" that got him in trouble more than anything else; the vast majority of the book has little to do with sex and much to do with the expat identity (whatever that means) and being an American in Paris. Time for another musical interlude:

This one was a tough nut for me to crack. It starts out quite concretely ("I am living in the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.") and then suddenly and without warning slips into quite another mood altogether, stream of consciousness and surreal and addressing characters we never get to know:
Dozing off. The physiology of love. The whale with his six-foot penis, in repose. The bat—penis libre. Animals with a bone in the penis. Hence, a bone on...."Happily," says Gourmont, "the bony structure is lost in man." Happily? Yes, happily. Think of the human race walking around with a bone on. The kangaroo has a double penis—one for weekdays and one for holidays. Dozing. A letter from a female asking if I have found a title for my book. Title? To be sure: "Lovely Lesbians." 
Your anecdotal life! A phrase of M. Borowski's...
That shift was hard for me to take, but once I adjusted my expectations it was a compelling read. The expat genre, if it can be termed that, seems to be my favorite genre of the TIME Top 100 list. Having lived and worked in South Korea (which, I am convinced, would have generated a second Lost Generation's worth of art and literature if not for the immediate gratification of blogging) and moved to Sweden, novels about Americans abroad are certainly relevant to my life experiences.

 Beyond expatriation, reading books like Tropic of Cancer makes me wonder: what would I do if one of my friends churned out a high literary masterpiece right under my nose? If this hadn't been a bound and finished and lauded as a modern classic, what would I have thought about it? What changes would I have marked, what passages would I have cut? Tough questions I can't answer. But this is the first book in a while that has been eminently quotable. You may find that most of them are sentiments that could be expressed about being an American expat in South Korea. Replace "Europe" and "France" accordingly.

In Europe one gets used to doing nothing. You sit on your ass and whine all day. You get contaminated. You rot.

The book must be absolutely original, absolutely perfect. That is why, among other things, it is impossible for him to get started on it. As soon as he gets an idea he begins to question it. He remembers that Dostoevski used it, or Hamsun, or somebody else. "I'm not saying that I want to be better than them, but I want to be different," he explains. And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another in order to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property. And the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes. None of them are satisfying; none of them arrive at that degree of perfection which he has imposed upon himself. And forgetting completely that he has not written as much as a chapter he talks about them condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.

That this sort of thing existed I knew, but then one also knows that there are slaughterhouses and morgues and dissecting rooms. One instinctively avoids such places. In the street I had often passed a priest with a little prayer book in his hands laboriously memorizing his lines. Idiot, I would say to myself, and let it go at that. In the street one meets with all forms of dementia and the priest is by no means the most striking. Two thousand years of it has deadened us to the idiocy of it. However, when you are suddenly transported to the very midst of his realm, when you see the little world in which the priest functions like an alarm clock, you are apt to have entirely different sensations.

"...I was born in New England and I belong there, I guess. You can't become a European overnight. There's something in your blood that makes you different. It's the climate—and everything. We see things with different eyes. 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. I don't belong here. I'm sick of it." 
All along the arcade he went on like this. I wasn't saying a word. I let him spill it all out—it was good for him to get it off his chest. Just the same, I was thinking how strange it was that this same guy, had it been a year ago, would have been beating his chest like a gorilla and saying: "What a marvelous day! What a country! What a people!" And if an American had happened along and said one word against France Fillmore would have flattened his nose. He would have died for France—a year ago. I never saw a man who was so infatuated with a country, who was so happy under a foreign sky. It wasn't natural. When he said France it meant wine, women, money in the pocket, easy come, easy go. It meant being a bad boy, being on a holiday. And then, when he had had his fling, when the tent top blew off and he had a good look at the sky, he saw that it wasn't just a circus, but an arena, just like everywhere. And a damned grim one. I often used to think, when I heard him rave about glorious France, about liberty and all that crap, what it would have sounded like to a French workman, could he have understood Fillmore's words. No wonder they think we're all crazy. We are crazy to them. We're just a pack of children. Senile idiots. What we call life is a five-and-ten-cent store romance. That enthusiasm underneath—what is it? That cheap optimism which turns the stomach of any ordinary European? It's illusion. No, illusion's to good a word for it. Illusion means something. No, it's not that—it's delusion. It's sheer delusion, that's what. We're like a herd of wild horses with blinders over our eyes.
By the time this post goes up, I'll have returned this to the library. I don't know if I'll buy a copy for myself eventually, but I know at one point I'll need to re-read it. After I have time to digest and think on it a while.

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