They say America is a country of extremes, and it is true that the thermometer registers degrees of cold which are practically unheard of here; but the cold of a Paris winter is a cold unknown to America, it is psychological, an inner as well as an outer cold.
-Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934)
Another Valentine's Day may have come and gone, but I have one Valentine worth celebrating every day: Henry Miller, Henry Valentine Miller.
I began my love affair with this controversial writer back in October, when I came across Tropic of Cancer in a used book store in Zagreb. Having never read anything by Miller, I was happy to hand over forty kuna for the chance to read something more stimulating than nutrition labels in Croatian. The book's first paragraph got my full attention and its carefully parsed words left me no choice but to read on: "I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead". My knees buckled as I fell under the spell of Miller's characteristically vivid writing style.
Miller proves himself to be a fine storyteller, blending fiction with reality as he and his fellow expat characters navigate the neighborhood of Montparnasse in 1930s Paris. I love his generous use of wry humor ("...women who would look so attractive from behind, and when they turn around – wow, syphilis!"), honesty, and creativity ("She sat on the edge of the seat as if she feared to crush her gorgeous tail"). I love his rich vocabulary and sentences that run on for days, erratically chopped up with enough commas and semicolons to drive an editor mad. Henry Miller, my literary hero.
But did Henry Miller produce such brilliant masterpieces because he was at the right place at the right time, surrounded by hungry bohemians such as himself with little to fret over but a steady stream of apertifs and a pocket lacking sous? Perhaps. The 1930s was a time before cars ate up wide sidewalks and pedestrian promenades, before the neon glow of H&M lit up the night sky and people were too busy with their phones and laptops to people-watch at the corner cafe. What would Miller think of Facebook posts, digital nomad bros, or, shudder, Brutalism? I wonder if Miller would derive the same inspiration today from the world as he did then, and I doubt it. Miller's strengths in this book are his colorful descriptions of people and the physical world around them, from the whores in crowded dark cafes to oddball roommates occupying sparse, dingy flats; when he writes about Paris and its people, I'm absolutely captivated imagining the vibrancy of cities in the 1920s, not gasping for air under the weight of cars and bland architecture as they do today, lifeless prison cells papered with advertisements for whitening toothpaste and diet soda.
The man who electrified Europe and his native U.S. with his sexually explicit novels in the 1930s, banned in countries outside of France for decades, is both an idol and an inspiration to me. I read Henry Miller's solitary expat adventures as I endeavored on my own --admittedly less scintillating -- expat journey, comforted by the knowledge that someone else experienced the same highs and lows as me and accurately captured the roller coaster in words. And even when Miller makes it clear he's been around more vaginas than a seasoned gynecologist, I don't have the energy to protest his objectification of women because his writing is too goddamn beautiful. And hilarious. Take the following passage:
The trouble with Irène is that she has a valise instead of a cunt. She wants fat letters to shove in her valise. Immense, avec des choses inouïes. Llona now, she had a cunt. I know because she sent us some hairs from down below. Llona -- a wild ass snuffing pleasure out of the wind. On every high hill she played the harlot -- and sometimes in telephone booths and toilets. She bought a bed for King Carol and a shaving mug with his initials on it. She lay in Tottenham Court Road with her dress pulled up and fingered herself. She used candles, Roman candles, and door knobs. Not a prick in the land big enough for her... not one. Men went inside her and curled up. [...] Poor Carol, he could only curl up insider her and die. She drew a breath and he fell out -- like a dead clam.
But offensively beautiful ramblings aside, Miller masterfully captures the feelings of an expatriated U.S. citizen in Tropic of Cancer. As I flip through my dog-eared copy that I safeguarded in the one carry-on suitcase I lived out of while abroad, I look at the notes I made when reading and re-reading the book and have selected the following passages. Enjoy.
When I think of New York I have a very different feeling. New York makes even a rich man feel his unimportance. New York is cold, glittering, malign. The buildings dominate. There is a sort of atomic frenzy to the activity going on; the more furious the pace, the more diminished the spirit. A constant ferment, but it might just as well be going on in a test tube. […] Rich or poor, they walk along with heads thrown back and they almost break their necks looking up at their beautiful white prisons.
The young Hindu, of course, is optimistic. He has been to America and he has been contaminated by the cheap idealism of the Americans, contaminated by the ubiquitous bathtub, the five-and-ten-cent store bric-a-brac, the bustle, the efficiency, the machinery, the high wages, the free libraries, etc., etc. His ideal would be to Americanize India. He is not at all pleased with Gandhi’s retrogressive mania. Forward, he says, just like a YMCA man. As I listen to his tales of America I see how absurd it is to expect of Gandhi that miracle which will deroute the trend of destiny. India’s enemy is not England, but America. India’s enemy is the time spirit, the hand which cannot be turned back. Nothing will avail to offset this virus which is poisoning the whole world. America is the very incarnation of doom. She will drag the whole world down to the bottomless pit.
(pal Van Norden speaking) ”In America,” he says, “you wouldn’t dream of living in a joint like this. Even when I was on the bum I slept in better rooms than this. But here it seems natural – it’s like the books you read. If I ever go back there I’ll forget all about this life, just like you forget a bad dream. I’ll probably take up the old life again just where I left off… if I ever get back. Sometimes I lie in bed dreaming about the past and it’s so vivid to me that I have to shake myself in order to realize where I am.”
I had to travel precisely all around the world to find such a comfortable, agreeable niche as this. It seems incredible almost. How could I have foreseen, in America, with all those firecrackers they put up your ass to give you pep and courage, that the ideal position for a man of my temperament was to look for orthographic mistakes? Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day. Potentially every man is Presidential timber. Here it’s different. Here every man is potentially a zero. If you become something or somebody it is an accident, a miracle. […] But it’s just because the chances are all against you, just because there is so little hope, that life is sweet over here.
If I try to recall my life in New York I get a few splintered fragments, nightmarish and covered with verdigris. It seems as if my own proper existence had come to an end somewhere, just where exactly I can’t make out. I’m not an American any more, nor a New Yorker, and even less a European, or a Parisian. I haven’t any allegiance, any responsibilities, any hatreds, any worries, any prejudices, any passion. I’m neither for nor against. I’m neutral.
I have never seen a place like Paris for varieties of sexual provender. As soon as a woman loses a front tooth or an eye or a leg she goes on the loose. In America she’d starve to death if she had nothing to recommend her but a mutilation. Here it is different. A missing tooth or a nose eaten away or a fallen womb, any misfortune that aggravates the natural homeliness of the female, seems to be regarded as an added spice, a stimulant for the jaded appetites of the male. […] Beauty, that feline beauty which has us by the balls in America, is finished.
And the funny thing is again that I could travel all around the globe but America would never enter my mind; it was even further lost than a lost continent, because with the lost continents I felt some mysterious attachment, whereas with America I felt nothing at all.
It’s best to keep America just like that, always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment. Like that, you imagine it’s always there waiting for you, unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea…
Suddenly it occurred to me that if I wanted I could go to America myself. It was the first time the opportunity had ever presented itself. I asked myself – “do you want to go?” There was no answer. My thoughts drifted out, toward the sea, toward the other side where, taking a last look back, I had seen the skyscrapers fading out in a flurry of snowflakes. I saw them looming up again, in that same ghostly way as when I left. Saw the lights creeping through their ribs. I saw the whole city spread out from Harlem to the Battery, the streets choked with ants, the elevated rushing by, the theaters emptying. I wondered in a vague way whatever happened to my wife.
(The header photo is of Paris' Le Dôme Café in 1928, one of Miller's frequent haunts in Tropic of Cancer)