[First published 1938]
A few months ago, I read ‘Tropic of Cancer’ as one of the nominated top 100 books of all time and I loved it. With the text somewhat fresh in my mind, I decided to read ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ in an effort to get the full picture. I found the book dominating and difficult to read, which doesn’t mean it isn’t pure genius (something that makes it very hard to write a review). As a man who is vilified by readers, I can only hope that my reviews can compel people to give his books a chance.
Set in New York, ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ covers an earlier part of Miller’s life, yet it was written four years after ‘Tropic of Cancer’. The result is a sense of completeness in Miller’s memoirs – a picture of a young Miller that is written with greater maturity and clarity than in the first book. In his quest for the self, we are given an idea of the motivation for travelling backwards in his memoirs – his journey was incomplete and it is through the fluidity of time that he is able to better understand himself.
I really battled to read this book, but I am so glad I persevered to the end. In typical Miller style, he revealed himself to be more human, more pensive, more able in his ability to reveal hope and joy from the depths of human misery than most of us. By the end of the book, I found myself completely endeared to this man with a foul mouth and, at times, a foul mind. For the most part, I may not agree with him but I certainly respect him. He displays a friction against the world and the way things are. Miller is almost ill-placed in America and in this world and is condemnatory in his immersion into it. His outlook maybe warped at times, but he has his virtues. It is through these waves of contradiction that the reader is left wondering if he has a way of seeing life that is more wise than corrupt, as an ideology is uncovered that is simple and grating.
As a budding young writer, hell bent on expression and creation before most other things, his progress is stifled by the system and an oppressive society. The land of plenty is dispelled and we realise that within Henry Miller is a man with deep-seated anger and hatred. This place he should have considered home created this man with these venomous emotions, yet was instrumental in the pursuit of his destiny. He is a misfit in society with a social conscience he finds it easier to deny.
‘Tropic of Capricorn,’ like its prequel, gives a sense of the surreal. It questions what constitutes art. It is as objectionable as the paintings and sculptures of the time – to be different is to be ‘un-American’ but it also means you are ‘ineradicable’. Miller establishes himself as a pariah, and yet he is relatable in many respects. The torment of the artistic process humanises him and exposes him as deeply, darkly philosophical as he fights for self-determination, for a deeper understanding of life and death, and for meaning and a sense of self in a cruel world.
I don’t know when, but I hope I read this book again. I believe it will be a work that will be better understood over time. In the meantime, it is a seed wedged into my brain as I grapple with its detail. The writing is almost hallucinogenic at times with a rich use of metaphor and imagery that is poetic. He describes the city and love in a way I don’t believe it has ever been (nor will ever be again). Because that is what this book is – it is an expression of anger, hurt, and disillusionment as a result of a broken heart; a loss of love that has an all-encompassing effect on life and ideology.