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Critical Essay by George Wickes
SOURCE: "Cancer and Delirium," in his Americans in Paris, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 239-61.
Wickes is a Belgian-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt from his study of American expatriate writers of the 1920s and 30s, he discusses the crucial influence that the avant-garde, bohemian atmosphere of Paris had on Miller's artistic growth, and the personal tribulations and friendships which contributed to the genesis of Tropic of Cancer.
On March 4, 1930, a slight, bald, middle-aged American arrived in Paris. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, he had the air of a college professor. Café waiters often took him for a German or a Scandinavian. "I lack that carefree, audacious air of the average American," he wrote in a letter at the time. "Even the Americans ignore me. They talk English at my elbow with that freedom which one employs only when he is certain his neighbor does not understand." Like so many Americans during the previous decade he had come to write, but his circumstances were altogether different. They came mostly from families which could afford to support their idleness. They usually sowed a very small crop of unpublishable literary oats and indulged in mild libertinage with their own kind along the Boulevard Montparnasse: got drunk in the American cafés for a season or two, mastered a few dozen French clichés, read a little, wrote a little, then went home to bourgeois respectability. They were the university wits of their day, following the pleasant fashion of their class, but their creative impulses were largely wishful and soon dissipated.
Henry Miller came from another world. An outcast from the lower middle class, a dropout after two months of college twenty years before, an outsider in his native land, he had worked at a succession of odd jobs and seen more of life than most men. He had no desire to associate with his compatriots in Montparnasse when he first arrived, referring to them scornfully as "the insufferable idiots at the Dôme and the Coupole." And this was more than the usual reflex of the American abroad, to whom all other Americans were a source of embarrassment. Miller had a deep-seated hatred of all things American. For him the United States represented "the air-conditioned nightmare" of technology without a soul. He had come to Europe to get away from America and to find a way of life that would answer to his psychic needs. Like most Montparnasse Americans he was a sentimental expatriate. Unlike them he found what he wanted and succeeded as a writer.
An Excerpt from Tropic of Cancer:
I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions. Beside the perfection of Turgenev I put the perfection of Dostoevski. (Is there anything more perfect than The Eternal Husband?) Here, then, in one and the same medium, we have two kinds of perfection. But in Van Gogh's letters there is a perfection beyond either of these. It is the triumph of the individual over art.
There is only one thing which interests me vitally now, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books. Nobody, so far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives. Only the killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions. Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly. Passion is quickly exhausted. Men fall back on ideas, comme d'habitude. Nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours. We are living a million lives in the space of a generation. In the study of entomology, or of deep sea life, or cellular activity, we derive more …
The telephone interrupts this thought which I should never have been able to complete. Someone is coming to rent the apartment ….
It looks as though it were finished, my life at the Villa Borghese. Well, I'll take up these pages and move on. Things will happen elsewhere. Things are always happening. It seems wherever I go there is drama. People are like lice—they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you can't get permanently deloused. Everywhere I go people are making a mess of their lives. Everyone has his private tragedy. It's in the blood now—misfortune, ennui, grief, suicide. The atmosphere is saturated with disaster, frustration, futility. Scratch and scratch—until there's no skin left. However, the effect upon me is exhilarating. Instead of being discouraged, or depressed, I enjoy it. I am crying for more and more disasters, for bigger calamities, for grander failures. I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death.
Henry Miller, in his Tropic of Cancer, Grove Weidenfeld, 1961.
Miller had been to London and was on his way to Madrid, according to his later accounts, when he ran out of money. But the letters he wrote at the time reveal no intention to travel any farther. On his first Sunday in Paris he wondered, "Will I ever get to really understand the true spirit of this people?"—not a question asked by the casual transient. A few weeks later he wrote, "I love it here, I want to stay forever." Paris was the destination toward which he had been moving for years, ever since his friend Emil Schnellock had described it to him. Schnellock, whom Miller had known as a schoolboy, had lived abroad and become a painter. To Miller it was incredible that his friend, "just a Brooklyn boy" like himself, should have been magically transformed into an artist and cosmopolite. No doubt his example more than anything else affected Miller's decision to become a writer at all costs. Years later in Tropic of Capricorn Miller was to write:
Even now, years and years since, even now, when I know Paris like a book, his picture of Paris is still before my eyes, still vivid, still real. Sometimes, after a rain, riding swiftly through the city in a taxi, I catch fleeting glimpses of this Paris he described; just momentary snatches, as in passing the Tuileries, perhaps, or a glimpse of Montmartre, of the Sacré Coeur, through the Rue Laffitte, in the last flush of twilight…. Those nights in Prospect Park with my old friend Ulric are responsible, more than anything else, for my being here today.
Miller's wife June also played a crucial role. As Mona or Mara she appears in Tropic of Capricorn and other autobiographical romances, an enigmatic figure who entered his life in the early twenties, a Broadway taxi dancer with literary aspirations. Their love was often tempestuous, but through it all she was determined that he would become a writer. She persuaded him to quit his job at Western Union, she worked so that he could write, she found patrons for his work among her admirers by passing herself off as the author. Thus she raised money for a trip to Europe, convinced that he would be able to write there. They went together in 1928, but only on a tour. In 1930 she found the money to send him alone, intending to join him when she had more. As she knew better than Miller, he had reached a dead end in New York.
In one of his first letters from Paris in 1930 he voiced his deep sense of frustration: "I can't understand my failure…. Why does nobody want what I write? Jesus, when I think of being 38, and poor, and unknown, I get furious." By the time he landed in Paris he had been writing for eight years. He had completed four books and countless stories and articles. Only three articles had ever been published. Discouraged by poverty, debts, and the fact that his wife had to work so that he could lead "the true life of the artist," he still yearned for the comforts of bourgeois life. These contradictory feelings of guilt and self-pity, the compulsion to succeed and the interpretation of success as money, were all neuroses of Protestant America, with its gospel of work and wealth. In Paris Miller was never troubled by such worries. Though he lived more parasitically and marginally than ever, he was psychologically liberated as he had never been in New York. Hence the euphoric mood that marks all his writing during the decade he spent in Paris. There at last he was able to write, on the first page of Tropic of Cancer: "I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am."
Miller's first impressions of Paris—and the most reliable account of his first eighteen months there—are to be found in the letters he wrote to Emil Schnellock at the time. His first letter, written three days after his arrival, announces: "I will write here. I will live quietly and quite alone. And each day I will see a little more of Paris, study it, learn it as I would a book. It is worth the effort. To know Paris is to know a great deal. How vastly different from New York! What eloquent surprises at every turn of the street. To get lost here is the adventure extraordinary. The streets sing, the stones talk. The houses drip history, glory, romance." From the start he liked everything about the city, its cosmopolitan atmosphere, the variety of people, their nonconformity. "Here is the greatest congregation of bizarre types. People do dress as they please, wear beards if they like, and shave if they choose. You don't feel that lifeless pressure of dull regimentation as in N. Y. and London."
The letters written within a month of his arrival are full of wonder and delight. Everything is new and charming, the language, the way of counting, the procedure in the restaurants, the tipping. The police are allowed to smoke on duty. Gourmet meals are cheap. The writing in the newspapers and magazines is intelligent and sophisticated. Miller was prepared to see good in everything, from the fifty thousand artists of Paris selling their work to an appreciative public to the custodian in the underground toilet writing a love letter, happy with her lot, unlike the silly stenographer in a New York skyscraper. As on his previous visit he was overcome by the setting, particularly at night. "I am on the verge of tears. The beauty of it all is suffocating me…. I am fairly intoxicated with the glamour of the city." His second letter, sixteen pages long, describes that emotion peculiar to the place, la nostalgie de Paris, nostalgia that can be experienced at the moment itself.
At the same time Paris gave him an inexhaustible supply of material and the urge to write. Within three weeks of his arrival he reported, "I have added a hundred pages to my book and done excellent revision work also. No water colors. I am overwhelmed yet by the multifarious, quotidien, anonymous, communal, etc. etc. life!" The program announced in his first letter of exploring the city and writing about it was carried out in a number of long letters written during his first two months or so. Actually these were not letters at all, but feature articles for circulation to magazine editors and for eventual use in a book on Paris Miller planned to write. Bearing such titles as "Spring on the Trottoirs" and "With the Wine Merchants," they usually described itineraries in quest of local color.
Paris was always a great city for walkers, and Miller was one of its most tireless pedestrians, covering enormous distances in his search for the picturesque. The paintings he had seen colored his vision so that wherever he went he found scenes from Monet, Pissarro, Seurat. In painting even more than literature Paris has always drawn its lovers back toward the past. Miller was particularly susceptible to this nostalgia for a city he had never known, regretting that he had been born too late. Many years later, in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, he was still wishing he had been there as a young man:
What would I not give to have been the comrade or bosom friend of such figures as Apollinaire, Douanier Rousseau, George Moore, Max Jacob, Vlaminck, Utrillo, Derain, Cendrars, Gauguin, Modigliani, Cingria, Picabia, Maurice Magre, Léon Daudet, and such like. How much greater would have been the thrill to cycle along the Seine, cross and recross her bridges, race through towns like Bougival, Châtou, Argenteuil, Marly-le-roi, Puteaux, Rambouillet, Issyles-Moulineaux and similar environs circa 1910 rather than the year 1932 or 1933!
Actually the world he yearned for was older than 1910; it was the impressionists' Arcadia painted in that string of sparkling villages along the Seine before they were industrialized into grimy suburbs.
Although somewhat self-conscious as literary compositions, the Paris letters marked an important stage in Miller's writing. They were good exercises, and they provided him with plenty of material that he was soon to use in his own way. Miller thought he was writing a book on Paris to match Paul Morand's slick guided tour of New York, which he had been reading with considerable envy at its success. He hoped his impressions might amount to "something popular, saleable, palatable." Unwittingly he was already at work on Tropic of Cancer. The letters contain the earliest writing that was to go into that book. One of them in particular, entitled "Bistre and Pigeon Dung," contains several passages that Miller saved and later wove into the fabric of his book. Here is one that reappears on one of the opening pages of Tropic of Cancer, only slightly revised:
Twilight hour, Indian blue, water of glass, trees glistening and liquescent. Juares station itself gives me a kick. The rails fall away into the canal, the long caterpillar with sides lacquered in Chinese red dips like a roller-coaster. It is not Paris, it is not Coney Island—it is crepuscular melange of all the cities of Europe and Central America. Railroad yards spread out below me, the tracks looking black, webby, not ordered by engineers but cataclysmic in design, like those gaunt fissures in the Polar ice which the camera registers in degrees of black.
Another passage in the same letter describes a nude by Dufresne with "all the secondary characteristics and a few of the primary," likening it to a thirteenth-century déjeuner intime, a vibrant still life, the table so heavy with food that it is sliding out of its frame—exactly as it appears at the beginning of the second chapter of Tropic of Cancer. Still another passage describes the animated street market in the rue de Buci on a Sunday morning, then moves on to the quiet Square de Furstenberg nearby, providing a page at the beginning of the third chapter of the book. Here is Miller's original description of the Square de Furstenberg, a spot that particularly appealed to him:
A deserted spot, bleak, spectral at night, containing in the center four black trees which have not yet begun to blossom. These four bare trees have the poetry of T. S. Eliot. They are intellectual trees, nourished by the stones, swaying with a rhythm cerebral, the lines punctuated by dots and dashes, by asterisks and exclamation points. Here, if Marie Laurencin ever brought her Lesbians out into the open, would be the place for them to commune. It is very, very Lesbienne here, very sterile, hybrid, full of forbidden longings.
When he incorporated this passage into Tropic of Cancer, Miller revised for economy and sharpness of outline, but kept the imagery unchanged. The original, written in April 1930, shows his particular vision of the city; he had yet to discover how to use it.
"Bistre and Pigeon Dung" was probably rattled off in one day, like other fifteen- or twenty-page letters. Under the stimulation of Paris Miller was indefatigable: "I feel that I could turn out a book a month here. If I could get a stenographer to go to bed with me I could carry on twenty-four hours a day." Walking in the city was a creative act in itself. He was forever composing in his head as he walked, the writing as vivid to him as if he had put it down on paper. Sometimes he could not remember what he had actually written and had to ask Schnellock. His books of the thirties were all to be written in this state of exaltation, as he walked around Paris in the present tense.
Other letters anticipate Tropic of Cancer even more in spirit. Miller lost no time in getting acquainted with the most squalid sights. He had always been attracted to the ghetto and the slums; now he often painted the ugliest street scenes.
I looked around and there stood a brazen wench, leaning against her door like a lazy slut, cigarette between her lips, sadly rouged and frizzled, old, seamed, scarred, cracked, evil greedy eyes. She jerked her head a few times inviting me to come back and inspect her place, but my eyes were set on a strange figure tugging away at some bales. An old man with enormous goitres completely circling his neck, standing out below the hairline like huge polyps, from under his chin hanging loosely, joggling, purplish, veined, like gourds of wine—transparent gourds. Here the breed is degenerate and diseased. Old women with white hair, mangy, red lips, demented, prowl about in carpet slippers, their clothes in tatters, soiled with garbage and filth of the gutters.
This was Quasimodo's Paris, he pointed out, visible from the towers of Notre Dame, the inhabitants no different from those in the Middle Ages. But there was nothing romantic about the way he saw them. "They have bed-bugs, cockroaches and fleas running all over them, they are syphilitic, cancerous, dropsical, they are halt and blind, paralyzed, and their brains are soft."
Picturesque and sordid, this is Miller's Paris. Here even more than in the passages he actually used can Tropic of Cancer be anticipated. Again and again he dwelt with relish on the cancerous street scenes he found in the old quarters. He also explored the uglier regions of the modern industrial city, walking through endless dead stretches of suburb, bleak neighborhoods like those of his native York-ville or Brooklyn. Paris provided local color of the particular kind that appealed to his imagination. Some six or seven weeks after his arrival he listed the topics he wanted to write about, including in addition to such standard items as the flea market, the six-day bicycle races, and the Grand Guignol, some that appealed to his rather special tastes: the slaughterhouses, the mummies at the Trocadéro, the Moslem cemetery, sexual perversions, the pissoirs, a comparative study of toilets on the Left Bank and toilets on the Right Bank. As this list suggests, Miller took particular delight in all that was unappetizing and macabre.
Miller's accounts of his first two months in Paris are full of enthusiasm. His feelings never changed, but the idyll soon ended. The troubles recorded in Tropic of Cancer were just beginning: the long walks to American Express for the check that never arrived, the constant change of address, the search for cheap hotels, soon followed by homelessness and hunger. He had arrived with enough money to last him till the middle of April and with expectations that his wife would send more. By the latter part of April his money had run out, and he had to go without food for five days. Then he received a small amount, not enough to last long, for in early May he was penniless again and desperate enough to think of looking for a job. A week later he was solvent again, quoting prices and urging Schnellock to come to Paris where he would show him how to live on less than twenty-five dollars a week. Miller's standards were still fairly grand.
As his circumstances grew progressively worse, his notions of poverty became more realistic. In August he was living with Monsieur Nanavati, the Hindu he calls Mr. Nonentity in Tropic of Cancer, and complaining of his lot as a servant: "Life is very hard for me—very. I live with bed-bugs and cockroaches. I sweep the dirty carpets, wash the dishes, eat stale bread without butter. Terrible life. Honest!" After that his friend Alfred Perlès took care of Miller off and on, sneaking him past his concierge and hiding him in his hotel room; Perlès worked at night, so Miller could sleep in his bed then.
He became well acquainted with hunger and vagrancy and discovered that the climate was miserable most of the year. October was rainy and cold. June came for a visit, but she brought no money and stayed only three weeks under wretched circumstances. Miller began to realize that he could not live on hopes indefinitely and resigned himself to leaving before long. Several letters mentioned plans to return to New York. But he managed to hang on till December, when he found a friend who took him in for the winter. Then his constant obsession was food: "What we artists need is food—and lots more of it. No art without food." Phagomania, his chronic complaint, is as prominent as lust in Tropic of Cancer.
He spent the winter months in a studio with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Ten years later he dedicated The Wisdom of the Heart to the man who took him in, Richard Galen Osborn, "who rescued me from starvation in Paris and set my feet in the right direction." Osborn was a Connecticut Yankee who worked in a bank by day and indulged his fondness for French culture in all its forms by night. He liked to talk with Miller about modern French writers, he liked to drink Anjou, and he had a weakness for the ladies. One day he added a third member to the household, the Russian princess who appears in Tropic of Cancer as Masha. The book presents a fairly faithful portrait of their absurd ménage à trois based on a letter Miller wrote to Schnellock at the time: "Irene has the clap, Osborn has bronchitis, and I have the piles." The letter records Irene's dialogue for four pages, later reproduced almost verbatim when the episode was expanded into half a chapter. Osborn wrote his own story about their life together, "No. 2 Rue Auguste Bartholdi," presenting the same basic circumstances from another point of view and rather unexpectedly portraying Miller as a man who worked all the time.
In the same letter Miller described the full beard he grew that winter, a shaggy, dark red beard that would soon make him look like Dostoevsky. According to Tropic of Cancer, he grew the beard at the request of a painter, who then did his portrait with his typewriter in the foreground and the Eiffel Tower in the background. The painter was John Nichols, a great talker who regaled Miller with anecdotes about the artists he knew and who accompanied him to that favorite resort of painters, the Cirque Médrano, where they had "a fine Seurat night." Miller, who always sought the company of painters, acquired many artist friends in Paris. When Osborn had to give up the studio, Miller went off to stay with a sculptor, Fred Kann, who lived near the Montparnasse cemetery.
Nichols' portrait has vanished along with the beard, but a verbal portrait survives from about the same period in an article that appeared in the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune with a caricature of Miller by the Hungarian artist Brassaï. The writer was an American newspaperman with the unlikely name of Wambly Bald who wrote a weekly column called "La Vie de Bohème." What he had to say was not particularly memorable, except as evidence that Miller was already a notorious character who in his daily life enacted the role he was about to turn into literature. The role came to him naturally; he was simply acting himself as a clochard, a Paris bum. He was of course fully aware of the impression he created and capable of exploiting it. He could even have ghost-written the article himself, for he often wrote Bald's weekly column; and certainly the man who wrote Tropic of Cancer was not above self-portraiture. Miller returned the compliment by depicting Bald—probably without the least malice—as his most scabrous character.
After a year in Paris Miller calculated that he could live on six dollars a week, if only he had it, but actually he was living on nothing at all. How he managed is explained by Alfred Perlès in My Friend Henry Miller: "Henry was always to be seen at one or the other of the terraces, the Dôme or the Coupole, surrounded by people he had just met or was just meeting. Impossible to say how he picked them up and where and why." After his first few months in Paris Miller had overcome his prejudices against the Montparnasse cafés, finding them good places to cadge food and drink. He had a great talent for making friends, and as he explains in Tropic of Cancer, "It's not hard to make friends when you squat on a terrasse twelve hours a day. You get to know every sot in Montparnasse. They cling to you like lice, even if you have nothing to offer them but your ears." Eventually he worked out a rotating dinner schedule with his friends, dining with a different friend every evening of the week. Sometimes he performed small services in exchange, giving English lessons or walking a child in the Luxembourg Gardens. But usually his friends were only too willing to feed him for the pleasure of his company. He was a most ingratiating person, a spellbinding talker, and a man of completely unaffected charm. Perlès observed that people loved to watch him eat and drink.
Miller did not begin writing Tropic of Cancer until the end of August 1931, but everything he experienced during that first year and a half in Paris went into the book as substance or style, the world's rottenness or his crazy hallucinated vision of it, that particular combination of "cancer and delirium" which gives the book its own very special atmosphere. By the time he began writing the book he had thoroughly explored the lower depths. What he had seen and heard would have depressed any other man beyond words; Miller was fully alive to it but buoyed up by his sense of humor, and because he had gone to rock bottom himself, elated that he had survived, more alive than ever. Then at last he succeeded in writing what had been bottled up inside him for so many years.
Toward the end of his first year in Paris he took stock of himself and his writing. To Schnellock he reported the opinions of friends who urged him to stay on: "I'm supposed to be a guy with promise. Besides that, I'm supposed to be a romantic. People wonder and shake their heads. How is it that things happen to that guy the way they do? Always in the midst of exciting things, adventures, confessions, etc. But the question in my mind is: what am I doing for literature?" He was still trying to finish the manuscript he had brought with him from New York, probably the novel called "Crazy Cock," [published as Crazy Cock, 1991] but was disgusted with it, unable to express his true feelings, boxed in by too much careful plotting and form. When he finished he wanted to burst through all such barriers. "I will explode in the Paris book. The hell with form, style, expression and all those pseudo-paramount things which beguile the critics. I want to get myself across this time—and direct as a knife thrust." In another letter written about the same time he gloried in the life he was leading: "Great days—full of missing meals—but rich in paint, verbiage and local scenery. Getting into such a bummy condition that people everywhere nudge one another and point me out." Despite hunger and hardship he felt he had lived more richly during one year in Paris than in all the rest of his life. Here is the protagonist of Tropic of Cancer: "I feel now exactly as all the great vagabond artists must have felt—absolutely reckless, childish, irresponsible, unscrupulous, and overflowing with carnal vitality, vigor, ginger, etc. Always on the border of insanity, due to worry, hunger, etc. But shoving along, day after day." Finally on August 24, 1931, having finished his novel at last, he announced that he was ready to go to work on the book he had been wanting to write: "I start tomorrow on the Paris book: first person, uncensored, formless—fuck everything!"
At the end of his second summer in Paris, Miller worked for a time as a proofreader for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. His friend Perlès, who earned his small income as a proofreader, got him the job. Miller disapproved of jobs on principle but liked this one. He enjoyed the atmosphere of the newspaper office, the noise of the machinery, and the company of his fellow workers, especially the typesetters who were all like characters out of a French novel. Working at night had a charm all its own. Every evening he, Perlès, and Wambly Bald would make their long walk across Paris to the newspaper office. After work they would eat in a nearby bistro, the favorite haunt of pimps, whores, newspapermen, and others who worked by night. Then in the early morning hours, when all Paris was deserted, they would walk home again. Though Miller worked only a short time for the newspaper, the impressions of that time remained among the most vivid of his Paris years. Of the many writers and would-be writers who worked on the Tribune or the Paris edition of the New York Herald, only Miller and Bravig Imbs have given any sense of the atmosphere. Most of the journalists' accounts are full of sophomoric clichés.
Although Miller preferred the subterranean drudgery of proofreading to the more exalted editorial work upstairs, he was only too willing to be published in a newspaper, even anonymously or pseudonymously. Long before he was employed by the Tribune he wrote feature articles for that paper's Sunday edition. Only employees were supposed to contribute such articles, so Perlès submitted them as his own. In his biography Perlès reprints one of these articles, "Rue Lourmel in Fog," which is very much like the impressionistic compositions Miller had sent to Schnellock when he first arrived in Paris. Other articles appeared in the Tribune or in the Herald during his first year in Paris: "The Cirque Médrano," "The Six-Day Bike Race," "Paris in Ut Mineur." The usual rate was fifty francs, and once Miller received three hundred and fifty francs, but the important thing was that he was getting his work published readily for the first time in his life. He had tried to write for newspapers and popular magazines in the past, but with no success.
During his second year in Paris Miller's work also appeared in a literary magazine for the first time, Samuel Putnam's recently founded New Review. Putnam was a scholarly newspaper correspondent who had come to Paris in 1926 to translate Rabelais. Besides the standard modern translation of that difficult author, he produced translations of contemporary authors ranging from François Mauriac to Kiki. For all his mastery of the written language, Putnam spoke French with such an abominable accent as to be almost unintelligible. He was a steady customer of the Montparnasse bars, where Miller probably met him about the time he quit as associate editor of This Quarter and decided to found his own quarterly. Miller appeared twice in the New Review and edited one issue with Perlès. Putnam made the mistake of asking them to see the magazine through the press when he had to go to America for a visit. They promptly threw out some of the contents they found boring, including a long article by Putnam, and put in material they thought livelier, including a story by Miller. They also decided to add a supplement, a bawdy, vituperative, nonsensical parody of all manifestoes called "The New Instinctivism," denouncing everything: "A proclamation of rebellion against the puerilities of art and literature, a manifesto of disgust, a gob of spit in the cuspidor of post-war conceits, a healthy crap in the cradle of still-born deities." When the printers sent proofs to Putnam, he quashed the supplement, but the review appeared with the contents Miller and Perlès had chosen.
Miller first appeared in the New Review as a film critic. The second number, which came out in the summer of 1931, included his review entitled "Buñuel or Thus Cometh to an End Everywhere the Golden Age." Miller, who had been a cineast since childhood, was delighted to be in Paris where he could see avant-garde films that were never shown in New York. On the first Sunday after his arrival he had made a pilgrimage to Studio 28 in Montmartre to see one of the great surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou, made by Buñuel in collaboration with Dali the previous year. A week or so later he went to a ciné club meeting and was impressed by the brilliant discussion. By October 1930 he had made friends with the film maker Germaine Dulac, who promised June an important role in a talkie that was to be made in two or three months; nothing ever came of this proposal, and Madame Dulac, whom Miller described as "one of the celebrated Lesbiennes of Paris and all Europe," may have had only a passing interest in June. Toward the end of October he saw the new Buñuel-Dali film, L'Age d'Or, and in December he sent Schnellock a draft of his article for the New Review. His admiration for Buñuel never diminished. In the mid-thirties he paid tribute to him again in a long article on the cinematic art entitled "The Golden Age." Less explicit but even more pervasive is the influence of Buñuel's films on certain surrealist sequences in Miller's writing, particularly "Into the Night Life" in Black Spring.
Miller's first published story, "Mademoiselle Claude," appeared in the third number of the New Review in the fall of 1931. That story marks the actual beginning of his literary career, announcing all the characteristics of the Tropics—the first person monologue, the progressive narrative moving into the present tense, with events happening and time passing as the story unfurls. Here too are the tropical moral values—the generous whore who is almost an angel, the narrator-maquereau who wants to be a saint. He finds her customers to keep her from being sad, and they end up going to the clinic together every day, more in love than ever. Even the imagery is here: "Paris looks to me like a big, ugly chancre. The streets are gangrened. Everybody has it—if it isn't clap it's syphilis. All Europe is diseased, and it's France who's made it diseased."
The style anticipates Tropic of Cancer with its flowing rhythms:
The idea, though, of waking up in the morning, the sun streaming in the windows and a good, faithful whore beside you who loves you, who loves the guts out of you, the birds singing and the table all spread, and while she's washing up and combing her hair, all the men she's been with and now you, just you, and barges going by, masts and hulls, the whole damned current of life flowing through you, through her, through all the guys before you and maybe after, the flowers and the birds and the sun streaming in and the fragrance of it chocking you, annihilating you. O Christ! Give me a whore always, all the time!
Miller liked that long sentence well enough to quote part of it in Tropic of Cancer.
Miller was fascinated by the Paris whores. On his first Sunday in Paris he had noted with surprise: "Montmartre is simply lousy with whores. Little bars, hardly bigger than a coffin, are jammed with them." The imagery is typical, if not the reaction. "Wow! they make you shiver those dolled-up spectres. They sit in the cafés and beckon to you from the window, or bunk smack up against you on the street, and invite you to come along." By May he had found his first girl friend, a whore named Germaine. In December he wrote, "And who is Mlle. Claude? Ah, the prettiest, juiciest, cleverest little cocotte in Montparnasse. Osborn and I share her once in a while. Such taste, such discretion, such politesse." He found her intelligent, well-read, animated, and refined. He recommended her to Schnellock, who could address her in care of the Coupole. Though the letter ends half-humorously, sounding like an advertisement, Claude is described in similar terms in Tropic of Cancer, but compared unfavorably with that ordinary hustler Germaine, who according to the book, served as the real model for the story. "She was a whore all the way through," Miller concludes, "and that was her virtue!"
By the time "Mademoiselle Claude" appeared in print Miller had started writing Tropic of Cancer. He had already met most of the characters and had most of the experiences that went into the narrative. But there is more to that book than mere storytelling; Tropic of Cancer dramatizes a particular outlook, a satiric blend of humor and iconoclasm, a fiercely critical view of the world. In the fall of 1931 Miller was being exposed to some of the ideas that gave the book its philosophical bias. He then lived for a time with Michael Fraenkel, a prophet of doom whose theories appear in the first two chapters and elsewhere. On the opening page Miller summarizes Fraenkel's death philosophy, complete with Fraenkel's favorite weather metaphor.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
There is usually a note of ridicule in Miller's treatment of Fraenkel's ideas, but he also admits that Fraenkel is one of the two writers he respects, the other being Perlès. The reason he takes them seriously is that, unlike other writers he knows, these two have fervor. "They are possessed. They glow inwardly with a white flame. They are mad and tone deaf. They are sufferers."
Fraenkel was a small intense man with a goatee who bore a marked resemblance to Trotsky. Born in Russia and brought to the United States as a boy, he became the greatest book salesman in America and saved enough money to retire at the age of thirty in 1926. He had always wanted to write, and Paris seemed the best place for a writer to go. His writing was the product of a philosophical mind obsessed with one subject, the spiritual death of modern man as symbolized by the millions of deaths of the Great War. His friend Walter Lowenfels plays upon the central paradox of Fraenkel's life in an unpublished biographical sketch, "The Life of Fraenkel's Death," pointing out that Fraenkel earned his living in America so that he could retire in Europe to write about death.
Lowenfels himself followed a similar pattern. He too had been in business in America, the family butter business which he later treated as something of a joke, contrasting butter with poetry, and which he quit at the age of twenty-nine, having decided to go to Europe to write. His ideas were akin to Fraenkel's, though not nearly so extreme. At the time they became friends he had just finished an elegy on Apollinaire. Under the influence of Fraenkel he then took death as his central theme and wrote a sequence of elegies called Some Deaths, lamenting the suicides of poets such as Hart Crane and Harry Crosby, René Crevel and Jacques Rigaut. Fraenkel and Lowenfels also formed what they called an anonymous school, writing books together anonymously in the spirit of French writers and painters before them. In Tropic of Cancer Miller jokes about an anonymous collaboration proposed by Fraenkel, to be called "The Last Book," and some years later Miller and Fraenkel actually did collaborate on a book, the Hamlet correspondence, which was published by Fraenkel's Carrefour Press.
Miller became acquainted with Fraenkel about the time he started writing Tropic of Cancer. Lowenfels and Fraenkel had already been in league for two years or more. Now the three of them formed what Lowenfels calls "the avant-garde of death." Neither he nor Miller took Fraenkel's monomania altogether seriously. "Henry and I really joked about Fraenkel's death business—turning it into something else, something we could use in our business, which was, say what you like, writing." Fraenkel was useful to Miller in more immediate ways, for he owned an apartment building at 18 Villa Seurat and was better off than Miller's other friends. A number of people have claimed an influence on Miller when he was still unknown, but their most important contribution at this time was keeping him alive. This was Lowenfels' motive in bringing Miller and Fraenkel together, this and Fraenkel's need for an intelligent audience, which was as great as Miller's need for bed and board.
The Miller-Fraenkel relationship was a strange and amusing one, founded on phagomania and the death obsession and kept alive by talk. Both men were prodigious talkers. Miller remembers that Fraenkel used to drop in at breakfast time, stay through lunch, through dinner, and far into the evening, talking, talking all the time, leaving Miller exhausted. Fraenkel in turn was overwhelmed by Miller's talk. "It was extraordinary, amazing, incredible. A compulsion mechanism, a kind of sickness, if you like, something pathological." But he also adds, "It was talk of the highest order I ever heard." Though by nature stingy and indifferent to food, Fraenkel would occasionally buy Miller a meal just to be able to keep talking. In Tropic of Cancer Miller complains that there is not a scrap of food in the house. He also registers a feeling of impermanence, fearing his chair will be pulled out from under him as he types. Fraenkel, ever the businessman, rented out apartments and soon evicted Miller by renting the room he occupied. Miller liked the Villa Seurat and returned there to live three years later; meanwhile his discussions with Fraenkel continued and turned into correspondence when Fraenkel traveled about the world.
Years later, in an article entitled "The Genesis of the Tropic of Cancer," Fraenkel reminisced about the beginning of their acquaintance: "And then one day Walter told me about a strange man he had run across in Montparnasse, a fellow called Miller. He was described as one of tremendous vitality, zest, enthusiasm, an amazing talker, without visible means of support, a kind of derelict, but gay and happy withal, alive. 'Not alive exactly,' he said, 'but certainly not dead. Alive in a kind of confused, old-fashioned way. An interesting chap. Why not drop him a line, a pneu? He is down and out and maybe he can do some typing for you.' And then with a twinkle in his eye: 'Take him on. Just your meat.' Did he perhaps see a possible disciple in him?" According to Fraenkel there were no preliminaries between them, no reservations; they immediately talked to each other like old friends. Fraenkel gave Miller his book Werther's Younger Brother, a self-portrait ending in suicide. Miller responded with a long enthusiastic fan letter which Fraenkel quotes: "You say things that no one in America is saying—that I would dearly love to say myself." Miller, who had been told that Fraenkel's book was pessimistic and confused, "found everything touched with a wild beauty, and if there were disorder, then it was, as Bergson said, an order of disorder which is another order."
Though Fraenkel claims too much credit for his influence on Tropic of Cancer, he gives the best explanation on record of Miller's state of mind at the time. And though he was only the latest in a series of friends to advise Miller to write spontaneously, his insight may have been the clearest. Certainly his advice was most timely. Beneath Miller's restless confusion Fraenkel detected a determination to be himself. Miller had come to Paris to make a new start but had not yet found himself. When Fraenkel read Miller's novel in manuscript, "Crazy Cock," he immediately saw that Miller was trying to write for the publishers, not for himself.
By this time I knew the sort of person he was, impulsive, erratic, anarchic, a mass of contradictory moods, ideas, feelings, and I told him to sit down before the machine and white paper and write anything and everything that came to his mind, as it came, red-hot, and to hell with the editors and the public. Write as you talk, I told him. Write as you live. Write as you feel and think. Just sit down before the machine and let go—tell everything you are going through now; you've got all the material you want right in this, in what you are thinking and feeling and going through now.
As they talked endlessly of death, Miller found the theme that could integrate his creative impulses and give him the direction he lacked. His obscenity, his violence, his inner chaos, and love of corruption are all expressions of "The Death Theme." So Fraenkel thought at any rate, though at times his disciples may have had their little joke at his expense. Lowenfels wonders whether the Fraenkel they remember is not a creature of their imagination. He feels that Fraenkel did not come through very well in his own writing. A greater thinker than writer, he left more of himself in the writings of others, in Miller's early work and Lowenfels' poems written between 1929 and 1934. Lowenfels also remarks that Fraenkel was at his best when writing under the stimulus of Miller. No doubt they inspired each other, but long before he met Fraenkel, Miller was steeped in the thinking of Oswald Spengler, whose apocalyptic view he had taken as his own. Miller had in fact reread the first volume of The Decline of the West since coming to Paris and in doing so had concluded that Spengler was the greatest of contemporary writers, greater than Joyce, Mann, or even Proust. "There is great music, great literature, great ideas." Surely his thinking in Tropic of Cancer was fired by Spengler, though Fraenkel undoubtedly fanned the flames.
The book that most immediately anticipated Tropic of Cancer was Louis-Ferdinand Céline's first novel, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit. Not only the Spenglerian sense of doom is there, but the very idiom and tone, the picaresque narrative and the gallows humor that Miller adopted. Céline's Voyage is another episodic autobiographical novel that dwells on all that is vicious, treacherous, sadistic, obscene, diseased, and repulsive in human nature. The central character is an underdog adventurer who lives by luck and by his wits. Céline's favorite setting is the ugly, working-class Paris where he was born and where he practiced medicine, though he also traveled about the world like Candide, finding inhumanity wherever he went. His experience eventually drove him to bitter misanthropy, but his first book achieved a balance between laughter and pessimism that is much the same as Miller's comic treatment of inherently tragic matter. After reading Voyage au Bout de la Nuit it is easier to understand Tropic of Cancer, for Céline's war experience exposes the "civilization" that both writers attacked. Céline lost his innocence in the Great War, suffered shell shock, was cured of his illusions, learned to distrust all ideals and to place the law of self-preservation above all others. Miller, despite his imagery of trench warfare and poison gas, had no direct experience to compare with Céline's, yet he had gone through the same process of disenchantment, emerging with even fewer scruples. He too had become a militant anarchist, declaring war on society.
Despite the many striking parallels between the two books, Céline and Miller produced their works quite independently. Miller had finished the first draft of Tropic of Cancer before the publication of Voyage au Bout de la Nuit in November 1932. He read the book soon after it appeared and was overwhelmed, although he found it difficult reading and had to spend a week isolated in a hotel room with a dictionary to decipher its colloquial French. During the next two years he was to revise his own book three times before it appeared in print, so conceivably Céline could have influenced the rewriting. But the letters to Schnellock reveal that Miller had found his style and subject matter before he had ever heard of Céline. It was simply another case of two writers responding to their time and place with the same perceptions.
Like Céline's novel, Tropic of Cancer is autobiographical, but it is not to be taken as documentary. Although Miller protests that he is writing the plain unvarnished truth, this gambit is one of the oldest in fiction. He is closer to fact than most novelists, but his method is theirs, his powerful imagination producing a metamorphosis as it colors and heightens the original circumstances. Miller has confessed that he has difficulty remembering what he imagined and what actually happened.
Tropic of Cancer gives a more or less fictionalized account, then, of the adventures of a character named Henry Miller who explored the lower depths in Paris during the depression. The book is a jumble of sensations, reflections, conversations, encounters, and hallucinations, all filtered through the consciousness of its narrator in the first person, present tense. The chaos is deliberate, for Miller wanted to put down impressions and thoughts as they occurred to him, to depict a man "in the grip of delirium." He also wanted "to get off the gold standard of literature," to write without revising, and to record "all that which is omitted in books."
Tropic of Cancer is sometimes compared to The Sun Also Rises, not for the similarities but for the differences between them. The comparison is absurd yet apt, for it shows how much the world had changed between the mid-twenties and the early thirties. Henry Miller's adventures in Paris present a burlesque of the expatriate romance. Instead of a potentially tragic hero, the protagonist is a clown whose escapades mock all sense of human dignity. Instead of investing his characters with a glamour that excuses their faults, Miller caricatures his friends, bringing out all that is grotesque, ludicrous, or contemptible in their private lives. He also sees his surroundings in a jaundiced light and thereby makes more meaningful use of his Paris scenery. For Hemingway Montparnasse provided an appropriate backdrop, a likely setting for the lost generation, but his characters stayed on the surface and could just as well have dissipated elsewhere. Miller penetrated far deeper into Paris than any other American writer and projected a vision of the city that was altogether different. He succeeded only as Céline had done in making its ugliness symbolic of private and universal anguish, a sordid modern-day inferno, a labyrinth of cancer and despair.
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