Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (Short personalised review)
Reading Henry Miller's Tropic of cancer is like a breath of fresh air. It's good to know that there was someone who lived. It's not often you discover such an irreverence in writing, a fluidity, a passion. An honesty. Henry Miller may not have had any money in his time but by Jaysus he didn't let it get him down. He wasn't racked with the limiting pretence of what others may say about his writing, which would then cause him to adjust himself with self-censorship, and write accordingly. He wrote. In all that he wrote he did his level-best not exclude the warts, the flaws which may have cast an unfavourable shadow-
“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...There is only one thing that interests me vitally, and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books”
A laudable motive if you ask me; an acknowledgement of the imperfections in us all, the attempt to describe what it means to be human.
This is what it comes down to, doesn't it? How does an artist, a writer of books, capture something intangible that pulses deep within his chest? His tools are the armoury of his words, his array of vocabulary, strung together through patchy or perfect sentences meshed together to convey more abstract ideas, emotions or moods. The writer may come to the realisation his words are flawed, his style is flawed but still he strives to communicate, to capture in black and white that rawness of experience which he then can give to the world so that it fills all who read it with soul, love, beauty, art, whatever...
Apologies for using the masculine "his" and "him"...I'm rambling a bit. But this is what art is all about. I suspect a couple of well known posters on this website would criticise Miller for one, having a looseness of form; two, indulging in crudeness of language, and even perhaps three, having no traditional story arc where a main protagonist goes on some journey of personal fulfilment...Or something...
I'm sick of reading pieces of writing that are developed around some dodgy contrivance. Pieces of writing like that to me do not even begin to capture the essence of our experiences. They barely scratch the surface of social reality. The dialogue rings hollow, the setting wooden. This is all that is sacrificed in the name of a rigid plot and hence, a good story.
Miller wrote about his time as an impoverished artist in Paris in the 1930s. He describes tales with prostitutes (Lots of them) and meandering ruminations on the beauty of the river Seine, the parallel trees, the winds in his hair. He shocks you with his pornographic language and his questionable morals. His lyrical descriptions are an assault on the senses, as he as a writer uses his own senses to describe his experience and then project them on to you. Some thoughts don't go anywhere, and that's the precise point.
Imagine the temerity of a writer who sat down to write what it means to be bored? How does he capture that essence? If you can contemplate the time scales involved. Boredom by its nature can go on for hours; whoever happens to be suffering from it will indulge in whatever means necessary to try to alleviate it – that is to say they'll daydream, be whimsical, think of being somewhere else. In terms of setting, this person or character never leaves the room, the four walls of a mundane setting. A prison, in a way. How would you feel about reading this? You might be bored yourself, but the point is boredom is a reality of our experience. The real trick here is how to make such a setting interesting for a reader.
If what it means to be a writer today is to re-hash snippets of old plots into “new” conglomerates; to borrow from films, to conjure up silly scenarios in the name of a story, to put characters within a basic conflict setting, to offer word-porn for a reader who wants to be immediately titillated with action and a clear message, then the reality is I probably don't wish to be a writer. That may sound a tad melodramatic, but if nothing new is being done, if writing as an art has stagnated to an extent that we churn books out on a conveyor belt, then what is the over-riding point of the effort? ...To get something published? ...To make money? I'd honestly rather give up writing than compromise a piece to placate a publisher or an agent. This is not arrogance. This is rejection of the idea of writing by established, stringent criteria. Of pandering to a "market" or an "audience". This is rejecting the soullnessness of writing as a mass-produced capitalist commodity.
One thing for sure is that if the world was populated with seven billion Henry Millers, it wouldn't be a very productive place. But for every unique artist who captured something no on else did, there are thousands of businessmen and thousands of commercial writers content with the status quo.
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