Feeling the prickly French pressure of a well-balanced, wholesome Paris in July, some kinky classics beckoned out to me from the depths of our bookshelves, books that, I’m ashamed to say, the boyfriend is much more well-versed in than I am. (Although this is highly unsurprising given that he flatly dismisses anything and everything published after 1975 and is utterly horrified by the thought of me reading what he terms ‘modern fiction’!) What a guy.
Taking this uncompromising attitude to heart I set out to read the first of two erotic classics that I bought the man himself as a treat one Christmas and that I never quite got around to reading myself. Henry Miller, here I come…Brace yourselves peeps…
As the first of his notorious double act, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was published in 1934 and was immediately banned in the U.S.A, eventually leading to groundbreaking trials that would challenge social convention and pornography laws in the States and ultimately come out on top. Miller’s quasi-autobiographical , scatological Parisian wanderings may be some of the most pivotal ramblings of the 20th century, affecting not only his readers but the world at large. However. In the already over-sexed, unflappable world of 21st century Britain, is this really a good read?
Although one particularly irritating member of Miller’s pièce du théâtre rather distractedly decides to refer to every other object (usually those of the female-persuasion) as a ‘c u next Tuesday’, there was, rather happily, much more plot and point to this book than I was expecting. With a raft of characters that are quite clearly based on real-life friends and acquaintances of Miller’s from his beloved Bohemian Paris, we follow the author in his struggles as a writer, his estrangement from his wife and homeland and, predictably, his sexual conquests. Although these are far fewer than you may imagine.
A book that had Anaïs Nin as an editor and the thumbs up from dab-hands like George Orwell and Norman Mailer is always going to struggle to live up to its reputation, particularly for a modern crowd. The cultural importance of this novel is undeniable but to a 21st century girl Miller’s vagina-fixation (or at least that of his friends) can be both boring and insulting. Although I’m certainly not the over-sensitive type, after 200 + pages of vacuous, disposable female characters and ‘stream of consciousness’ passages that jarred with the parallel, workaday narrative, I was left feeling a little cross-eyed.
Chauvinism (and a touch of antisemitism…) aside, what Miller does effectively do here is express the highly stereotypical yet achingly romantic life of the Parisian flâneur to a tee. Where else in the world can a man be so poor yet so very inspired and have so much fun at the same time? Miller paints himself in a favourable light, one we ordinary people can certainly relate to. He is imperfect, ironic and has a mediocre work ethic much like our own, revolving around his eccentric, frivolous friends with a wry look on his face. A Louis Theroux-eyed view on the world you might say. This, at the very least, makes him a likeable chap.
When all is said and done, I can therefore forgive Miller most things, but will I be reading his other (and far more uncomfortable by all accounts) profferings any time soon? Probably not. The look of horror that crossed the boyfriend’s face whilst reading Under the Roofs of Paris said it all….yikes.