books quotes

A gob of spit in the face of art

From the first page of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
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. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, sander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…

Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris in 1934 but banned in Miller’s native US until 1961. I found a copy for 20p last summer while foraging in the charity shops of Sheffield. I bought it, mostly because I’d heard Tom Lehrer mention it. And because it was only 20p. I read the first page in the kitchen of the house at Steade Road and fell in love with the book immediately. I don’t think that’s happened with more one or two other books (Gormenghast? Catch-22? Can’t think of any others).

The rest of the book doesn’t carry on in the same self-conscious style, but it completely forfills the initial promise. Miller writes from a time-period I associate more with stuffy classist English novelists than with the revolutionary invention of the modern voice (note to self, should have paid more attention to Hemmingway and Orwell). He writes like a beat poet twenty years before Kerouac and the other beat poets. And unlike Kerouac not a single word has gone stale.

It’s the prose equivalent of the heart sutra – neither defiled nor pure – all the transcendence, but with more whoring and drunkeness.

4 replies on “A gob of spit in the face of art”

Hey Tom, didn’t know that you liked Gormenghast! Really fancied Fuschia (what is it about depressed girls?) when I read it as a teenager. Although I did mispronounce here name ‘Fucksia” until someone corrected me.A book brimming with intense surreal emotion. Nicol

Nicol, you think it was the fact that she was a depressed sixteen year old with violet eyes and raven hair or the unconscious effect of the way you internally represented her name that made you fancy her… 😉

It is sad I know. I only fancy girls with suggestive names. Nothing else really interests me. Sweet, sweet, Laetitia! Oh, how I long for you, Cassie! I’m getting help.

Tropic of Calculus . . .

I’d never twigged that reference: it’s so rich in obscure (to us) cultural references.

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