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Henry Miller in Paris, The Mean Streets of the Tropic of Cancer

by William Caverlee

Best not to look at the scenery: eight lanes of traffic, roaring motorcycles, flashing billboards, and steel-and-glass office buildings as hideous as those beside any freeway in Houston or Atlanta – overall, a depressing introduction to France. This was the bus ride from Charles de Gaulle airport into Paris; and, after a nine-hour flight in coach, I was composed of little more than grogginess, jet lag, and panic.

Eventually, the bus entered the center of Paris – finally, were buildings that I remembered, street names I recognized: Boulevard St. Germain, Luxembourg Gardens, Notre Dame. The unmistakable roof lines, facades, and sidewalks unreeled before me like a movie. I descended at Gare Montparnasse and trundled my suitcase across the Place Montparnasse, filled with a swirling noontime crowd. Someone offered to sell me tickets to a music festival in Normandy or Germany or somewhere.

“No thanks, “I said, “but Monsieur, you must, you must . . .”

I walked around in circles for a few minutes then realized I’d better start looking for a place to stay.

Thirty years earlier, in the 1970s, I had spent a week in Paris on a Henry Miller pilgrimage, trying to track down Miller’s old haunts. I didn’t find very many, even though I had my copy of Tropic of Cancerwith me, and marched for miles every day up and down dozens of streets in dreary, obscure neighborhoods in Paris.

At this point, I might as well admit that every male college student of the 1960s and ’70s owned Tropic of Cancer. With its rollicking sex scenes, myriad profane language, and its unrestrained male gaze, Tropic of Cancerwas about as politically incorrect a book as you could find. Still, for a nineteen-year-old college boy in 1970, it was a vision of earthly delights. Every time Miller wandered out of his apartment in Montparnasse, it seemed that there was a beautiful young mademoiselle ready to hop into bed with him. Naturally, we male college students of the past weren’t concerned with the book’s incorrectness or offensiveness to women; we were just envious that Miller had had it so easy.

My first order of business in Paris back in 1974 was to find the Villa Borghese, Miller’s Italian-sounding residence, named in the jauntily apocalyptic, intentionally repellent, opening lines of Tropic of Cancer:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.

Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.

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.

A cheerless opening to a book that is hard to label. By turns, Tropic of Cancercan be cruel, obscene, misogynistic, adolescent. Still, it is Miller’s humor, I feel sure, that is his great gift to literature. A wild, jolting, rolling, raucous, lewd comic voice that will endure longer than his social diatribes or literary commentaries.

I never found the Villa Borghese. Maybe it never existed, a fictional disguise among all the others in Miller’s memoir of Paris in the 1930s, a Paris far removed from Hemingway’s photogenic recreation of the 1920s in A Moveable Feast, with all the glamorous hobnobbing with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Scott Fitzgerald, all the charming stories of the Left Bank, the Dome, and the Coupole.

Miller was a penniless American expatriate in the 1930s, homeless, friendless, starving. His Montparnasse, a grubby congested suburb, filled with flea-bag hotels, prostitutes, pissoirs, third-rate artists, and down-and-outers like Miller himself.

This was a Paris of clogged gutters and posters warning against syphilis, of cheap beer, bums sprawled in doorways and anti-Semitism – a vision of Europe in those years leading up to the Second World War, a continent in flux, full of plots and schemes and craziness. Tropic of Cancer was published in 1934, only five years before Germany invaded Poland and set off the great carnage. Perhaps Miller was more prophetic than he knew:

We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.

With all this in mind, then, it’s even more amazing that Tropic of Cancer is also an exuberant love song and comic adventure. Miller revels in ugliness and squalor and then makes jokes while sitting in the ruins:

Walking along the Champs-Elysees I keep thinking of my really superb health. When I say health I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans. Carl finds it disgusting, this optimism. I have only to talk about a meal, he says, and you’re radiant! It’s a fact. The mere thought of a meal – another meal – rejuvenates me. A meal! That means something to go on, a few solid hours of work, an erection possibly. I don’t deny it. I have health, good solid, animal health. The only thing that stands between me and a future is a meal, another meal.

Miller ranged all over Paris in Tropic of Cancer, usually looking for food or sex. Today, when I flip casually through its pages, name after name comes back to me, as if I had lived there in the 1930s myself: Rue Amelie, Rue des Dames, Faubourg Montmartre, Rue de Vanves. Not only place-names come back, but favorite passages as well: Miller’s buddy, Van Norden, who “wakes up utterly bored and discomfited, chagrined to think that he did not die overnight,” and another friend, Fillmore, whom Miller helps flee to America to escape a French girl friend, after which Miller says he “looked around uneasily, half expecting to see Ginette coming after me with a tomahawk,” and, famously, the “I love everything that flows” passage:

Yes, I said to myself, I too love everything that flows: rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gallstones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul . . .

In Paris in 1974, I must have walked 10 or 15 miles a day during my Henry Miller week, returning to a $5-a-night hotel just to sleep. Meals? Beer and sandwiches picked up during the day at cafes.

One day, crossing a bridge over the Seine, a young man tried to sell me something he’d written. He was an American, hawking short stories crudely stapled together, and, laughing at him, I explained that I was a would-be writer myself, also an American. He lived in an apartment with his English girl friend in some godforsaken arrondissement miles from anywhere, and I spent the night on the floor there, while the girl friend gave me dirty looks and berated the poor fellow for not selling any of his stories that day. She had sent him out to “make money not to bring home another stupid backpacker.”

She was an artist of some sort and I noticed a charcoal sketch on the wall – a ghoulish figure of a man leaning against a wall in the subway, his face a nightmare. The next day, I was exiting the Metro and a panhandler approached me, a black-coated middle-aged bum, speaking French, and for a second he tried to grab my arm, beseeching me with a gaze of horrific ugliness and despair, and I thought I recognized the face of the man in the English girl’s drawing. He scared the hell out of me and I raced up to street level as fast as I could.

In Tropic of Cancer, Miller lived in all sorts of places, camping out on acquaintances’ floors, in dives, in upstairs bedrooms. He took handouts, borrowed money from everyone, worked as a proofreader, gave English lessons, was continually being fired or thrown out on his ears. I’m sure he would have recognized the terrible bum in the Metro. As well as the short story writer and the angry English girl friend. He probably would have tried to stay with them longer than I did, and doubtless he would have eventually made a play for the girl, i.e., until the whole thing blew up and he found himself back on the street.

Clearly, Miller’s Paris of the 1930s was irretrievable to me in 1974 except in a few shadows and glimpses that I discovered while half-lost in distant quartiers. Streets where I had to step carefully over muttering bums, where open gutters ran free, where odors of garlic or fish or couscous pervaded whole blocks and no one spoke French.

Tropic of Cancer is sui generis, and Miller’s Paris perhaps existed solely in the author’s brainpan, a hyperkinetic, word-obsessed playground. It’s clear that Miller was intentionally trying to offend, to break down walls in 1934 with his sex scenes and sex language, as well as his violent fulminations against, well, almost anything that smacked of bourgeois conformity, big business, rapacity, dullness of spirit, mendacity, and miserliness.

Reading Miller today can be a bit tiring, to tell you the truth, like a teenager who’s just discovered four-letter words.

Perhaps you’re only supposed to read Miller when you’re 19 or 20, and the world is opening up to you, and the universe needs a good shaking-up. Still, whatever your age, Miller is capable of surprises, of offering us memorable white-hot phrases that are now part of the language:

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.