I can still remember the afternoon I shoplifted Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer from a quality independent bookstore in Auckland, NZ. It was 1999: autumn, overcast, apocalyptic; let’s say early May. I had just turned 20 and was in the third and final year of my English Lit degree. At the time, I was not hugely excited by the poetry of Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, even if my lecturers were. Anyway, it was only a few months until Y2K and the end of the world.
It began with a digression. During an otherwise tedious lecture, a professor made an offhand comment about someone called Arthur Rimbaud, to the effect that, before Rimbaud renounced writing poetry at the age of seventeen (!), he had apparently produced some of the most startling poems in modern letters. I practically ran to Unity Books to find out more about this Rimbaud guy. Inside the store, I bumped into a couple of my desperately fabulous “writer” friends, Jacob and Darcy. Jacob was good-looking in a damaged, post-90210 type way; I think he paid for his comprehensive drug habit by working as a rent boy. Jacob’s housemate Darcy was nothing short of ludicrous. He would spend entire days sitting in cafes in a crimson velvet dressing gown, smoking cigarettes, laughing at everyone and not writing in his notebook. (The one time I summoned the courage to ask Darcy what his poems were actually about, he looked at me with utter disdain, pausing a full ten seconds before replying, pompously, “Visions.”)
“What’re you looking for?” Jacob said.
“Arthur … Rimboard?” I replied.
Darcy laughed in my face.
“Rimbaud”, he said. “He’s a writer. His eyes were bright … too bright.” Darcy grinned like a devil.
“How ‘bout you guys?” I asked.
Jacob and Darcy shot a glance at each other, unsure if they should share their little secret.
“… Miller,” Jacob said.
“Henry Miller,” Darcy said, flashing a novel with “Sex” in the title. “He’s a writer.”
“A dirty writer,” Jacob added.
“Sexus,” Jacob corrected me. “You should start with cancer.” I nodded like I knew what he meant.
Jacob and Darcy paid for their book and left. I drifted over to the “M” shelf. Scanned past Moby Dick. Nexus … Plexus … Tropic of Cancer.
A silhouetted naked woman on the cover. Puff quote saying: “American literature begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done”. Something on the back about “banned for 27 years”. That did it.
I checked no one was looking, then slipped Tropic of Cancer up under my shirt and down into my jeans. The book was cool and smooth against my belly as I tightened my belt. I zipped up my jacket and walked “casually” out of the store.
When I got to Myers Park I sat down under a tree and pulled the book out of my pants. The title of the foreword was “The Greatest Living Author” …
Henry Miller’s books have been almost impossible to obtain; the ones that were not banned were stolen from libraries everywhere …
… those poets who follow Walt Whitman must necessarily follow Miller, even to the extent of giving up poetry in its formal sense and writing that personal apocalyptic prose that Miller does …
… Morally I regard Miller as a holy man—Gandhi with a penis …
All this hype and hyperbole – the literary fluffing – was dizzying, vertiginous. And I hadn’t even got to the actual book! The opening lines:
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.
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 […] We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
The wind picked up; fat, ugly droplets of rain fell from the sky. I got on the bus and read Tropic of Cancer all the way home, then deep into the night. The next day I wagged uni and stayed home so I could keep reading.
That book contained everything that was missing from my literature degree: sex, drunkenness, obscenity, sexism, Paris, long incongruous lists full of big words, scatology, cataclysm, egomania, repetition, sexual harassment – and lots of laughing in people’s faces. One of Henry Miller’s favourite things to do, apart from “the fucking business”, was to befriend eccentric cranks, take them for long walks in the park, encourage them to say the most outlandish things – then laugh in their face. This was a profound revelation to me: there were so many people whose faces I wanted to laugh in. Now, perhaps, I could!
Henry Miller was the biggest enabler around. He managed, in the most convincingly verbose fashion, to conflate being naughty with being “liberated”. I was inspired to hang around in my back garden smoking marijuana and writing breathless, longwinded letters to a girl in Wellington: red-eyed, one-handed letters, stoned and horny expectorations of my own knockoff brand of “personal apocalyptic prose”. (I assumed, of course, that one day I would be able to staple all those letters together and get them published as a work of unalloyed visionary genius.)
Unfortunately, this literary honeymoon didn’t last forever. Tropic of Capricorn was even more marvellous than Cancer – six pages dedicated to “the Land of Fuck!” – but Sexus was meh, Plexus was blurgh, and Nexus … I don’t think I managed to finish it. The more I read, the more I had to admit that Miller was a one-trick pony – basically, he was wanking with a thesaurus. But what a thesaurus …
the Cordilleras falling away into the Pacific, the history of the Diaspora done in vellum, shutters fluting the froufrou of the beach, the piano curving like a conch, corollas giving out diapasons of light, chameleons squirming under the book press, seraglios expiring in oceans of dust, music issuing like fire from the chromosphere of pain, spore and madrepore fructifying the earth, navels vomiting their bright spawn of anguish …
Tropic of Cancer was, and remains, one-handed literature at its finest. And for those of us living through the current “memoir boom”, where the witty, pithy, slightly trite truisms of David Sedaris reign supreme, Miller is a breath of fetid air; a bracing Swedish cocktail of anti-social behaviour and vague transcendent yearnings. The book was worth every cent.
- Jacob and Darcy moved to America in 1999; everyone presumes they died over there.
- Y2K came and went. I got my degree – just.
- I finally got myself some Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell is much, much better than Tropic of Cancer.
- The thing with the girl in Wellington didn’t work out. Those letters never got published, although hopefully they did get burned.
- Contrary to the predictions of Henry Miller’s friend Boris, the weather is changing. A lot.
Tom Doig is a writer, PhD candidate and moron. In 2013 Allen & Unwin published his first book, Moron to Moron: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure (“a classic of Mongolian cycling literature” – Tim Krabbé). Tom has an MA in Hitler Comedy and is currently a Journalism PhD student, researching people’s experiences of climate change in Australia. Last year, in a moment of weakness, Tom posed topless in Maxim Australia. He was not paid for it.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.