Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Literary Note on Henry Miller from one Ukrainian's Perspective. . .

I brought with me a copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer on this trip, for two reasons: to reread and see what I liked about it oh so much so many (12? 15?) years ago when I first read it, and to share it--this "shocking," "dirty" little book--with Oksana (in the pictures below), who speaks and reads English nearly fluently.

I was reading along but this time I found the book, well, sometimes interesting, but mostly trite. It really once appealed to my adolescent mentality, inspite of the misogyny and anti-Semitism, which I remember bothering me then (but it bothered me much more now). This time reading it, I had to keep reminding myself that it was written in the 1930s, that few had ever written like this or of such things, that in its day it certainly was not trite as it was a modernist reaction to the stuffy artisty of people like Henry James, a rejection of the realist literature, that I, in fact actually like a great deal more than Miller's (or Kerouac's) prose, etc.

So this time, Miller seemed like a hack and James a real artist. I couldn't really get into it this time, and handed it off to Oksana long before finishing it. Am I getting old?

Well, Oksana read it, was intrigued by it (the language and scandalous themes weren't shocking for her, though; she is quite modern), and when she finished it, she summed up the book quite well by saying, "Here, it was interesting, but you can have that bastard back. . ."

Well said.



2 comments:

petro@rondiak.com said...

hi. i enjoyed reading your note about Tropic of Cancer. I recently moved (again) and this time the process of unpacking my boxes of books took on a different character. instead of blindly sticking them on my bookshelves (like i have for the last 15 years since i've actually used bookshelves instead of milk crates) i am actually looking at each book and determining the reason i am toting said book around the world with me. maybe it's a sense of mortality (being 39 yrs old) that's driving me to de-clutter and seek focus. an attempt to get the most out of the remainder of my life. anyway, i came across my accumulation of H.Miller books. everything he wrote, his letters too, and everything written about him, biographies, durrell, anais, etc. i looked at my underlinings in Tropic of Cancer trying to remember what i was like 15 years earlier when i plowed through this and the other miller books. Why did they strike such a cord in me? you took the additional step of re-reading it. hats off to you. i have yet to go there. i am not sure what i am avoiding, but for now the texts have made the cut and occupy their place on my shelf. - petro

Stefan said...

The post was a tad misleading: I still enjoyed reading him this time, but just not enough to keep on going.

How can I say it? When I was younger and still fairly "unread," it was OK to trudge through page after page after page of nonsense and uninteresting writing for the occassional gem--the few paragraphs, sometimes the few pages, of brilliant lines critical of the nature of American society or on the doldrums of bourgeois culture anywhere; or the rants of artists who are dillatentes, etc. The problem for me is that I still am undecided as to whether I consider books like Tropic of Cancer or On the Road kind of interesting or total hack jobs. . .

Well, somewhere of course in the middle, but is that interesting to me anymore?

I guess, that is, as an older fellow who has become well read and can also produce his own lines of spirited (if also at times bitter, a la Miller) critique, I don't really enjoy trudging along with all the bitter comments here and there about Jews, or omnipresent stories about "cunts," or endless lines of nonsense.

In the end, I would say that Miller is an enjoyable read first time around (especially if one is young that first time) and that he should be, obviously, respected as a fundamental part of our literary history; but these days I am much more charmed by brilliant critics of American and bourgeouis culture the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville, as their critical observations of US society is delivered with such a high degree of artisty as well. . .

I would love to see a return of such powerful allegorical writing: of such writing that is so sophisticated that you could get lost in the story without ever realizing that underneath it all was a fabulous critique of Puritanism or of the development of American capitalism. . .

The is no real story (even autobiographical) to get lost in, no real art to enjoy, in Tropic of Cancer, it seems to me; it's a book by someone just rambling about his fascinating life, while occasionally producing a few gems. . .

I guess Miller is an important stage in cutting one's critical/bohemian/literary/countercultural teeth.

But he's certainly, at least in Tropic of Cancer, of the quite curmudgeony kind. . .

And I should have mentioned that Oksana grinned when she called him a "bastard," and that she said so in a playful tone of voice. . .

Thanks for commenting, good luck settling in to your new living situation, and enjoy rereading him some day!