Henry Miller wrote only one truly great novel, his first published and still his most famous.
BLACK SPRING, TROPIC OF CAPRICORN and THE COSMOLOGICAL EYE fill out the story and almost constitute the Miller bible that Lawrence Durrell encouraged his mentor to write; but TROPIC OF CANCER remains the great hurled gauntlet of early twentieth-century fiction, a book that more persuasively and passionately than any other says to art and history and all their mavens: "I truly do not give a damn." On one level this is pure nihilism; beneath that is the level of pure outrage; but beneath that there is the brave Moment in which, when everything else seems shallow and fleeting, all of us sooner or later aspire to live, and end up wondering why we cannot. The narrator of TROPIC OF CANCER is another literary American Henry pushed through the glass darkly, the Henry James who lived in America but was haunted by Europe now returned to the heart of Europe only to be haunted by America, and in the process returning with a voice and heart stripped of all continental sensibilities, an American voice stripped of every reassurance but Whitman's electric song and the Ginsberg howl to come, in rapacious pursuit of one sensual interest above everything else. That interest, of course, is eating. There is a misconception, largely among those who have never read TROPIC OF CANCER, that the book is about sex. In fact Miller's interest in sex in TROPIC OF CANCER is only intermittent, which was the truly shocking thing about the book when it first appeared, that it talks about sex not heatedly but casually, and no differently than it talks about survival in general. What Miller really cares about in CANCER is scoring a good meal. He constantly puts his genius to the matter of getting fed with a determination he only rarely applies to getting laid, devising an elaborate plan that finally commits seven different friends to each inviting him to dinner one night a week.
Though it is the book I have read more often than any other -- I would certainly not want a whole literature of "Tropic of Cancers". A literature of Tropic of Cancers just becomes cranky and self-indulgent in an obvious and cheap way. You can't always live among overturned furniture. Whether the reclining chair is before the fireplace or not, sooner or later you want to sit on it. But though you might not approve of it, though you might reproach the book, remove TROPIC OF CANCER from the American canon and, if you're honest, you will acknowledge that everything about fiction in the twentieth century changes, and it changes for the worse. Everything about twentieth-century fiction becomes less vital, less alive and of course less free; it is startling to note how recently and publicly Miller has been dismissed by writers whose very right to sensational provocation was won in the battles Miller fought for them. That's all right, though, because Miller's true importance is not as a pioneer of free expression but as an exhibitionist of the soul, and lies in the triumph of one man over chaos that is achieved in an ironic collusion with chaos. The great passion of Henry Miller and TROPIC OF CANCER is nothing less than life-sized, or maybe even cosmos-sized, the relentless raging juxtaposition of the gutter with the heavens, of the beastly with the transcendent, never judging one above the other, loving not the harmony of it all but the disharmony, delirious at the prospect of the great pending Crack-Up of mankind. This is a writer beyond the reach of your reproach, because he has so completely obliterated the value of that reproach; his is the long love-riddled guffaw of failure that is too mad to be fearful and too sane to survive unscarred.
In some mysterious way, Miller has preserved an innocence of the practice of Literature-with-a-capital-L which is almost unique in history. Likewise he has preserved an innocence of heart. But he is not unsophisticated. In the first place, he writes a muscular, active prose in which something is always going on and which is always under control. True, he often rambles and gets windy, but only because he likes to ramble and hear his head roar. When he wants to tell you something straight from the shoulder, he makes you reel.
And that's the way I like it.
Much, much more about Henry...