Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Where It All Goes Down
Paris in the 1930s and 1940s
The City of Light?
Miller spent much of his time as an expatriate in Paris in the 1930s—a time when the city was considered the world's artistic and intellectual capital. No wonder he's such a snob.
When Tropic of Cancer was released in France, World War II was also only five years away. But Henry doesn't really seem aware that there's a political storm on the horizon? Why not? Well, the way we see it, the book is, in a lot of ways, set in his head.
Still, it's not like Henry is totally removed from his political climate. By now, you're probably asking, what on earth was Miller's beef with Jewish people? Yeah, this guy definitely has some major anti-Semitism going on. So while he doesn't comment on the politics of his era, he thinks in ways that reflect the period's bigoted mindset.
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
The Paris in Tropic of Cancer is hedonist and diseased, amoral and indulgent. Henry even mentions more than once that civilization is more or less coming to an end—so you might as well enjoy yourself before the whole place implodes.
It's kind of a love-hate relationship.
He goes on and on about what the city means to him as an artist: the sense of freedom he experiences there (in contrast to America) and the beauty of its great boulevards, its trees, the Seine River, and the majestic architecture:
wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it, the trees leaning to, the broken images in the water, the rush of the current under the bloody lights of the bridges, the women sleeping in doorways […] Paris. Paris. Everything happens here. Old, crumbling walls and the pleasant sound of water running in the urinals. (1.49, 56)
But he's equally as preoccupied with its ugly sordid side: the alleys, tenements, and bums. These conflicting qualities leave the city feeling like a "whore," deceitful and seductive, leaving him feeling empty: "Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict" (2.19).
The hotel rooms Henry finds himself in don't help things. His first room at the Villa Borghese, a seedy dump of an apartment full of dicey characters, sets the gold standard for the places he stays. And it never gets much better.