Having recently turned 50, I’ve been looking for projects that are “50” related. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is to fill in my reading list with American and English novels I haven’t read. Enter the Modern Library’s top 100 novels list. When this list was published in 1998, it garnered a flurry of activity in the literary world, leading to counter lists, cries of “How could you exclude XXXXX, my favorite book?” and even a reader poll of best titles. Despite the criticism, this is a great list filled with works that, as a French major in college, I never got assigned to read.
My “50” project is to read the top 50 of the top 100 titles on this list, starting with number 50 and working my way to number one. We’ve created a tag for “Dave’s 50 After 50”, and you are welcome to read along with me.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller is where my reading begins. This book has a sordid history, having been excluded from publication in the United States for obscenity for twenty-seven years after its first publication in Europe in 1934. It was the 1961 Grove Press edition which led to obscenity trials and the eventual ruling by the Supreme Court in 1964 that it was not obscene.
Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller’s manifesto of all that is wrong with literature and life while living in Paris. It’s semi-autobiographical and written in the first person mostly as a stream of consciousness. The narrative flows loosely around Miller’s life as a poor writer, struggling at times, drinking, eating and following the events in his and his friends’ lives. He spends some time homeless, drifting in and out of friends’ houses, beds with bedbugs, and general squalor.
All this time he writes his meditations on life and how it should be lived, and not lived. The “cancer” in the title refers to his belief that cancer “symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.” He forges ahead through life with a fierce need to tear things down and try again. It is compelling to watch him strive against loneliness and despair while rejecting the easy answers to come through to a new understanding of life and love. You are drawn into his life and his struggles.
As could be expected with a book that was considered obscene, there is a lot of profanity and sex throughout the narrative. While I never thought it gratuitous, it can actually be a little exhausting to wade through it all. If you are at all bothered by profanity, this book may not be for you.