'An eternal city, Paris! More eternal than Rome, more splendrous than Ninevah. The very navel of the world to which, like a blind and faltering idiot, one crawls back on hands and knees.' - Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
Before my little post on Maigret's Paris, a friend suggested I do something on Henry Miller and pointed me in the direction of Walking Paris with Henry Miller. I could never match that excellent site so instead thought simply to concentrate on Tropic of Cancer (1934), the best novel on the French capital I've read.
I was always under the impression that it's a dirty book, but it's not at all; it's joyful, exacting and very funny. The only possible danger to your health comes from its sturdy language; always one to enjoy dropping the c-bomb, a work that features the c-word at least once a page is an open invitation to me.
Inscribed by a C Branchini, I have a 1949 edition from the Obelisk Press - 'Must not be imported into England or USA' - busy with typographical errors, faded print and other faults that sometimes make it difficult to follow, but nonetheless. Full of knowledge and criticism, Tropic of Cancer builds into a philosophical diatribe which may outstay its welcome nowadays, but Miller quickly atones with two whirlwind tales to whisk you to the end.
All of Paris is here, from the bars of Montparnasse - the Café Select, the Dôme, La Coupole - through the Place St Sulpice, to the neighbourhood of the Folies Bergère in the 9th. Nearby is the Faubourg Montmartre, 'a devil's street… with its brass plates and rubber goods, the lights twinkling all night and sex running through the street like a sewer.'
The Café de l'Eléphant on the boulevard Beaumarchais, which runs north from Bastille, is where he picks up the lusty Germaine. It is an area ripe with whores: 'The Rue Pasteur-Wagner is one I recall in particular, corner of the Rue Amelot which hides behind the boulevard like a slumbering lizard. Here… there was always a cluster of vultures who croaked and flapped their dirty wings, who reached out with sharp talons and plucked you into a doorway. Jolly, rapacious devils who didn't even give you time to button your pants when it was over.'
On the Left Bank, 'the Rue de Buci [pictured] is alive, crawling. The bars wide open and the curbs lined with bicycles.' Otherwise he is 'wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it.'
But Paris is not so easy to distill into one experience. His wife has returned to America and, walking down the Rue Lhomond one night, he recalls her plea to show her the Paris he has written about. Suddenly he realises 'the impossibility of ever revealing to her that Paris whose arrondissements are undefined, a Paris that has never existed except by virtue of my loneliness, my hunger for her. Such a huge Paris! It would take a lifetime to explore it again. This Paris, to which I alone had the key, hardly lends itself to a tour, even with the best of intentions; it is a Paris that has to be lived, that has to be experienced each day in a thousand different forms of torture, a Paris that grows inside you like a cancer, and grows and grows until you are eaten away by it.'