Review: Tropic of Cancer

As you may know, this novel by Henry Miller was banned in the US as obscene for twenty-seven years after it was first published in Paris in 1934. Having never read any of Henry Miller’s work, I decided to start with this one. Now, having read it, I would say that it is not obscene (although it is occasionally explicit and does not shy away from bad language), it is, in my opinion, misogynistic. Henry Miller has little respect for women as equals.

Henry Miller was born in New York in 1891. Surprisingly, he attended City University for only one semester. (He writes with considerable skill and with an astonishing vocabulary.) He worked in personnel at Western Union for ten years before devoting himself entirely to writing. He developed a semi-autobiographical, stream of consciousness style. He lived in Paris during the 1930’s, in Greece briefly and in California until his death in 1980. He was married five times. His major works, aside from Tropic of Cancer, include The Rosy Crucifixion, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn and The Colossus of Maroussi.

Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer is set in Bohemian Paris during the 1930’s when Miller was a destitute, struggling writer there, having separated from his second wife, whom he recollects warmly. The book is written in the first person, as Henry Miller, and is a commentary on the human condition from a low-down, devil-may-care perspective. Many of the characters are thinly disguised friends and associates of Miller’s. The narrative is disorderly, sometimes in the present and sometimes a recollection of past events. The subjects are the peculiarities of the characters, their influences on one another, the scarcity of money, various venues and scenes in the city, sexual encounters, writing, philosophy, and employment, all revealed unvarnished and with clarity. Millers’s writing is characterised by an eagerness to reveal all, and he views his desperate financial circumstances and challenging relationships with startling optimism.

Tropic of Cancer is clearly a literary milestone in its construction, style, subject and narrative. Strangely, perhaps, it makes an engaging read. One wants to discover what Henry will discover next. For me, there is no overarching theme or message, and if one tried to construct a philosophy from the events, it would probably be self defeating. For example, Miller seems to view the church disdainfully, but his observations are congruent with Christian theology. The writing is extraordinary its clarity and erudition. While I take strong exception to Miller’s view of the role of women, I have to admire the way he has described his experiences in Bohemian Paris in the 30’s. Is it a great literary treasure? I think not. Is it a book one should read. Yes!

Review: The Maid

The second novel – a crime novel – that my wife and I listed to during the drive down to Sicily was The Maid by Nita Prose and narrated by Lauren Ambrose. It is certainly an entertaining book, though when we started to listen I wasn’t expecting a crime novel; I was expecting a romance or an adventure. It has sold over a million copies and won a couple of awards.

Ms Prose says, “As for my professional life, I work in the publishing industry. I began years ago as an intern, photocopying edited manuscripts and secretly snooping the fascinating margin conversations between editors and writers. Currently, I’m vice president and editorial director at Simon & Schuster in Toronto, Canada, where I have the privilege of working with an incredible array of authors and publishing colleagues whom I credit with teaching me, manuscript by manuscript, book by book, the wondrous craft of writing.”

Nita Prose

The central character is Molly, who is a maid in the Regency Grand Hotel, a job to which she feels she was born and is obsessively dedicated. She likes nothing more than restoring a filthy, messy room to perfection. She has such an orderly, Polly-Anna-ish mind that I thought she has learning disabilities until I learned that she had completed some university level courses. Molly lived alone with her grandmother, who has a similar character, is full of simple-minded advice, and who dies halfway through the book. The other characters are a supervising maid, who is lazy and apt to purloin tips that have been left for Molly. There was a boyfriend who stole a large nest egg which Molly’s grandma had been saving for them. Molly’s current crush is the hotel bartender, who has suspicious friends and treats her with indifference. The hotel manager is a harried soul who treats Molly with respect, and there is the hotel dishwasher, a conscientious Mexican worker whose immigration papers are not in order. Mr Black, an older, very rich, disagreeable man in doubtful businesses, and his younger, trophy wife are frequent guests at the hotel. Molly strikes up a friendship with the wife, and Molly finds Mr Black dead in his room. It was murder and Molly is the prime suspect according to a zealous police detective. Fortunately, the doorman has a daughter who is a very clever criminal lawyer and who devises a scheme to prove Molly not guilty and to reveal the actual perpetrator. A drugs operation involving the bartender, Mr Black and assorted outside thugs is discovered. Molly knows who actually killed Mr Black, but for personal, sympathetic reasons, she does not reveal the person at the trial.

Certainly it is a clever device to create a character who goes against our reflex notions of a hotel maid: invisible, unmotivated and slap-dash. This strange character wins our sympathy, though perhaps a little reluctantly in my case. For me, Molly is a little too dedicated to her simple-minded perfectionism to be fully credible. Perhaps if Molly had some learning disabilities she would have worked better for me. The writing is lively, though not of literary quality, nor should it be. The scenes and characters are clear. The plot is well conceived, and tension is maintained throughout. For me, Molly’s motivation not to reveal the true killer was not strong enough, and in the real world the killer would have been identified.

Review: The Ghost

I listened to this novel by Robert Harris on our drive down to Sicily from London.

Harris is a British novelist and journalist born in 1957. He was educate at Cambridge, and began his career at the BBC where he worked in news and current affairs programs. He became the political editor of The Observer at the age of 30. From 1982 to 1990 he wrote five non-fiction books. His first novel, a commercial success, was Fatherland, based on the Nazis having won the Second World War and published in 1992. He has written fourteen further novels. The Ghost was published in 2007 and was made into a film starring Pierce Brosnan.

Robert Harris

The Ghost is told in the first person by an unnamed professional ghostwriter, who is hired by a prominent publisher to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang, an ex-prime minister of the UK, thinly based on Tony Blair. Lang’s original ghostwriter, Mike McAra, a former aid to Lang, had died in strange circumstances, having fallen overboard from the Woods Hole Ferry. Most of the action takes place on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where the publisher owns a lavish summer home. Lang’s wife is depicted as a scheming manipulator, while Lang is having an affair with his attractive female assistant. Frustrated with having an opaque picture of the real Adam Lang, the ghostwriter gets into McAra’s rented car an allows it to follow a previously set destination. This takes him to a Professor Paul Emmett, who went to Cambridge with Lang, was an associate of Lang’s wife and was a CIA agent. Lang’s former Foreign Secretary, Richard Rycart, loosely based on Robin Cook, is now working at the UN and has produced documentation that Lang had four terror suspects arrested in Pakistan by the SAS, and turned over to the CIA for interrogation. Potentially, Lang would be charged with was crimes. The ghostwriter finds Rycart’s phone number in McAra’s files, and arranges to meet Rycart in New York, where Rycart confirms that he and McAra had concluded that Emmett had recruited Lang into the CIA. Lang is assassinated by a protester. The ghostwriter finishes the book, but does not reveal Lang’s secret, because he does not confirm it before he is killed.

The book is brilliantly read by Michael Jayston who uses a distinctive voice for each major character. The plot unfolds beautifully and with constant tension until it seems likely that Lang was a CIA agent. This seems far fetched and renders a satisfactory conclusion to the book nearly impossible. The writing is captivating, though it occasionally wanders into unnecessary detail. The characters are well draw and credible. Two events struck me as lacking substantiation: the fling between the ghostwriter and Lang’s wife and the beach scene at night where McAra’s body washed up.

Perhaps Mr Harris permitted his disenchantment with Tony Blair to overrule his literary craft.

Novels Left Unpublished

Bryan VanDyke has an essay on The Millions website with the catchy title “To All the Novels I Never Published”. In my case, I’ve abandoned a novel after writing seventy pages, then come back a year and a half later, rewrote much of what I had written, and finally published it. But I’ve never put a completed manuscript in a drawer and left it there indefinitely. I was interested in what Mr VanDyke had to say.

Bryan VanDyke’s essays and fiction have appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, Carve, and Pacific Standard. He is the author of Only the Trying, a book-length essay on the nature of illness and recovery. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.

“I’ve had a manuscript locked in a drawer for three and a half years now. It’s a coming-of-age novel about a boy who believes a supernatural force has seized the minds of the adults in his life. He and his best friend confront and defeat the supernatural force, but victory comes at the cost of their innocence—the classic trade-off. I don’t know if it’s my best work, but it’s my favorite. Perhaps inevitably, I’m terrified of ever trying to sell it to someone.

I’m not new to this writing jig. A few weeks ago, I went deep into my hard drive archives and tallied the numbers. Here’s what I learned: over the last 25 years, I’ve finished seven novels, three dozen short stories, and 55 essays. The number of published pieces is, well, much smaller. This is all to say that I’m well acquainted with the creative process, its thralls and its jiltings. There is work that I’ve rushed to share with the world and work that I’ve held back. The hard part is getting wise to which is which.

In college, I pursued a double concentration in both poetry and fiction. That’s how much I wanted to be a writer. At the end of senior year, I won an award from the English Department for one of my short stories. A handful of students were honored at a small reception, and we received $300 checks from Alfred Appel, a professor and author of four books on Vladimir Nabokov (my first literary god). This check, Professor Appel told us, might be the most money you ever earn for a single piece of creative work. He grinned like he was joking. He wasn’t joking.

After college I was lucky enough—or damn fool enough, depending on your perspective—to jet straight off to an MFA program. To afford tuition, I juggled four jobs: I spent a part of each week as a web developer, a departmental admin, a researcher for a magazine, an LSAT teacher, and a tutor. I did most of my writing after midnight. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.

At one point for a workshop I was paired with Mary Gordon, a thoughtful teacher and tenacious stylist whom I’d heard great things about. You’ll love her, one of my mentors said. Professor Gordon told me in our first private conference: I’m going to be hard on you because I think you’re a good writer. Oh, wow, I said, flattered. I suspect this was a line she delivered to many if not most students. If it was a ploy, it worked: I never thought she was harsh, even when she derided the archaic diction in my stories.

During class one afternoon Professor Gordon said: After I finish a novel, I always put it in a drawer for a year. All of the apprentices in the room sat up a little at this. A year? The disbelief was perceptible, like a shift in the wind. Yes, she insisted, gathering forcefulness as she repeated herself. You must do this with a book. It’s the only way to really figure out if something’s any good. You need space.

Her advice bothered me because it was both wise and inconvenient. Our entire MFA program was oriented around the idea that your thesis would be either a story collections or a novel—either way, you needed a finished manuscript in order to graduate.  With what I was paying in tuition, my pockets weren’t deep enough to wait a whole year to figure out if what I wrote was any good. I barreled onward, advice be damned, and when I finished my thesis, I turned it in. I had no time for locked drawers. 

I spent five years sharing and revising my first novel. I gathered feedback from agents and editors and friends. I incorporated their suggestions. I signed a contract with an agent. But I never managed to sell the book. The material never quite struck the mark. I only understood why after a critique from my mother, the woman who taught me to read, the relentless reader whose reading habits I first emulated. I had hoped to impress her with what I’d made, the product of all that effort, all that education, all that patience. “I don’t know what I just read,” she wrote on the first page of a print-out of the first chapter. 

She did not mean the words in unkindness; she was honestly confused by the novel’s cold open, a poetic description of a cleaning woman as she watches another woman ride a horse down a street. I had long believed that good writing could—would!—connect with anyone. Suddenly, I saw how the problem with my novel was bigger than my novel. I had to accept one of two unacceptable conclusions: either a) my core belief in the universality of good writing was not true; or, b) what I’d labored over for years wasn’t actually good writing. Now that I have the distance of years, I can reread those pages and see, ah, yes. The problem was a little bit of a), and a whole lot of b).

William Faulkner wrote two failed novels (his words) before he famously gave up writing for other people and began to write just for himself. The books he wrote after that volta are the ones that students still read for classes around the world. “Write for yourself” is easy to say, and even easier to understand, but in practice it’s dangerous. If you’re not careful, it leaves you with a hefty tally of novels, stories, and essays, proof that you’re a writer, but confusion about what being a writer has actually done for you. 

A few years later I wrote another novel, one that my wife told me had “perfect bones.” I posted to Facebook about how good I felt about her feedback. Other friends, some I knew well, some I hadn’t seen in years, asked to read the manuscript. Eager to share, I had copies of the text printed and bound and mailed to everyone who had inquired. Then I leaned back and waited to hear what people thought. I got at least one or two wonderful emails. A few short notes. But from half of the people, well, I’m still waiting for word.

Did they not like it? Did they not have time to read it? Did they shut the pages at some point and say quietly to an empty room, I don’t know what I just read? I don’t know. Perhaps there is only one thing I can be sure of: anything you put into the world is something that you must accept uncertainty about. Is it enjoyable? Was it understood? It’s impossible to know. It can no longer be your perfect idea. It isn’t even fully yours anymore.

All this has led me to conclude that any given piece of writing must be categorized: the ones you keep, and the ones you share. In order to truly finish a piece you must be ready to know what you want from it. Is it a book that you need many people to read? Or is it something you can lock in a drawer and smile after fondly, knowing you have done what you’ve done, even if no one else sees it? Some of the things that I write are for others, essays like this one. Some of them are just for me, like that novel in the drawer that I love. 

I have in truth shared the novel I love with a very select group. My teenage daughter read it in a day and said she wanted more—quite a compliment. My dad said the book’s setting made him think fondly of the town where he (and I) grew up. I sent the novel to a fellow writer, and she said it lifted her heart. I haven’t edited or revised the manuscript in ages but if I close my eyes I can still see the scenes. I feel the words. I don’t have a synopsis and I don’t have a plan and I don’t have an expectation that anyone other than a handful people will ever read it—but what if I told you that this feeling, the feeling of a tale that I felt and then captured in words, is the best feeling I’ve ever had as a writer? The one that I love most? The one that I would never trade, even if it meant somebody paid me a bunch of money for this book in the drawer and all the other ones that I wrote and failed to sell, too? 

Nothing feels as good. Not even when someone tells me they’ve read my book and it was great. Not even when an editor writes back to tell me, yes, they’d like to run my essay. Don’t get me wrong or mark me as ungrateful. Those latter moments are great, even necessary at times. But they’re post facto. They’re director’s notes for a part that I’m no longer performing. Like life, art moves on.”

I don’t quite know what to make of this essay. It’s not clear to me why it didn’t get published. It’s his favourite, so why is he afraid of selling it? It’s not as if he would lose possession of it. If Bryan is reading this, yes, I’d like to read it.