Having read the first few sentences of Tropic of Cancer, you will remember them. Henry Miller can use the language. He writes strong, biting, memorable, vivid prose. Often it is unjust to begin criticizing a book by taking out its first few sentences. But Henry Miller is a rhetorician: he knows that the exordium is important. His books and his chapters begin dramatically, pungently. Style, style, style: brushwork, the drive of the hand into the clay, the thrust of the lines of structure against each other, the movement of the musical phrase between keys and modes, the balance and rivalry of colors, the rise and fall and timing of an actor’s voice- style is a chief aim of all artists in all media. This Henry Miller has achieved: he is a wonderful stylist.
Spontaneous, his style appears. He writes prose which often seems to run absolutely naturally, like the flow of eager conversation or a rapidly written letter or the current of nonlogical ideas in one’s own mind. If in the generations to come he is to remembered for anything more than his interest in obscenity- misogyny included- he will be recalled as an agile, often graceful, sometimes powerful manipulator of word and phrase and sentence and paragraph and sometims, though less often, of those larger units which are called chapters.
He seems to be talking to you as you read him. He can even get away with old fashioned tricks such as the address “Dear reader.” It is easy to believe he is an enthusiastic letter writer and has poured out tens of thousands of pages of correspondence to his friends. Writing even one letter a day is practice for a writer, provided it is intimate and friendly. Writing as many letters as Miller does is like a violinist’s playing three hours of exercises every morning. Miller has a superb conquest of language.
Even one of Miller’s short works such as The Air Conditioned Nightmare makes your heart beat faster and your brain move more quickly, if you like language. Stylistically, compared with most regular novels, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn are like two big symphonies for eighty piece orchestras contrasted with two chamber works.
True, he rambles a great deal. Frequently, especially in Capricorn, he goes off into illogical rhapsodies which remind us partly of Thomas Wolfe’s barbaric yawp and partly of those Dadaist and surrealistic prose poems which nowadays seem something of a waste of pixels if that is possible. But he had mastered the art of rhetoric. Open either Tropic at random, and begin to read. The only reason you will stop is that you are either exhausted or nauseated.
… for you have not
the wings to carry you out of the world. This is the only world you can
inhabit, this tomb of the snake where darkness reigns.
And suddenly for no reason at all, when I think of her returning to her
nest, I remember Sunday mornings in the little old house near the cemetery.
I remember sitting at the piano in my nightshirt, working away at the pedals
with bare feet, and the folks lying in bed toasting themselves in the next
room. The rooms opened one on the other, telescope fashion, as in the good
old American railroad flats. Sunday mornings one lay in bed until one was
ready to screech with well-being….
and off he goes into four grand continuous pages about music and Wittgenstein and Prokofiev and a scherzo Henry improvised to a louse discovered in his underwear- a real bravura piece of writing impossible to interrupt or ignore. And it modulates straight into a piece of narrative about his first real sexual experience, with his music teacher, ehich both in language and in content is revolting. And yet it is written with the same driving energy, the same rich variety of phrasing, the same lively offbeat sentence structure, the same admirable spontaneity, the same crazy humor. Under the scrap heap there is something compelling, an inarticulate kind of truth that eschews salvation but feels worthy of a minor and humble portion of redemption.