Shock value gone from Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer is the first of Henry Miller’s banned books of the 1930s to make landfall legally in the US, where its notoriety propelled it to number 5 on the 1961 bestseller list.

The book is presented as a memoir of an unnamed American ex-patriot  in Paris in the years between the wars. He’s does some writing, some proofreading, and some teaching, but mostly he panhandles, boozes, and whores.

Millers’ narrator says the book is a “prolonged insult” to traditional values, but it won’t insult readers today. The “dirty words” that got the novel canned are simply part of Miller’s  reportage. Today you’d hear the same language used with more enthusiasm in a middle school cafeteria, though Miller uses the terms with more precision than preteens.

The Tropic of Cancer has about as much story line as a grocery list. It is equally short on characterization.

There’s no denying Miller can write. The problem is that he nothing to say to today’s readers. Little shocks readers today, and too many other writers have shown the decay in our society in more interesting stories.

Bypass the Tropic of Cancer for pleasanter climes.

The Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Grove Press, 1961
1961 #6
321 pages
My grade: C

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lady Chatterley’s Lover Is Boring, Not Shocking

When it was first published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in America. I doubt if  most contemporary readers would plow through D. H. Lawrence’s ponderous paragraphs to get to the passages that offended censors.

Lawrence uses some barnyard terminology when he discusses barnyard activities, but his real offense appears to have been his lyric descriptions of sex. The eroticism of those scenes is heightened by contrast to the dull, tweedy prose of the rest of the novel.

Constance and Clifford Chatterley married in 1917 a month before he shipped out for France. He came home paralyzed from the waist down.

Clifford inherits his family’s country seat and takes up writing. Constance takes care of  him.

It’s all too dull for her.

Clifford says he wouldn’t mind if Constance bore another man’s child, providing he didn’t know who the father is. That’s all the encouragement Constance needs.

She takes up with the married-but-separated groundskeeper, Mellors. Both divorce their spouses to marry and raise their child. People are shocked, not by the affair, but by her having an affair outside her class.

Lawrence said he rewrote Lady Chatterley three times, but the book feels as if he never figured out what he wanted to say. The characters are dull, the story duller.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover
By D. H. Lawrence
Grove Press, 1959
368 pages
#5 on the 1959 bestseller list
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni