Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’


Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Any article on the internet listing the most influential novels of the 20th century is sure to include Henry Miller’s 1934 work Tropic of Cancer. At the centre of a high-profile obscenity trial, the book challenged the literary status quo and revolutionised the canon, toppling regulations surrounding literature deemed ‘acceptable’ to print. In this way, Miller helped expand the breadth of authorial voice, allowing authors to write about, amongst other subjects, the sexual realm, with a newfound confidence and transparency. 

I found the opening few pages of the text to be engaging but quite overwhelming. The narrator (who we later found out is Miller himself) flitters from one thought to another: the essence of the book he is writing, his love interest, Tania, the Villa Borghese and animal genitalia are each considered within a few pages. In the first paragraph, the reader is introduced to the kind of ‘honest’ carnality that features throughout. Miller writes candidly about happenings with his roommate: ‘Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits … . We might never have known each so intimately.. had it not been for the lice’. Unfiltered and unashamed. But the opening section is integral in other ways. The essential philosophy of the text is expressed in another frank admission: ‘I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive’. Celebrated here is the now clichéd motto of ‘living in the moment’. ‘Hope’ is imagined as a destabilising instinct that rejects the present in favour of an unforeseen, incalculable future. Rather than being fettered by expectation, one should ‘seize the day’. The quote also captures the anti-materialist spirit that runs throughout the book. For Miller, the trappings of bourgeoise life are heavy and repressive; he experiences the most profound sense of freedom when he is destitute. 

“Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy”.

As aforementioned, the style of writing is raw and the subject matter is often brazen. Miller roams through seedy Parisian side-streets, meeting drunkards, prostitutes and down-and-outs, but also spends time with wealthy and morally reprehensible expats. He records his encounters in a visceral and graphic manner that echoes Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Nonetheless, there is also a clear poeticism to the prose – a graceful and imaginative quality that is almost incongruous with the carnal themes. Take these two sentences, for example:

‘In the blue of an electric dawn the peanut shells look wan and crumpled; along the beach at Montparnasse the water lilies bend and break. When the tide is on the ebb and only a few syphilitic mermaids are left stranded in the muck, the Dôme looks like a shooting gallery that’s been struck by a cyclone’. 

A notable structural feature is the abrupt – and often confusing – diatribes that crop up during the text. These enraged, philosophical passages on the human condition break out suddenly during episodes, emphasising the need to find freedom from overbearing power structures. 

Rather than focus on humankind’s goodness, Miller takes base desires and instincts as his loci. In a self-reflexive passage that foreshadows the novel’s publishing difficulties, he writes: ‘If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what really is his experience, what truly is his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens’. Throughout the narrative he depicts his friends and acquaintances in a stark light, exposing their faults and selfish inclinations; Fillmore, for example, leaves his pregnant (and physically abusive) wife Ginette in Paris and escapes to America; Van Norden demonstrates a rampant, destructive sexuality. Rather than impose narratorial judgment, Miller merely paints them for what they are and recedes. There is no moralising or sermonising, but instead an admission that human nature contains an inherently dark streak, an ignobility that George Orwell recognised when he wrote of Miller: ‘“He knows all about me” you feel’. 

The novel is also controversial in that it espouses a patriarchal world-view, one in which women are sexually objectified and frequently referred to as ‘cunts’. Even the female characters afforded greater character development fit a range of derogatory stereotypes: seductress (Tania), abusive wife (Ginette), femme fatale (Yvette). Anti-semitism is similarly rife in the text; Jews are repeatedly insulted and singled out for their unethical behaviour. The representation of the hostile Rabbi, who turns away Miller and his associate when they are destitute, encapsulates this xenophobic spirit. Consequently, a key tension when reading the novel is how to reconcile Miller’s brave attack on social – particularly sexual – mores with his more regressive and troubling views. 


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I have been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was, then, curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In the text he expands on what he calls the ‘Dusseldorf-Detroit axis’, explaining how the industrial noise of Detroit Techno represented a mutation of the post-war, German electronic sound – best exemplified by Kraftwerk. 

Following a loosely chronological order, Schütte structures the study by considering each of the band’s eight major albums in turn, notwithstanding an introductory chapter on Kraftwerk’s influences and the socio-artistic-historical context that informed their output, and a final chapter considering their legacy (it is at this point that attention turns to the pioneers of Detroit Techno). The story begins in the late 60’s with founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider meeting at a summer music school outside of Dusseldorf, and ends with Kraftwerk’s formidable live shows of the 21st century. In the foreword, Schütte states his intention to look at the group ‘as a cultural phenomenon, as an art project translated into a multimedia combination of sound and image’. It follows that the emphasis is on the band’s representation, guiding concepts and musical oeuvre, not the atypical behind-the-scene stories of revelry and drinking. The unqualified reader (me) learns that Kraftwerk carefully curated a private, self-mythologising image that rejected media attention, or, indeed, any form of penetration into the band’s inner-circle. Schütte stresses (repeatedly) Hütter’s and Schneider’s fascination with cycling, but this is about as close as we get to their private lives.

Karl Whitney’s review in the Guardian, in which he writes that the first half of the book is by far the strongest, is spot on. Schütte’s prose is most absorbing and thought-provoking when discussing the artistic movements that influenced the band and how a particular historical context informed their sound. Kraftwerk, he explains, were intrigued by the potentially revolutionary vision of 1920’s avant-garde modernism (futurism, the Bauhaus school, German expressionism) – a (wasted) potential that was curtailed by the rise of fascism. The group looked back to this period as a fertile epoch brimming with ideas to illuminate a brighter future. This ‘retro-futurism’ was a guiding concept throughout the decades. Part of a post-war German generation facing a crisis of identity, Hütter and Schneider sought to create a new image, one that rejected Nazism, West German conservatism and isolationism. Their music was to be both trans-international and yet paradoxically regional, symbolic of Europeanism as well as pride in their roots. Schütte also cites Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys as key contemporary influences on Kraftwerk, and is engaging and convincing in his analysis. 

A number of key German phrases that crop up throughout the offer further insight into Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Industrielle Volksmusik refers to the band’s style of music: a technological sound stemming from the heart of German industrialism, with a clear nod to the nation’s romantic traditions and folk roots. It is decidedly anti-Anglo-American and popular in its reach. Allagmusik, or ‘everyday music’, captures Kraftwerk’s engagement with the everyday noises of the modern, mechanised world; a great example of this is the song ‘Tour de France’, which features noises made by a rotating bicycle chain. Gesamkuntswerk refers to the notion of ‘a total work of art’ and is associated with Richard Wagner’s attempts to marry music and drama in opera. For Kraftwerk, music is only part of the sum that is their unified artistic project: 3D visuals, album artwork, choreography and a painstakingly constructed group image are other components. In this way, Kraftwerk itself became the concept, or, Gesamkuntswerk. As such, Schütte perceives their main achievement to be: ‘artistic influence extend[ing] beyond the realm of music’.

Schütte comes across as a devoted Kraftwerk fan and writes vividly when considering the structure and emotional resonance of various songs in the band’s oeuvre. Although his use of jargon, at times, can seem quite overwhelming for a musical novice, he has a knack of describing each song in an original and exciting manner, capturing the variations in tone and message throughout Kraftwerk’s body of work. Reading Schütte’s analysis of ‘Tour de France’ I was prompted to place the book down and play the song – his words certainly did it justice. 

This is a great study of Kraftwerk, brimming with genuine insight and moments of laughter. Schütte tackles some potentially difficult concepts in a lucid manner and brings the group’s notoriously shielded identity to light. 

“What the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music”

Neil Straus

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography’


Sourcing my ‘fix’ of sport has been a largely unrewarding and mutating process during lockdown. From re-watching English domestic cricket finals, to playing badminton in the garden and mulling over downloading Football Manager, I’ve sought a number of outlets. Last week I was pleased to stumble across Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, hidden away at the back of my shelves. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, but the book promised, at the very least, a temporary respite during these sport-barren times. 

A highlight was the focus on the signings Sir Alex made during his tenure as Manchester United manager. A range of vague names from the past crop up: Kleberson, Male Biram Diouf and Alexander Büttner to name but a few. Sir Alex explains his reasons for signing each player, citing their strengths and weaknesses, and commenting on how they could improve his current squad. He emphasises the importance of both rebuilding and forward planning in maintaining a team that could continually challenge for the Premier League title; we are told, for example, that centre backs Jonny Evans and Phil Jones were viewed well in advance as the natural successors to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. 

Some of the most intimate details are also linked to transfers. United’s troubled dealings with Daniel Levy and Tottenham when signing Micheal Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov defer them from pursuing Luka Modric at a later date: a real shame for a Manchester United fan. Whole chapters are dedicated to Sir Alex’s relationship with high-profile players during his reign: Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand. Beckham is painted as a precociously talented and dedicated academy prospect who, influenced by fame and other external factors, fails to live up to expectation and become a club great. Much like Beckham, Van Nistelrooy becomes a destabilising force in the dressing room and is expelled for challenging Sir Alex’s authority. The recurring message is: no player is bigger than the club. 

‘The only aspect he was ever interested in was: how many goals did Ruud van Nistelrooy score”

Intimate details are however at a premium. Reading the autobiography, I had the sense that Sir Alex was barely scratching the surface. Much of the information and events alluded to are already in the public domain. The structure also compromised the flow of the narrative. Within each chapter, Sir Alex would repeatedly go off topic for a few pages, and then sharply return to his original point or story. In fairness, blame surely falls to the editor here. This is an easy read and the content is digestible, but it’s not so much an exposé as a recap, and rarely reaches a level of complexity or insight that makes it a worthwhile venture. 

Yesterday I ordered two new books: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (another on the bucket list) and Uwe Schutte’s Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. The reviews I’ve read indicate that Schutte analyses Kraftwerk as a phenomenon permeating and influencing various forms of cultural representation (music, graphic design, cinematography), and so I’m particularly excited to get stuck in.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’

‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends. 

I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories. 

Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both. 

Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships. 

The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head.