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Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934; read in 2020)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This book feels like an autobiographical novel about Miller’s long stay in Paris as a relatively poor, struggling writer. It chains together notes and snippets and observations about life and people he knew to form a vague sort of history of a man with very few cares, a man accustomed to poverty, a man with a rich inner life, a man who’s left behind a wife and family. Occasional and intense longing for this family is generously tempered with indifference and laxity.

He lives in Paris, thinking nearly exclusively of where he’s going to get his next meal, but also where his next prostitute will come from. The second being almost more important because he often goes without a meal longer than without a fuck.

This nearly incessant rutting is, honestly, incongruous with the supposedly erudite author. How he’s able to get anything done while simultaneously post-coitally stunned and starving is impressive. He is, at times, quite eloquent in expressing his deep regard for women, even if it is from a nearly purely sexual angle.

“The earth is not an arid plateau of health and comfort, but a great sprawling female with velvet torso that swells and heaves with ocean billows; she squirms beneath a diadem of sweat and anguish. Naked and sexed she rolls among the clouds in the violet light of the stars. All of her, from her generous breasts to her gleaming thighs, blazes with furious ardor.”

He can almost always transform a minor windfall or payment into a roof over his head for a month or two. This is more than sufficient security for him and doesn’t worry him enough to make him change the aforementioned priorities.

At one point, he comes up with a plan to take advantage of the good graces and manners of some of his more well-to-do friends—his erudition having gotten him into social circles that his very meager means never could.

“And then it occurred to me, like a flash, that no one would refuse a man a meal if only he had the courage to demand it. I went immediately to a café and wrote a dozen letters.

““Would you let me have dinner with you once a week? Tell me what day is most convenient for you.”

“It worked like a charm. I was not only fed… I was feasted. Every night I went home drunk. […]”

The book ends largely as it began, with Miller in Paris, debauched and writing and drinking and fucking and peregrinating by day from one café and bar to another and by night from one rented room or mooched living situation to another.

The remainder of this review will be largely annotated citations, which hopefully give a better impression of the book’s philosophical passages.

At times, he writes like Burroughs in Naked Lunch, of what are obviously hallucinatory trips through Paris.

“I lean out the window and the Eiffel Tower is fizzing champagne; it is built entirely of numbers and shrouded in black lace. The sewers are gurgling furiously. There are nothing but roofs everywhere, laid out with execrable geometric cunning.”

At other times, his metaphors are more down-to-Earth, but no less enchanting, as when describes a woman lying on her deathbed.

“Two waxen hands lying listlessly on the bedspread and along the pale veins the fluted murmur of a shell repeating the legend of its birth.”

There are some long passages of this kind of mental peregrination, with some philosophical musing that doesn’t move what little there is of a plot forward in any way. It’s nicely written, though, and segues into the segments where he directly and autobiographically addresses what it’s like to be a writer, especially one who’s achieved a modicum of success and who has acquired a fan base that expects more.

“Great God! what have I turned into? What right have you people to clutter up my life, steal my time, probe my soul, suckle my thoughts, have me for your companion, confidant, and information bureau? What do you take me for? Am I an entertainer on salary, required every evening to play an intellectual farce under your stupid noses? Am I a slave, bought and paid for, to crawl on my belly in front of you idlers and lay at your feet all that I do and all that I know? Am I a wench in a brothel who is called upon to lift her skirts or take off her chemise at the bidding of the first man in a tailored suit who comes along?”

The process of writing—and of finding something to write, of expressing the tumult of disorganized brilliance jostling in the author’s head—is given much thought as well. The following passage viscerally describes a writer’s block engendered by the inability to get started because of a fear of mimicry, made only worse by the author reading more and more voraciously in an effort to prove that their own ideas are original. This education informs the author’s own ideas, making them hesitant to write down what are now suspected be unoriginal thoughts.

“[…] And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another in order to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property. And the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes. None of them are satisfying; none of them arrive at that degree of perfection which he has imposed on himself. And forgetting completely that he has not written as much as a chapter he talks about them condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.”

He is convinced, though, that being an author—or any sort of creative person—is superior, somehow, to the common runner of the rat race, if only because these creations impart fleeting moments of glory and joy not only to those best able to appreciate them—the creatives—but also to those benighted rat-race runners. A little light is better than nothing.

“[…] now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality.”

He is an expatriate who feels infinitely more at home in his adopted city than in the city of his birth. He contrasts “[a]nd God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.” with “New York! […] A whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless.” At the same time, he knows that the Parisians, who allow him to live among them, view him—and his fellow ex-pats, whom he naturally views as less-well-integrated—as madmen, unable to understand reality in anything approaching a mature fashion.

“No wonder they think we’re all crazy. We are crazy to them. We’re just a pack of children. Senile idiots. What we call life is a five-and-ten-cent store romance. That enthusiasm underneath—what is it? That cheap optimism which turns the stomach of any ordinary European? It’s illusion. No, illusion’s too good a word for it. Illusion means something. No, it’s not that—it’s delusion. It’s sheer delusion, that’s what.”

It’s not just Miller who lives this life; among the many descriptions of friends and acquaintances, there is this succinct one of Kepi, whose description hits a bit too close to home for the author, I suspect.

“Kepi is interesting, in a way, because he has absolutely no ambition except to get a fuck every night. Every penny he makes, and they are damned few, he squanders in the dance halls. He has a wife and eight children in Bombay, but that does not prevent him from proposing marriage to any little femme de chambre who is stupid and credulous enough to be taken in by him.”

At one point, he gets a steady job as a copy-editor. He writes of the passing of a co-worker, a man named Peckover, who’d never been worth “a good goddamn” as either a friend or a journalist but who, after dying a ludicrous death in an elevator shaft he’d somehow not noticed was wide open, is covered in encomiums by most of his other, former, and more hypocritical coworkers.

Here, Miller writes of the fool who’d written the man’s obituary.

“Joe and I, who knew Peckover well and who knew also that he wasn’t worth a good goddamn, even a few tears, we felt annoyed with this drunken sentimentality. We wanted to tell him so too, but with a guy like that you can’t afford to be honest; you have to buy a wreath and go to the funeral and pretend that you’re miserable. And you have to congratulate him too for the delicate obituary he’s written. He’ll be carrying his delicate little obituary around with him for months, praising the shit out of himself for the way he handled the situation.”

Miller and his friend and co-worker Joe, on the other hand, are in no way tethered by social mores.

“There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous. And the more horrible the death the more ridiculous they seem. It’s no use trying to invest the end with a little dignity—you have to be a liar and a hypocrite to discover anything tragic in their going. And since we didn’t have to put on a false front we could laugh about the incident to our heart’s content. We laughed all night about it, and in between times we vented our scorn and disgust for the guys upstairs, the fatheads who were trying to persuade themselves, no doubt, that Peckover was a fine fellow and that his death was a catastrophe.”

It is, at heart, an existentialist novel, with many formulations and much pondering about what life really means—and coming to the conclusion that meaning is fleeting and not worth pursuing.

For example, there is this lovely passage describing the actual coupling after he’s hunted and “captured” a prostitute with FF15. He acknowledges that only the pursuit offered him anything—and that the prostitute similarly seemed less-than-interested in the whole affair. It’s all meaningless, but pursued by both parties nonetheless.

“We haven’t any passion either of us. And as for her, one might as well expect her to produce a diamond necklace as to show a spark of passion. But there’s the fifteen francs and something has to be done about it. It’s like a state of war: the moment the condition is precipitated nobody thinks about anything but peace, about getting it over with. And yet nobody has the courage to lay down his arms, to say, “I’m fed up with it… I’m through.””

This meaninglessness goes largely unacknowledged, with man seeking to imbue meaning (much as his co-workers used the occasion of Peckover’s death) to a life otherwise lived from day to day, with no overarching purpose. If Peckover’s life was worthless, then what of one’s own? Best to sing Peckover’s praises in order to convince oneself of one’s own worth.

Miller seems to argue that this is the root of man’s evil—an inability to just be at peace with inconsequence.

“For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured—disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui—in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable.”
“It’s like a man in the trenches again: he doesn’t know any more why he should go on living, because if he escapes now he’ll only be caught later, but he goes on just the same, and even though he has the soul of a cockroach and has admitted as much to himself, give him a gun or a knife or even just his bare nails, and he’ll go on slaughtering and slaughtering, he’d slaughter a million men rather than stop and ask himself why.

In the next passage, Miller offers an empathetic view of an otherwise societally excoriated profession i.e. “Pimpin’ ain’t easy”.

“You don’t think that a pimp is inhuman, I hope? A pimp has his private grief and misery too, don’t you forget. Perhaps he would like nothing better than to stand on the corner every night with a pair of white dogs and watch them piddle. Perhaps he would like it if, when he opened the door, he would see her there reading the Paris-Soir, her eyes already a little heavy with sleep. Perhaps it isn’t so wonderful, when he bends over his Lucienne, to taste another man’s breath. Better maybe to have only three francs in your pocket and a pair of white dogs that piddle on the corner than to taste those bruised lips.”

There are several passages that lament what industrial society has done to man, even back in 1934, when it had gotten a good start but hadn’t even begun to dream of the ravages it would achieve by the end of the century. In particular, it is cities that are the “machine [squeezing the] last drop of juice” from people.

“I am speaking naturally of that world which is peculiar to the big cities, the world of men and women whose last drop of juice has been squeezed out by the machine—the martyrs of modern progress.”

In a roundabout way, he explains his indolent lifestyle as a desire to avoid the zero-sum rat race—the “harness”. Industry eradicates everything in its path with its endless cry to move “Forward!” without thinking at all of why. As acknowledged elsewhere, there is no “why”, but then what’s the point of this enslavement of man to this industrial goal?

“All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico. The same story everywhere. If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward!”

Without acknowledging that his debauched life in Paris depends on a several strata of just such workers providing the fruits of a society that can sustain his mooching, Miller has mostly disdain for those who have chosen—or been forced—to take up the harness instead of throwing it off, like he has. Recall that he has abandoned a family in another country.

“There was nothing to distinguish them from the clods whom they would later wipe their boots on. They were zeros in every sense of the word, ciphers who form the nucleus of a respectable and lamentable citizenry.”

This book is most definitely the kind that depends very much on what you bring to it. Therefore, it will feel different depending on when in your life you read it. Everything is subjective and very little is as meaningful as it appears.

“[…] it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair.”

Citations

“This book brings with it a wind that blows down the dead and hollow trees whose roots are withered and lost in the barren soil of our times. This book goes to the roots and digs under, digs for subterranean springs.”
Position 395-398 by Anaïs Nin in 1934
“This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse. …”
Position 407-410
“The chicleros came over on the ridge of a sunken continent. They brought with them an algebraic language. In the Arizona desert they met the Mongols of the North, glazed like eggplants. Time shortly after the earth had taken its gyroscopic lean—when the Gulf Stream was parting ways with the Japanese current. In the heart of the soil they found tufa rock. They embroidered the very bowels of the earth with their language. They ate one another’s entrails and the forest closed in on them, on their bones and skulls, on their lace tufa. Their language was lost. Here and there one still finds the remnants of a menagerie, a brain plate covered with figures.”
Position 516-520
“We stand on five minutes and devour centuries. You are the sieve through which my anarchy strains, resolves itself into words. Behind the word is chaos. Each word a stripe, a bar, but there are not and never will be enough bars to make the mesh.”
Position 523-525
“I hear not a word because she is beautiful and I love her and now I am happy and willing to die.”
Position 634-635
“A new day is beginning. I felt it this morning as we stood before one of Dufresne’s glistening canvases, a sort of déjeuner intime in the thirteenth century, sans vin. A fine, fleshy nude, solid, vibrant, pink as a fingernail, with glistening billows of flesh; all the secondary characteristics, and a few of the primary. A body that sings, that has the moisture of dawn. A still life, only nothing is still, nothing dead here. The table creaks with food; it is so heavy it is sliding out of the frame.”
Position 667-670
“Ah, the Germans! They take you all over like an omnibus. They give you indigestion. In the same night one cannot visit the morgue, the infirmary, the zoo, the signs of the zodiac, the limbos of philosophy, the caves of epistemology, the arcana of Freud and Stekel. … On the merry-go-round one doesn’t get anywhere, whereas with the Germans one can go from Vega to Lope de Vega, all in one night, and come away as foolish as Parsifal.”
Position 712-715
“Suddenly it seems as if the dawn were coming: it is like water purling over ice and the ice is blue with a rising mist, glaciers sunk in emerald green, chamois and antelope, golden groupers, sea cows mooching along and the amber jack leaping over the Arctic rim.”
Position 707-709
“Sunday! Left the Villa Borghese a little before noon, just as Boris was getting ready to sit down to lunch. I left out of a sense of delicacy, because it really pains Boris to see me sitting there in the studio with an empty belly. Why he doesn’t invite me to lunch with him I don’t know. He says he can’t afford it, but that’s no excuse. Anyway, I’m delicate about it. If it pains him to eat alone in my presence it would probably pain him more to share his meal with me. It’s not my place to pry into his secret affairs.”
Position 860-863
“In the middle of the court is a clump of decrepit buildings which have so rotted away that they have collapsed on one another and formed a sort of intestinal embrace. The ground is uneven, the flagging slippery with slime. A sort of human dump heap which has been filled in with cinders and dry garbage. The sun is setting fast. The colors die. They shift from purple to dried blood, from nacre to bister, from cool dead grays to pigeon shit. Here and there a lopsided monster stands in the window blinking like an owl. There is the shrill squawk of children with pale faces and bony limbs, rickety little urchins marked with the forceps. A fetid odor seeps from the walls, the odor of a mildewed mattress. Europe—medieval, grotesque, monstrous: a symphony in B-mol. Directly across the street the Ciné Combat offers its distinguished clientele Metropolis.”
Position 906-912
“For her were meant those terrible words of Louis-Philippe, “and a night comes when all is over, when so many jaws have closed upon us that we no longer have the strength to stand, and our meat hangs upon our bodies, as though it had been masticated by every mouth.””
Position 965-967

“And then it occurred to me, like a flash, that no one would refuse a man a meal if only he had the courage to demand it. I went immediately to a café and wrote a dozen letters.

““Would you let me have dinner with you once a week? Tell me what day is most convenient for you.”

“It worked like a charm. I was not only fed… I was feasted. Every night I went home drunk. They couldn’t do enough for me, these generous once-a-week souls. What happened to me between times was none of their affair. Now and then the thoughtful ones presented me with cigarettes, or a little pin money.

“They were all obviously relieved when they realized that they would see me only once a week. And they were still more relieved when I said—“it won’t be necessary any more.” They never asked why. They congratulated me, and that was all. Often the reason was I had found a better host; I could afford to scratch off the ones who were a pain in the ass. But that thought never occurred to them.”

Position 1084-1091
“A woman is sitting on a dais above an immense carven desk; she has a snake around her neck. The entire room is lined with books and strange fish swimming in colored globes; there are maps and charts on the wall, maps of Paris before the plague, maps of the antique world, of Knossos and Carthage, of Carthage before and after the salting. In the corner of the room I see an iron bedstead and on it a corpse is lying; the woman gets up wearily, removes the corpse from the bed and absent-mindedly throws it out the window. She returns to the huge carven desk, takes a goldfish from the bowl and swallows it. Slowly the room begins to revolve and one by one the continents slide into the sea; only the woman is left, but her body is a mass of geography. I lean out the window and the Eiffel Tower is fizzing champagne; it is built entirely of numbers and shrouded in black lace. The sewers are gurgling furiously. There are nothing but roofs everywhere, laid out with execrable geometric cunning.”
Position 1193-1200
“Great God! what have I turned into? What right have you people to clutter up my life, steal my time, probe my soul, suckle my thoughts, have me for your companion, confidant, and information bureau? What do you take me for? Am I an entertainer on salary, required every evening to play an intellectual farce under your stupid noses? Am I a slave, bought and paid for, to crawl on my belly in front of you idlers and lay at your feet all that I do and all that I know? Am I a wench in a brothel who is called upon to lift her skirts or take off her chemise at the bidding of the first man in a tailored suit who comes along?”
Position 1222-1226
“The Rue Amélie is one of my favorite streets. It is one of those streets which by good fortune the municipality has forgotten to pave. Huge cobblestones spreading convexly from one side of the street to the other. Only one block long and narrow.”
Position 1239-1241
“And God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.”
Position 1252-1253
“A wagon from the Galeries Lafayette was rumbling over the bridge. The rain had stopped and the sun breaking through the soapy clouds touched the glistening rubble of roofs with a cold fire. I recall now how the driver leaned out and looked up the river toward Passy way. Such a healthy, simple, approving glance, as if he were saying to himself: “Ah, spring is coming!” And God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise. But it was not only this—it was the intimacy with which his eye rested upon the scene. It was his Paris. A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen, to feel this way about Paris. Paris is filled with poor people—the proudest and filthiest lot of beggars that ever walked the earth, it seems to me. And yet they give the illusion of being at home. It is that which distinguishes the Parisian from all other metropolitan souls.”
Position 1250-1256
“New York! The white prisons, the sidewalks swarming with maggots, the breadlines, the opium joints that are built like palaces, the kikes that are there, the lepers, the thugs, and above all, the ennui, the monotony of faces, streets, legs, houses, skyscrapers, meals, posters, jobs, crimes, loves. … A whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless.”
Position 1261-1263
“As luck would have it I find a ticket in the lavabo for a concert. Light as a feather now I go there to the Salle Gaveau. The usher looks ravaged because I overlook giving him his little tip. Every time he passes me he looks at me inquiringly, as if perhaps I will suddenly remember.”
Position 1331-1333
“Near the door, huddled in a big cape, stands a Spaniard with a sombrero in his hand. He looks as if he were posing for the “Balzac” of Rodin. From the neck up he suggests Buffalo Bill.”
Position 1374-1375

That’s the phallic one.

“[…] you pray like that every day, he says, nothing will happen to you. The good lord what’s his name never forgets an obedient servant. And then he shows me the crooked arm which he got in a taxi accident on a day doubtless when he had neglected to rehearse the complete song and dance.”
Position 1433-1435
“Kepi is interesting, in a way, because he has absolutely no ambition except to get a fuck every night. Every penny he makes, and they are damned few, he squanders in the dance halls. He has a wife and eight children in Bombay, but that does not prevent him from proposing marriage to any little femme de chambre who is stupid and credulous enough to be taken in by him.”
Position 1484-1486
“There is something so fantastic, so incongruous about this gallery that one is reminded inevitably of the great spawn of temples which stretch from the Himalayas to the tip of Ceylon, a vast jumble of architecture, staggering in beauty and at the same time monstrous, hideously monstrous because the fecundity which seethes and ferments in the myriad ramifications of design seems to have exhausted the very soil of India itself.”
Position 1517-1520
“India’s enemy is not England, but America. India’s enemy is the time spirit, the hand which cannot be turned back. Nothing will avail to offset this virus which is poisoning the whole world. America is the very incarnation of doom. She will drag the whole world down to the bottomless pit.”
Position 1594-1596
“There is a sort of subdued pandemonium in the air, a note of repressed violence, as if the awaited explosion required the advent of some utterly minute detail, something microscopic but thoroughly unpremeditated, completely unexpected.”
Position 1609-1611
“For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured—disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui—in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable.”
Position 1627-1630
“Heretofore I have been trying to save my precious hide, trying to preserve the few pieces of meat that hid my bones. I am done with that. I have reached the limits of endurance. My back is to the wall; I can retreat no further. As far as history goes I am dead. If there is something beyond I shall have to bounce back. I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world which I have departed is a menagerie.”
Position 1654-1658
“They look so absolutely peaceful and contented, as if they had been dozing there for years, that suddenly it seems to me as if we had been standing in this room, in exactly this position, for an incalculably long time, that it was a pose we had struck in a dream from which we never emerged, a dream which the least gesture, the wink of an eye even, will shatter.”
Position 2026-2029
“In a sense Van Norden is mad, of that I’m convinced. His one fear is to be left alone, and this fear is so deep and so persistent that even when he is on top of a woman, even when he has welded himself to her, he cannot escape the prison which he has created for himself.”
Position 2080-2082
“The book must be absolutely original, absolutely perfect. That is why, among other things, it is impossible for him to get started on it. As soon as he gets an idea he begins to question it. He remembers that Dostoevski used it, or Hamsun, or somebody else. “I’m not saying that I want to be better than them, but I want to be different,” he explains. And so, instead of tackling his book, he reads one author after another in order to make absolutely certain that he is not going to tread on their private property. And the more he reads the more disdainful he becomes. None of them are satisfying; none of them arrive at that degree of perfection which he has imposed on himself. And forgetting completely that he has not written as much as a chapter he talks about them condescendingly, quite as though there existed a shelf of books bearing his name, books which everyone is familiar with and the titles of which it is therefore superfluous to mention.”
Position 2114-2120
“I have adjusted myself so well to his monologues that without interrupting my own reveries I make whatever comment is required automatically, the moment I hear his voice die out. It is a duet, and like most duets moreover in that one listens attentively only for the signal which announces the advent of one’s own voice.”
Position 2157-2159
“But now, since he had felt the touch of death, he wanted to display his comradeship. He wanted to weep, if possible, to show that he was a regular guy. And Joe and I, who knew Peckover well and who knew also that he wasn’t worth a good goddamn, even a few tears, we felt annoyed with this drunken sentimentality. We wanted to tell him so too, but with a guy like that you can’t afford to be honest; you have to buy a wreath and go to the funeral and pretend that you’re miserable. And you have to congratulate him too for the delicate obituary he’s written. He’ll be carrying his delicate little obituary around with him for months, praising the shit out of himself for the way he handled the situation. We felt all that, Joe and I, without saying a word to each other. We just stood there and listened with a murderous, silent contempt. And as soon as we could break away we did so; we left him there at the bar blubbering to himself over his Pernod.”
Position 2180-2187

This is a work of art. I’m glad I stuck around for this. As luck would have it, a good friend of mine was reading this book at nearly exactly the same time and expressed frustration with the first ninety or so page, announcing that he planned to give up on it. I sent him the quote above and he soldiered on and was happy for it.

“There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous. And the more horrible the death the more ridiculous they seem. It’s no use trying to invest the end with a little dignity—you have to be a liar and a hypocrite to discover anything tragic in their going. And since we didn’t have to put on a false front we could laugh about the incident to our heart’s content. We laughed all night about it, and in between times we vented our scorn and disgust for the guys upstairs, the fatheads who were trying to persuade themselves, no doubt, that Peckover was a fine fellow and that his death was a catastrophe.”
Position 2188-2193
“We haven’t any passion either of us. And as for her, one might as well expect her to produce a diamond necklace as to show a spark of passion. But there’s the fifteen francs and something has to be done about it. It’s like a state of war: the moment the condition is precipitated nobody thinks about anything but peace, about getting it over with. And yet nobody has the courage to lay down his arms, to say, “I’m fed up with it… I’m through.””
Position 2245-2249
“It’s like a man in the trenches again: he doesn’t know any more why he should go on living, because if he escapes now he’ll only be caught later, but he goes on just the same, and even though he has the soul of a cockroach and has admitted as much to himself, give him a gun or a knife or even just his bare nails, and he’ll go on slaughtering and slaughtering, he’d slaughter a million men rather than stop and ask himself why.”
Position 2265-2268
“This life which, if I were still a man with pride, honor, ambition and so forth, would seem like the bottom rung of degradation, I welcome now, as an invalid welcomes death. It’s a negative reality, just like death—a sort of heaven without the pain and terror of dying. In this chthonian world the only thing of importance is orthography and punctuation. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the calamity is, only whether it is spelled right.”
Position 2327-2330
“How could I have foreseen, in America, with all those firecrackers they put up your ass to give you pep and courage, that the ideal position for a man of my temperament was to look for orthographic mistakes? Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day.”
Position 2354-2355

“[…] I get to thinking about another way of life, get to wondering if it would make a difference having a young, restless creature by my side. The trouble is I can hardly remember what she looks like, nor even how it feels to have my arms around her. Everything that belongs to the past seems to have fallen into the sea; I have memories, but the images have lost their vividness, they seem dead and desultory, like time-bitten mummies stuck in a quagmire.

“If I try to recall my life in New York I get a few splintered fragments, nightmarish and covered with verdigris. It seems as if my own proper existence had come to an end somewhere, just where exactly I can’t make out. I’m not an American any more, nor a New Yorker, and even less a European, or a Parisian. I haven’t any allegiance, any responsibilities, any hatreds, any worries, any prejudices, any passion. I’m neither for nor against. I’m a neutral.”

Position 2387-2394
“[…] we get to talking about the condition of things with that enthusiasm which only those who bear no active part in life can muster. What seems strange to me sometimes, when I crawl into bed, is that all this enthusiasm is engendered just to kill time, just to annihilate the three-quarters of an hour which it requires to walk from the office to Montparnasse. We might have the most brilliant, the most feasible ideas for the amelioration of this or that, but there is no vehicle to hitch them to.”
Position 2394-2397

“To walk from the Rue Lafayette to the boulevard is like running the gauntlet; they attach themselves to you like barnacles, they eat into you like ants, they coax, wheedle, cajole, implore, beseech, they try it out in German, English, Spanish, they show you their torn hearts and their busted shoes, and long after you’ve chopped the tentacles away, long after the fizz and sizzle has died out, the fragrance of the lavabo clings to your nostrils—it is the odor of the Parfum de Danse whose effectiveness is guaranteed only for a distance of twenty centimeters.

“One could piss away a whole lifetime in that little stretch between the boulevard and the Rue Lafayette. Every bar is alive, throbbing, the dice loaded; the cashiers are perched like vultures on their high stools and the money they handle has a human stink to it. There is no equivalent in the Banque de France for the blood money that passes currency here, the money that glistens with human sweat, that passes like a forest fire from hand to hand and leaves behind it a smoke and stench.”

Position 2461-2469
“You don’t think that a pimp is inhuman, I hope? A pimp has his private grief and misery too, don’t you forget. Perhaps he would like nothing better than to stand on the corner every night with a pair of white dogs and watch them piddle. Perhaps he would like it if, when he opened the door, he would see her there reading the Paris-Soir, her eyes already a little heavy with sleep. Perhaps it isn’t so wonderful, when he bends over his Lucienne, to taste another man’s breath. Better maybe to have only three francs in your pocket and a pair of white dogs that piddle on the corner than to taste those bruised lips.”
Position 2472-2477
“I am speaking naturally of that world which is peculiar to the big cities, the world of men and women whose last drop of juice has been squeezed out by the machine—the martyrs of modern progress.”
Position 2515-2516
“I caught for the first time the profound meaning of those interior stills which manifest their presence through the exorcism of sight and touch. Standing on the threshold of that world which Matisse has created I re-experienced the power of that revelation which had permitted Proust to so deform the picture of life that only those who, like himself, are sensible to the alchemy of sound and sense, are capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art.”
Position 2522-2525
“Vividly now I recall how the glint and sparkle of light caroming from the massive chandeliers splintered and ran blood, flecking the tips of the waves that beat monotonously on the dull gold outside the windows.”
Position 2526-2527
“With the close of day, pain rising like a mist from the earth, sorrow closing in, shuttering the endless vista of sea and sky. Two waxen hands lying listlessly on the bedspread and along the pale veins the fluted murmur of a shell repeating the legend of its birth.”
Position 2529-2531
“By whatever vision one passes there is the odor and the sound of voyage. It is impossible to gaze at even a corner of his dreams without feeling the lift of the wave and the cool of flying spray. He stands at the helm peering with steady blue eyes into the portfolio of time.”
Position 2533-2535
“On its wobbly axle the wheel rolls steadily downhill; there are no brakes, no ball bearings, no balloon tires. The wheel is falling apart, but the revolution is intact.”
Position 2572-2573
“I tried to look earnest, but I only succeeded in looking pathetic. They don’t want to see sad faces in Russia; they want you to be cheerful, enthusiastic, light-hearted, optimistic. It sounded very much like America to me. I wasn’t born with this kind of enthusiasm.”
Position 2626-2628
“[…] because in that world, just as in every world, the greater part of what happens is just muck and filth, sordid as any garbage can, only they are lucky enough to be able to put covers over the can.”
Position 2682-2684
“She wouldn’t remember that at a certain corner I had stopped to pick up her hairpin, or that, when I bent down to tie her laces, I remarked the spot on which her foot had rested and that it would remain there forever, even after the cathedrals had been demolished and the whole Latin civilization wiped out forever and ever.”
Position 2731-2734
“[…] suddenly realized the impossibility of ever revealing to her that Paris which I had gotten to know, the 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”
Position 2737-2741
“it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair.”
Position 2770-2770
“The streets were my refuge. And no man can understand the glamor of the streets until he is obliged to take refuge in them, until he has become a straw that is tossed here and there by every zephyr that blows.”
Position 2778-2779
“it is that which makes certain houses appear like the guardians of secret crimes and their blind windows like the empty sockets of eyes that have seen too much.”
Position 2812-2814
“He liked to dance, he liked good wines, and he liked women. That he liked Byron also, and Victor Hugo, one could forgive; he was only a few years out of college and he had plenty of time ahead of him to be cured of such tastes. What he had that I liked was a sense of adventure.”
Position 2925-2926
“When we entered the whorehouse on the Quai Voltaire, after he had flung himself on the divan and rung for girls and for drinks, he was still paddling up the river with Kurtz, and only when the girls had flopped on the bed beside him and stuffed his mouth with kisses did he cease his divagations.”
Position 3047-3049
“Sex everywhere: it was slopping over, a neap tide that swept the props from under the city.”
Position 3061-3061
“But then she was so drunk that when she tumbled out of the cab she began to weep and before any one could stop her she had begun to peel her clothes off. The driver brought her home that way, half-naked, and when Jimmie saw the condition she was in he was so furious with her that he took his razor strop and he belted the piss out of her, and she liked it, the bitch that she was. “Do it some more!” she begged, down on her knees as she was and clutching him around the legs with her two arms. But Jimmie had enough of it. “You’re a dirty old sow!” he said and with his foot he gave her a shove in the guts that took the wind out of her—and a bit of her sexy nonsense too.”
Position 3095-3100

Ludicrous teenage fan fiction.

“When the sun comes out, any spot in Paris can look beautiful; and if there is a bistro with an awning rolled down, a few tables on the sidewalk and colored drinks in the glasses, then people look altogether human. And they are human—the finest people in the world when the sun shines! So intelligent, so indolent, so carefree! It’s a crime to herd such a people into barracks, to put them through exercises, to grade them into privates and sergeants and colonels and what not.”
Position 3292-3296
“About three in the morning Fillmore staggers in… alone. Lit up like an ocean liner, and making a noise like a blind man with his cracked cane. Tap, tap, tap, down the weary lane. … “Going straight to bed,” he says, as he marches past me. “Tell you all about it tomorrow.” He goes inside to his room and throws back the covers. I hear him groaning—“what a woman! what a woman!” In a second he’s out again, with his hat on and the cracked cane in his hand. “I knew something like that was going to happen. She’s crazy!””
Position 3330-3334
“These are sunny thoughts inspired by a vermouth cassis at the Place de la Trinité. A Saturday afternoon and a “misfire” book in my hands. Everything swimming in a divine mucopus. The drink leaves a bitter herbish taste in my mouth, the lees of our Great Western civilization,”
Position 3575-3577
“[…] now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality.”
Position 3629-3632
“The earth is not an arid plateau of health and comfort, but a great sprawling female with velvet torso that swells and heaves with ocean billows; she squirms beneath a diadem of sweat and anguish. Naked and sexed she rolls among the clouds in the violet light of the stars. All of her, from her generous breasts to her gleaming thighs, blazes with furious ardor.”
Position 3648-3650
“When I reflect that the task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life, then it is that I run with joy to the great and imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears.”
Position 3688-3690
“In the street I had often passed a priest with a little prayer book in his hands laboriously memorizing his lines. Idiot, I would say to myself, and let it go at that. In the street one meets with all forms of dementia and the priest is by no means the most striking. Two thousand years of it has deadened us to the idiocy of it. However, when you are suddenly transported to the very midst of his realm, when you see the little world in which the priest functions like an alarm clock, you are apt to have entirely different sensations.”
Position 3775-3779
“I was taking it in as best I could in the dim light. Fascinating and stupefying at the same time. All over the civilized world, I thought to myself. All over the world. Marvelous. Rain or shine, hail, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, war, famine, pestilence—makes not the slightest difference. Always the same mean temperature, the same mumbo jumbo, the same high-laced shoes and the little angels of the Lord singing soprano and alto. Near the exit a little slot-box—to carry on the heavenly work. So that God’s blessing may rain down upon king and country and battleships and high explosives and tanks and airplanes, so that the worker may have more strength in his arms, strength to slaughter horses and cows and sheep, strength to punch holes in iron girders, strength to sew buttons on other people’s pants, strength to sell carrots and sewing machines and automobiles, strength to exterminate insects and clean stables and unload garbage cans and scrub lavatories, strength to write headlines and chop tickets in the subway. Strength… strength. All that lip chewing and hornswoggling just to furnish a little strength!”
Position 3787-3795
“All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico. The same story everywhere. If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward!”
Position 3848-3851
“Forward! Forward without pity, without compassion, without love, without forgiveness. Ask no quarter and give none! More battleships, more poison gas, more high explosives! More gonococci! More streptococci! More bombing machines! More and more of it—until the whole fucking works is blown to smithereens, and the earth with it!”
Position 3859-3861
“halfassed”
Position 3870-3870

This was incorrectly hyphenated as hal-fassed.

“I felt free and chained at the same time—like one feels just before election, when all the crooks have been nominated and you are beseeched to vote for the right man.”
Position 3893-3894

So has it always been. Nothing really new under the sun, not where it matters. There it’s not allowed to change.

“[…] they belonged to that category of colorless individuals who make up the world of engineers, architects, dentists, pharmacists, teachers, etc. There was nothing to distinguish them from the clods whom they would later wipe their boots on. They were zeros in every sense of the word, ciphers who form the nucleus of a respectable and lamentable citizenry. They ate with their heads down and were always the first to clamor for a second helping. They slept soundly and never complained; they were neither gay nor miserable. The indifferent ones whom Dante consigned to the vestibule of Hell. The upper-crusters.”
Position 3936-3941
“Here was I, supposedly to spread the gospel of Franco-American amity—the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of establishing universal peace.”
Position 3960-3961
“They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask still more ticklish questions. Ask anything!—that was my motto. I’m here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I’m here to create a fever and a ferment.”
Position 3965-3967
“I was always hungry myself, since it was impossible for me to go to breakfast which was handed out at some ungodly hour of the morning, just when the bed was getting toasty.”
Position 3973-3974
“The whole town looked a bit crazy when the blue of evening settled over it. You could walk up and down the main drive any Thursday in the week till doomsday and never meet an expansive soul. Sixty or seventy thousand people—perhaps more—wrapped in woolen underwear and nowhere to go and nothing to do. Turning out mustard by the carload. Female orchestras grinding out The Merry Widow.”
Position 3990-3993
“The silence descends in volcanic chutes. Yonder, in the barren hills, rolling onward toward the great metallurgical regions, the locomotives are pulling their merchant products. Over steel and iron beds they roll, the ground sown with slag and cinders and purple ore. In the baggage car, kelps, fishplate, rolled iron, sleepers, wire rods, plates and sheets, laminated articles, hot rolled hoops, splints and mortar carriages, and Zorès ore. The wheels U-80 millimeters or over. Pass splendid specimens of Anglo-Norman architecture, pass pedestrians and pederasts, open hearth furnaces, basic Bessemer mills, dynamos and transformers, pig iron castings and steel ingots.”
Position 4110-4115
“I went immediately to the hotel at 1 bis, where Carl was staying. He came to the door stark naked. It was his night off and there was a cunt in the bed as usual. “Don’t mind her,” he says, “she’s asleep. If you need a lay you can take her on. She’s not bad.” He pulls the covers back to show me what she looks like. However, I wasn’t thinking about a lay right away.”
Position 4126-4129

Seriously? Can’t tell if kidding. If not kidding, this has not aged well. I’m not triggered, though. (I noted on another passage above that it was “Ludicrous teenage fan fiction”; this falls into the same category).

“I often used to think, when I heard him rave about glorious France, about liberty and all that crap, what it would have sounded like to a French workman, could he have understood Fillmore’s words. No wonder they think we’re all crazy. We are crazy to them. We’re just a pack of children. Senile idiots. What we call life is a five-and-ten-cent store romance. That enthusiasm underneath—what is it? That cheap optimism which turns the stomach of any ordinary European? It’s illusion. No, illusion’s too good a word for it. Illusion means something. No, it’s not that—it’s delusion. It’s sheer delusion, that’s what.”
Position 4388-4393
“It’s a wonderful thing, for half an hour, to have money in your pocket and piss it away like a drunken sailor. You feel as though the world is yours. And the best part of it is, you don’t know what to do with it. You can sit back and let the meter run wild, you can let the wind blow through your hair, you can stop and have a drink, you can give a big tip, and you can swagger off as though it were an everyday occurrence. But you can’t create a revolution. You can’t wash all the dirt out of your belly.”
Position 4517-4520
“Passing a beer garden I saw a group of cyclists sitting at a table. I took a seat nearby and ordered a demi.”
Position 4524-4525