When the novel opens, Miller is living at the Villa Borghese with his friend Boris. It is the fall of his second year in Paris. Miller introduces his book by writing: "This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character.” He calls the novel a “song” and writes: “It is to you, Tania, that I am singing.” (Tania is a Jewish woman who carries on an affair with Miller while living with her playwright beau, Sylvester.)
In quick succession we meet or learn of some of Miller’s friends and companions in Paris: Borowski, the Cronstandts, Moldorf, and Lucille. Most of the gang lives in Montparnasse, where many of the American expatriates in Paris make their home.
Miller declares that the only thing that currently interests him in any vital way is writing. He thinks back to a year ago, when he used to wander the city with a woman named Mona, a friend of Borowski’s. One night, tucked away in the vestibule of a dance hall, while Mona and Borowski were waiting for him on the floor, Miller tried to have sex with a nameless American girl. Unfortunately, with the little amount of “wiggle” room available, he was unable to do so.
We learn that Mona has been away for some time and is returning to Paris. Miller comes to meet her at the Gare St. Lazare. He feels deeply in love with her upon seeing her again, and he sleeps with her that night in a cheap hotel.
Other memories follow. Miller remembers Germaine, a former lover and prostitute. He met her when drifting down a boulevard, some change his wife (who was back in the States) had sent him in his pocket. He got a five-franc room with her, and was immediately struck by her way of moving, her way of touching herself: “There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rosebush under my nose which remains unforgettable…”
Miller describes walking down the Champs-Elysees with “ideas pouring from [him] like sweat.” He is in good spirits these days, while his friend and fellow expatriate and writer Carl can’t stop complaining. “I hate Paris!” Carl whines.
When Miller has his last dinner at Sylvester’s home, he finds Tania withering under the strain of her relationship with the playwright. Sylvester talks constantly, even when he’s undressing; he seems to want to put a fence around Tania. Tania wants comfort from Miller, but he doesn’t offer much. We learn that Tania and Sylvester are departing for Russia.
Out of the Villa Borghese, Miller meets a Russian man named Serge, who lives in an artists’ colony in Suresnes. Serge puts Miller up in exchange for English lessons. Before long, however, Miller can no longer stand the bug-infested mattress, and he leaves.
Back in Paris, Miller worms some money out of an acquaintance named Peckover, then slips away into the night. Next, he meets up with an old acquaintance – a wealthy Hindu pearl merchant named Nanantatee, who puts Miller up, hands him a pair of blankets, and enlists him to help with the daily household chores. Here again, Miller soon chafes at the constraints of his newfound abode, and yearns to make an escape.
Nanantatee’s friend Kepi provides just such an opportunity. Kepi’s job is to take visitors from India out on the town, shoo them to a brothel, and show them a good time. One night, he asks Miller to take one of his clients out. Miller obliges, and spends much of that night in a brothel with the young Indian visitor – who, mistaking a bidet for a toilet, defecates in one.
From now on, Miller decides to “make not the least resistance to fate” - to go with the tide and live fully in the present, unshackled to the past. He visits his friend Van Norden, a fellow expatriate and, like Carl, a chronic complainer. Van Norden takes Miller to a bar where he proceeds to point out and describe all the prostitutes with whom he has slept.
One day, a rich woman named Irene (whom Carl and Miller have never met in person but have been writing letters to for some time) calls on Carl. He’s frightened, as is his wont. It’s one thing to correspond with the lady by mail, and another thing entirely to meet her and make love to her. He goes to see her, spends the night, and then returns and tells Miller what happened. As it turns out, Irene wants to leave her husband and run away with Carl “to Borneo.” Unfortunately, she is in her forties and too old for his taste. He is terrified of having to continually make love to her on demand.
Shortly thereafter, Miller and Van Norden find themselves at the Coupole. They stumble into a drunk who works at the same newspaper as Van Norden, and learn from him that Peckover – another newspaper employee – fell down an elevator shaft just recently and is not likely to survive.
It so happens that Miller lands Peckover’s job as proofreader at the newspaper. The work is meaningless, tedious, but Miller seems to derive great satisfaction from it – precisely for its meaninglessness, its narrowness of focus. The world becomes syntax to him, a series of commas and semicolons. He is complacent and content; it is as though the past has “fallen into the sea.”
Then he receives a semi-coherent letter from Boris, railing against him. Tania returns from Russia, and Miller begins spending afternoons with her. It is at this point that memories of Mona begin to haunt him. He hasn’t seen her in some time, and had earlier thought he had gotten over her completely. Now the old love for her, which used to consume him day in and day out – for seven years, we learn – is crawling back. He finds himself dwelling in the past, when just recently he had thought himself finally free of its grip.
On the Fourth of July, he is fired from his job as a proofreader. He turns to pseudonymous writing to make money here and there. He writes pamphlets for a newly-opened brothel, and writes a thesis for a psychologist. Then, for some extra change, he gives his consent to be photographed in the nude for what he is assured will be “a strictly private collection.” He winds up spending a good amount of time with the photographer, who knows Paris inside and out, and through him falls into a new circle of expatriate artists – Kruger, a sculptor and painter, Mark Swift, an Irish painter, and Fillmore, a young man in the diplomatic service who becomes Miller’s closest friend of the bunch.
For the first time since his arrival in Paris, Miller ventures outside of the city, going with Fillmore to Le Havre, a port town in Brittany, to see a sailor and friend of Fillmore’s named Collins. Collins relates to Miller and Fillmore that he dreams of returning to his old ranch in Idaho.
Some time later, back in Paris, Fillmore invites Miller to stay with him. A Russian “princess” named Macha shacks up with them for some time. Fillmore is bent on making love to her, but is met time and again with rejection. From his interactions with Macha, we learn that Fillmore is weak-willed with women - a fully-flushed romantic in some ways, but also a bit naïve, a bit of an innocent.
Fall passes, and the holidays come. Miller is offered a position as an exchange professor of English in Dijon. He hates it there, and leaves as soon as he can. Upon his return to Paris, he learns that Fillmore has fallen ill and is in the hospital. He goes to see him, at which point Fillmore informs him that he has impregnated a French woman and wants to marry her. Miller visits the woman, Ginette, and assures her that Fillmore will be all right and that he has promised to marry her.
Soon Fillmore seems on the mend, but after getting engaged to Ginette, he confides to Miller that he is miserable, that he has lost his job, and that Ginette controls every move he makes. Miller hatches a plan to sneak Fillmore out of Paris and back to America. Once this is done, he wonders whether he too should return to America.