James Campbell | The Guardian,
Saturday 20 June 2009 »»
On the fiftieth anniversary of a contemporary masterpiece
James Campbell writes in this weekend’s Guardian newspaper on the ‘gestation and strange life’ of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a novel celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.
The biography of a book is a literary genre awaiting development, and few books have had such an unusual birth and upbringing as William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Even its proper name is in question: is it The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, or Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs? (It is the former in its original Paris incarnation, and in the British edition that followed. When the book came out in the United States in 1962, the definite article was dropped, and the author's middle initial added, signifying the ancestral family name Seward.)
Naked Lunch was first published by Olympia Press in July 1959. Readers who have encountered it over the past half-century have found it funny, prophetic, revolting – a famous TLS review in 1963 had the headline “Ugh ...” – hard to understand and amazingly inventive. Repeated rereadings are likely to heighten each of those responses. Turning to it again recently, I was less put off than I used to be by the sexual hangings, since I knew what was coming (“He leaves her tied on the platform in piles of old used condoms, while he adjusts the rope”) but still inclined to hurry past the talking asshole. The elasticity of Burroughs’s language and the reach of his imagination seemed more impressive than ever. Even in the opening and closing sections, which relate the antics of the criminal junkie William Lee (Burroughs’s alter ego), the figures of speech are virtuosic, from the mechanics of injection – “I hit a vein straight away. A column of blood shot up into the syringe for an instant sharp and solid as a red cord” – to the phantasmagoric escape from the complexes of addiction: “In the cab I realised what had happened ... I had been occluded from space-time like an eel's ass occludes when he stops eating on the way to Sargasso”.
On almost every page, as the scene shatters into pieces like a Cubist painting, there are throwaway lines to help the reader over the links: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by one of my multiple personalities ...” All manner of vaudeville acts appear, including homosexual baboons in “little girl blue” dresses who sing “I’m the weakest baboon of them all.” We meet Doc Scranton, who has “a prolapsed asshole and when he wants to get screwed he'll pass you his ass on three feet of intestine”. Much of Naked Lunch is so outlandish that all you can do is laugh – as you are meant to – but if the effect of reading it is so strong as to require medical attention, be sure to avoid Dr Benway, who performs surgery with a suction cup which he washes “by swishing it around in the toilet bowl”. When a patient dies – “all in the day’s work” – Benway takes a break, only to discover that “some fucking drug addict has cut my cocaine with Saniflush! Nurse!”
Naked Lunch is a savage satire on “control” in various forms, from sexual censorship to McCarthyite anti-communism to the worldwide spread of narcotics. Half a century ago, Burroughs created Islam Inc, issuing from the Mecca Chamber of Commerce, a fundamentalist racket that sends out “nationalist martyrs with grenades up the ass” to mingle with rank and file Muslims “and suddenly explode, occasioning heavy casualties”. Part of the action takes place in Freeland, a sterile Scandinavian utopia where the urgencies of instinct and hunger are removed. Scientists work to isolate the “human virus”. When eventually they succeed, as they are bound to, homo sapiens can be perfected and messy old life brought to an end. Freeland is an ideal police state, in which “there is no need for police”, since every citizen is under constant surveillance by every other.
The composition of Naked Lunch has its origins in what Burroughs called “routines”, surreal sketches which were included in letters to Allen Ginsberg. As the pages piled up on the floor around his desk, some soiled by footprints, Burroughs saw a book taking shape. “Horrible mess of longhand notes to straighten out,” he told Ginsberg, “plus all those letters to go through.” Even the author of “Howl”, then being prosecuted in California for obscenity, was put off by the extremism of some routines. “Can't see why they should have upset you,” Burroughs wrote back. “I am impressed by my reasonableness.”
The biographer of Naked Lunch should begin from the premise that it is an epistolary novel by a writer from a distinguished American family (the author’s grandfather invented the Burroughs Adding Machine) who led a life of leisure, foreign travel and romance while living on a private income. The leisure took the form of paralysing drug addiction – Burroughs once said he could stare at the end of his shoe for eight hours on end – while the travel was motivated by evasion of the law, and the romance was mostly paid-for sex with “boys” in exotic locations.
Another powerful inspiration was self-hatred. Burroughs existed in two selves, one of which felt a deep loathing for the other. In a letter to Ginsberg on the subject of a “resolution of my queerness” – a matter that also troubled the recipient – he described a dream in which he was introduced to “my non-queer persona”. Burroughs No 1 walked into a room to see Burroughs No 2 “looking at me with hate. So I said, ‘I don't seem to be exactly welcome’.” The replica screamed: “I hate you!” With good reason, too, Burroughs added. Later, he would give this intruder the name “the Ugly Spirit”.
The beat generation has been recast in recent years as a wandering band of literary minstrels, but their achievements are inseparable from death and derangement, which stalked the leading members (“I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ...”) Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had all seen the insides of prisons and mental hospitals by the age of 30. In 1951, while living in Mexico City, where he had gone to avoid a drugs charge, Burroughs shot his wife Joan in the head during a game of William Tell. After two weeks in custody, with the help of bribes paid out of Adding Machine profits, he was released, whereupon he resumed the life of a fugitive addict, first returning to New York, then travelling to Central America in search of hallucinogenic vegetable drugs, before settling in Tangier, Morocco. The Ugly Spirit moved in, too. For a time his regular companion was a teenage boy called Kiki. When Burroughs left Tangier temporarily in 1957, Kiki took up with a Cuban singer, who killed him after catching him in bed with a woman. Burroughs gave the news three sentences near the end of a letter to Ginsberg, which dealt mainly with the organisation of Naked Lunch.
The experience of drugs is central to the book and the shape it takes. Burroughs wrote while under the influence, while trying to kick it, and while celebrating his latest, short-lived “cure”. Heroin was hard to find in Tangier, so he used Eukodol, an over-the-counter morphine-based medicine. There is no glorification of drug-taking in Naked Lunch, except in the glories of Burroughs’s writing. The “black meat” section of the novel starts with an exchange between two addicts:
The Sailor leaned forward and put a finger on the boy's inner arm at the elbow. He spoke in his dead, junky whisper.
“With veins like that, Kid, I’d have myself a time!”
He laughed, black insect laughter that seemed to serve some obscure function or orientation like bat's squeak. The Sailor laughed three times. He stopped laughing and hung there motionless listening down into himself. He had picked up the silent frequency of junk.
In the late 1950s, no publisher in New York or London would have flattered Naked Lunch with a second glance. In Paris, however, there was Maurice Girodias, proprietor of the Olympia Press. Girodias has been characterised as a swindler and a pornographer with no literary taste, but his record speaks for itself: the first publication of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett’s Watt, followed by the Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable), then The Ginger Man, early English translations of Jean Genet and Guillaume Apollinaire, and much else besides. He also published There’s a Whip in My Valise by Greta X and With Open Mouth by Marcus Van Heller (in real life an English civil servant, still living in Chiswick), as well as pseudonymous erotica by Alexander Trocchi (as “Carmencita de las Lunas”), the poet Christopher Logue (“Count Palmiro Vicarion”) and John Coleman, later the film critic of the New Statesman.
In 1957, Girodias had rejected a tattered version of Naked Lunch brought to him by Ginsberg, but two years later, having heard that a Chicago magazine had caused a scandal by publishing sections of the novel, the Parisian dandy’s better instincts were aroused. Girodias liked nothing better than a banned book. He contacted the author, accepted a new manuscript (the legend that the chapters of Naked Lunch were ordered randomly is not borne out by Oliver Harris’s excellent edition of Burroughs's letters) and by late July it was in the shops – or in the few shops prepared to stock the productions of the notorious Olympia Press. Unusually for Olympia books, it came wrapped in an attractive jacket, designed by Burroughs himself. Its official ranking in the Olympia catalogue is No 76 in the Traveller’s Companion Series, sandwiched between Zazie dans le métro by Raymond Queneau and The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell. Olympia published two other novels by Burroughs, The Ticket that Exploded and The Soft Machine, as well as The American Express, the only novel by the beat poet Gregory Corso.
The strange life and times of Naked Lunch were not over. In 1962, the book became the subject of an obscenity case in Boston, which cleared the way for mainstream acceptance in the US. Burroughs did not attend the trial, at which Norman Mailer described him as “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius”, a description which does not seem as far fetched now as it did then, taking into account the demonic connotations of possession. By that time, Burroughs had renounced all the work he had done, and was aiming for “a point where my writing has the danger and immediate urgency of bullfighting”. Ginsberg was advised that he would not be capable of understanding the new method “until you have the necessary training”.
As always, there was a drug habit to attend to. In spite of repeated efforts to “evict the Chinaman”, Burroughs remained an addict. Not long after the publication of Naked Lunch, he was busted in the Hotel Rachou – later known as the Beat Hotel – and taken to be fingerprinted and photographed at police headquarters in Paris. “When they went to develop the picture,” he told Ginsberg, “there was nothing on the plate.” This was an achievement: the disintegration of Burroughs No 2, the hate-filled self, the Ugly Spirit.
As for Girodias, an adventurous literary instinct notwithstanding, he was indeed a rogue and admitted later that he had cheated Burroughs out of income from the sales of foreign rights. The grandson of the Burroughs Adding Machine inventor did the sums: Girodias had rescued him from a life of dereliction and launched his literary career. What are a few thousand dollars compared to that? “Who else would have published Naked Lunch?” he asked Ginsberg. The publisher expressed remorse and Burroughs – the good spirit – forgave him.