Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This report is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

'Practically Everything': William Burroughs 1914-1997 Nicolas Tredell

The American writer William Seward Burroughs II died on 2 August 1997 at the age of 83. His life had been an extraordinary one. Like T.S. Eliot, he came from St Louis in Missouri, where he was born on 5 February 1914 into a prosperous upper middle class family. His grandfather invented a device which was a major step forward in adding-machine technology, a kind of hydraulic regulator which ensured that, however quickly or slowly the operator pulled the handle, the same pressure was always applied. The Burroughs Adding Machine company became a huge and wealthy corporation, although Burroughs's parents sold their shares in it in 1929, so that Burroughs himself did not benefit from it directly; his father, however, became a landscape gardener and then the successful proprietor of a gift and art shop. Burroughs attended the John Burroughs School (named after the naturalist, not a relation) in St Louis, and the rugged and expensive Los Alamos Research School, which later became the site on which the atom bomb was developed. In 1932 he went to Harvard, where he majored in English Literature, gaining his AB in 1936; he attended one of T.S. Eliot's Charles Eliot Norton lectures in 1932-3 and, in his Paris Review interview (Writers at Work: Third Series, 1967), he recalled studying with John Livingston Lowes, whose Road to Xanadu (1927) explored the creative processes of another notable literary drug addict. After Harvard, Burroughs went to Vienna where he enrolled for one semester in the University Medical School; a strong vein of fascination with the uses and abuses of medical power runs through his writing, epitomized in the demoniacal Dr Benway, one of the most memorable figures in Naked Lunch. In 1937, he married, à la Auden, a German Jew, Ilse Klapper, to enable her to escape from the Nazis and go to the United States. They never lived together in America, however, and Ilse returned to Europe after the war; Burroughs obtained a divorce in Mexico.

Back in the USA in 1938, Burroughs returned to Harvard to pursue graduate studies in anthropology and although he did not persist with these, he retained a strong, if sometimes appropriative, interest in other cultures, especially Latin American and Arabic ones. Turned down by the Navy, the American Field Service and the OSS, and discharged from the infantry thanks to his mother's machinations, Burroughs then went through a series of downmarket jobs, some of which - most notably that of insect exterminator - were to be important both in providing material for his fiction and in contributing to the Burroughs legend. His parents, however, continued to supply him with a monthly allowance of $200 and it was only when he became a heroin addict during the war that he found he needed more money.

In the postwar era, in trouble with the US authorities, and marked as an outsider in the conformist America of the time by being - to cite the titles of his first two novels - both a 'junky' and a 'queer', he went first to live in Mexico, a country he initially found congenial in many ways since it seemed to be a place where 'no limits are imposed on experience' (Letters 1945-1959, ed. Oliver Harris, Picador 1993, p. 71). He also became strongly aware, however, of what he saw as its dark side, telling Jack Kerouac in a letter: 'Mexico is sinister and gloomy and chaotic with the special chaos of a dream' (Letters, p. 91). He also began writing in earnest, producing the novel Junky (1953), which his confidante and most important correspondent in that period, Allen Ginsberg, who was still in the USA, set about trying to get published.

In Mexico, Burroughs was able to pursue his taste for both drugs and boys in a relatively untrammelled way. Although he regarded heterosexual relationships as less satisfying than homosexual ones, comparing then to eating tortillas when a steak was not available, he did establish a de facto marriage with Joan Vollmer, and fathered a son, Billy. In a 1955 letter to Ginsberg, four years after the event, he recalls the tragic terminus of this ménage: '[t]he idea of shooting a glass off [Joan's] head had never entered my mind, consciously, until, out of the blue so far as I can recall - I was very drunk, of course - I said: "It's about time for our William Tell act... Put a glass on your head, Joan"' (Letters, pp. 263-4). Though a good shot and used to guns, Burroughs, aiming carefully for the top of the glass from a distance of six feet, killed Joan, an event which was apparently to haunt him for the rest of his life, though he said little about it publicly until the 1985 Preface to Queer, and he continued throughout his life to have a passion for guns. It was the kind of event which would have ruined many people, but Burroughs, helped by his family and by an agile Mexican lawyer, escaped an indictment and jail sentence. As he was to write to Allen Ginsberg on another occasion, when he had survived a serious illness: 'I do generally have good luck in matters of basic importance' (Letters, p. 220). His son would not share his luck, becoming an addict like his father, producing a novel, Speed, in 1970, but dying in 1981 at the age of 33.

Following Joan's death, Burroughs continued to take drugs and to write. Junky was published, under the title Junkie, by Ace Paperbacks in 1953, with the subtitle Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, and bound back to back with a book by a narcotics agent. Junky remains a powerful novel, written in a 'mean streets' realist style, but offering some harbingers of what was to come, especially in its descriptions of its characters whose human shape appears to be about to give way: 'Doolie sick was an unnerving sight... Viscera and cells, galvanized into a loathsome insect-like activity, seemed on the point of breaking through the surface' (Junky, Penguin 1977, p. 58). It was this kind of powerful and disturbing vision which Burroughs was to develop in the fifties, and in doing so he was to produce a new kind of novel. His Letters 1945-1959 comprise a fascinating picture of his life and literary endeavours in the years which led up to the publication of his most notorious work, (The) Naked Lunch (1959). Indeed, the letters were Burroughs's literary workshop, in which he would generate material which was later to appear, sometimes little changed, in Naked Lunch, and would develop his aesthetic techniques and theories. The most notable of these techniques was the 'routine' - a kind of manic monologue or polylogue, harking back to the world of carnival and vaudeville and forward to the age of hypertext and video. Burroughs's routines were frequently very funny, sometimes repulsive, often penetrating, with a capacity to reach through the reader's defences and touch the cells and viscera; the most famous of them, which first appeared in a letter to Ginsberg of 7 February 1955 - coming out 'all in one piece like a glob of spit', as Burroughs put it - is that of 'the man who taught his ass hole to talk': 'a novelty ventriloquist act' in which the ass hole, like a defiant dummy, finally takes over, pointing out that his erstwhile master is redundant - 'we don't need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit'. (Letters, pp. 259, 260).

Burroughs generated many routines in his fiction and letters but faced the problem of how to put them together in a novel. The era of the great modernist attempts to structure incoherence by invoking an overarching myth was over, a fact which Burroughs understood more quickly than some of his critics who were still looking for a work in the manner of Ulysses or, at the most extreme, Finnegans Wake (see, for example, David Lodge, 'Objections to William Burroughs', Critical Quarterly 8 (1966), pp. 203-12). The aesthetic of Naked Lunch was rather different, and it is articulated within the novel in a passage which is itself a kind of routine:

The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement. This book spill off the page in all directions, kaleidoscope of vistas, medley of tunes and street noises, farts and riot yipes and the slamming steel shutters of commerce, screams of pain and pathos and screams plain pathic, copulating cats and outraged squawk of the displaced bull head, prophetic mutterings of brujo in nutmeg trances, snapping necks and screaming mandrakes, sigh of orgasm, heroin silent as dawn in the thirsty cells, Radio Cairo screaming like a berserk tobacco auction, and flutes of Ramdan fanning the sick junky like a gentle lush worker in the grey subway dawn feeling with delicate fingers for the green folding crackle...
(The Naked Lunch, Corgi, 1968, pp. 255-6)

After Joan's death, Mexico was less congenial to Burroughs, and he moved to Tangier in 1954. At this time, Tangier was an international zone and a free port, and in Burroughs's imagination it was to become 'interzone', that strange 'space-time location... where three-dimensional fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into the real world' (Letters, p. 300). But Burroughs was still an addict, and it was not until he went to London in 1956, to receive apomorphine treatment from Dr John Yerbury Dent, that he was able to kick the habit. The escape from addiction produced a release of literary energy. Burroughs - with the help, once again, of Allen Ginsberg - was able to get Naked Lunch into some kind of shape and to seek publication. Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press in Paris had published such notable works as Nabokov's Lolita (1955), initially turned the book down, but the outrage provoked when parts of Naked Lunch were published in Chicago Review persuaded him to bring it out in 1959.

The publication of Naked Lunch was a turning-point for Burroughs, converting the disasters of his life into some kind of triumph. The controversy surrounding the book - especially in regard to its alleged obscenity - helped to make Burroughs famous, and the advocacy of established American writers such as Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer gave him a high profile as an outrageous avant-gardist and an important, perhaps great, American writer. Moreover, the times were propitious to Burroughs beyond literary circles: the extremities of his life and work, and his status, along with Ginsberg and Kerouac, as one of the Big Three of the Beat Generation, made him an attractive, indeed heroic, figure to the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s, although Burroughs, in his personal self-representation, distanced himself from spectacular manifestations of rebellion, usually wearing a formal suit in the manner of T.S. Eliot, behaving politely, and looking rather like a banker or diplomat.

In the 1960s, when he lived mainly in London, Burroughs adapted and developed the techniques of the 'cut-up' and the 'foldin' which he had learnt in Paris from the painter Brion Gysin. These involved the juxtaposition of segments of different texts in order to produce new, startling and unexpected combinations. Burroughs was concerned to stress that this was not simply a random technique in which one accepted whatever came up; a process of selection was necessary to pick out those juxtapositions which were especially striking and fruitful. Burroughs's next three novels - The Soft Machine (1961; revised versions 1966, 1968), The Ticket that Exploded (1962; revised version 1967) and Nova Express (1964) - were produced at least partly by these means, and they comprise his most difficult texts, though conveying at moments a chilling apocalyptic intensity: 'Listen to my last words any world. Listen all you boards syndicates and governments of the earth. And you powers behind what filth deals consummated in what lavatory to take what is not yours... These words may be too late. Minutes to go' (Nova Express, Panther 1968, pp. 9-10).

Burroughs's later work returned to more conventional narrative modes which drew to some extent on popular forms such as science fiction and the Western, the latter a genre which, with his ballistic obsessions and individualist ethics, had long attracted him. Among his notable novels were The Wild Boys (1971), and the trilogy, ranging through the past, present and future, which consists of Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1983) and The Western Lands (1987). The tone of this last novel, which yokes the post-mortem mythology of Ancient Egypt to a postmodern sense of entropy, is elegiac, evoking the 'old writer', living in a boxcar by the river, who 'couldn't write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words' (Picador 1987, pp. 1, 258). By this time, Burroughs himself, after six years of living in New York in a thick-walled, practically windowless former YMCA locker room known as 'the Bunker', had moved out of the big city, not into a boxcar but to a small house in the university town of Lawrence, Kansas, where he remained from 1982 until his death. After his many voyages and vicissitudes, the old writer had finally come home to the Mid-West.

Burroughs's longevity and continued productivity consolidated his fame in his final years. Originally criticized for his failure to be a modernist, he could now be seen as the harbinger, for better or worse, of much that constitutes postmodernism. He was effectively the grandfather of the kind of science fiction, most prominently exemplified by William Gibson, known as cyberpunk; he was the subject of theses and critical studies, such as Robin Lyndenbergs's Word Cultures (1987), which looked at his work in the light of modern critical theory, for example that of Derrida and Kristeva. Much of his early work appeared in print for the first time, but seemed to resonate with the mood of the 1980s and 1990s - notably the novel Queer (written in the 1950s immediately after Junky but not published until 1985); some of the material collected in Interzone (1989); and his letters from 1945 to 1959 (1993). He gave interviews, starred in documentaries, featured in a Nike advert, and made notable cameo appearances in films, for example as the junky priest in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989). His artwork, produced by shooting at spray cans of paint, was widely exhibited and discussed. His last book, My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995), culled from his copious oneiric jottings, hauntingly echoes the themes of his previous work, while retaining an edge of immediacy in its sense of pain and loss.

Back in 1953, in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs had pondered on what might happen if he lived to be 80, and commended (and somewhat misquoted) one of the sentiments in Yeats's' 'A Prayer for Old Age': 'Like the Poet say: "God keep me from ever being a wise old man praised of all"' (Letters, p. 166). As he approached and then entered his eighties, he was, if not praised of all, certainly widely revered, the last great survivor of the Beats, the deviant who should have died long ago but who had seen off most of his detractors, the literary outlaw who had not hung up his guns but who had nevertheless become a member of the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, and a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France. He could still seem, however, in the spirit of Yeats's 'Prayer', a 'foolish, passionate man' and he did not sink into self-satisfaction; asked by an interviewer, at the time of the 1991 David Cronenberg film of Naked Lunch, whether he regretted anything in his life, he replied, in the inimitable Burroughs timbre: 'Practically everything'.

This report is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
Further Reading: - Nicolas Tredell More Reports by... (14) Articles by... (33) Interviews by... (21) Reviews by... (93)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image