Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Ann Beat, “Junkie Culture ,” excerpted from Books and Bookmen, November 1963.
Norman Mailer describes Burroughs as ‘the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed of genius.’ An odd offshoot of the adding machine family, he lives in a squalid Paris room where he appeared to the Observer as ‘grumpy’ but to the Sunday Times as ‘gentle and courteous’. His books, THE NAKED LUNCH, THE SOFT MACHINE, NOVIA EXPRESS, and THE TICKET THAT EXPLODED, are published by Olympia Press, Paris, but liable to be seized if imported to Britain (although B&B receives review copies without trouble). Extracts from these books will be published in late March or April under the title DEAD FINGERS TALK (Calder, 25s)
His downfall started last Fall when some smartipants young British publisher named John Calder got Bill along to some Literary Festival at a joint called Edinburgh. He didn’t know what a Lit Fest was but he’d heard that Henry Miller and Norm Mailer were going so he figured that Edinburgh was probably on London’s Left Bank and that they’d all sit around at some boulevard café near Battersea Power Station and natter over some vino and heroin.
But what he didn’t know — and the crafty Calder obviously did — was that Henry isn’t interested in writing any more ’cause he’s gone commercial and made a packet out of publishing Tropic of Cancer in the States. And as for Norm, he’d just had a union-jacked baby by his new wife, Lord Beaverbrook’s granddaughter, which seems to be pretty well going to extremes with the respectability kick.
Well, when Bill got to this Edinburgh joint he found it was a real bourgeois set-up with a platform, microphones. ‘Mr Chairman’ and all that sort of crap. Instead of the fraternity like Kerouac, Ginsberg and the rest, he found himself stuck up in a public peep-show alongside crazy antique dames like Rosamund Lehmann and Rebecca West. (She’s a real Dame with a capital ‘D’. She’d be a sensation on ‘Frisco’s skid row.)
Then there was a little snowy-topped guy called Angus Wilson who kept spouting about some old hyphenated weirdy named Compton-Burnett and seemed to have the idea that she had some relevance to the modern novel. Another square egg kept muttering about a penholder named Graham Greene who seems to be some sort of chief clerk to the Vatican.
If we’d been bright enough, the beat fraternity would have been wised up to the fact that Bill was lost to us. But we weren’t hep right away to what some of his actions signified. When, for instance, some Dutch scribe said he was a homo, Bill responded by keeping his plastic mac on the whole time, as though he didn’t want to be violated or something. I don’t suppose the Dutch guy cared; there were plenty of other queens on that trip anyway.
To be fair to our kiddo, Bill did have one go at keeping his end up when he told them how to write a novel. What unnerved him was that next day The Times came out with a report of what he’d said, translated into Olde English:
Mr Burroughs said he was using the fold-in technique. He typed a page of text, folded it vertically in the centre and then laid it alongside another page similarly folded so that the lines of the different pages fused. He edited, deleted, and rearranged a considerable volume of material before settling upon the desired juxtaposition of lines. (Times 25.8.62)
Well, this ‘desired juxtaposition of lines’ stuff really got Bill. After all, it’s a bit of a contrast to his own style like in his new book, The Ticket That Exploded:
Tingling implications try once more magnetic drums — red nitrous odors spatter out sound track dummy to circumstance brown ankles — Ejaculated in stale underwear during execution, shirt flapping pants slide — Substitute excrement slipping through legs Almighty God with two co-ordinates immediately appropriate — We beg thy greased amber memory for the process — Pubic District Court vibrating focus flesh.
Now, man, that makes SENSE; which is more than can be said for The Times goddammit. Yet Bill must have been fascinated by their fancy lingo which had obviously been laid on specially so as to soften him up for this publisher capitalist Calder. (After all, even The Times couldn’t write like that every day, for Chrissakes; you’d have thought Bill would have realized it was done specially for him.
Anyway, the upshot was that Calder seduced him. Not literally, ’cause Bill still had his plastic mac on, but enough to get him to agree to let Calder take three of Bill’s books and sieze from them those bits that he thought the delicate English might be allowed to read.
This Calder creep is putting the bits into one book called Dead Fingers Talk which is as phony a title as you’ve ever heard.
All this happens just when we Beats reckoned we were gonna keep Bill’s writing more or less exclusive to ourselves. After all, no sane guy wants all the world to read what he’s written; it ain’t decent.
The only consolation is that I don’t suppose Calder has got the artistic sensitivity to choose Bill’s best work. That bit, for instance, in The Ticket That Exploded, when the prisoners are being milked for semen until they’re exhausted and no more use and then they’re hanged. Then there’s a piece in The Naked Lunch when live monkeys are sown into the bodies of appendicitis victims. Or, that real piece of literary class when one homo murders that other as he’s kissing him, just so he can enjoy the death spasms.
We probably won’t get any more great stuff like that now Bill’s capitulated to the Calder’s of this planet. But even though he and Henry and Norm have deserted us, we beats will go on looking for truth on the far side of nihilism. After all, why should the admen have a monopoly of sexual titillation?