Evil River

A Burroughs Memoir?

Evil River

If you search for William Burroughs’ name on Amazon.com, you’ll discover a book that is supposed to come out in July, 2005 called Evil River. What exactly is this?

In Word Virus, an editor mentions that a “memoir begun by Burroughs, which he called Evil River (from the St. John Perse line “My past was an evil river” ), will be completed soon.” Apparently “evil river” was one of the many lines lodged in Burroughs’ prodigious memory, since he mentions it often.

In the entry for August 9, 1984, in The Cat Inside: “I don’t think anyone could write a completely honest autobiography. I am sure no one could bear to read it: My Past Was An Evil River.”

In the entry for January 7, 1997, in Last Words: “Memoirs — what you wouldn’t want anyone to know. ‘My past was an evil river — un fleuve maudit.'”

In the introduction for Queer: “When I started to write this companion text to Queer, I was paralyzed with a heavy reluctance, a writer’s block like a straitjacket: ‘I glance at the manuscript of Queer and feel I simply can’t read it. My past was a poisoned river from which one was fortunate to escape.'”

Presumably Evil River is therefore some sort of unfinished memoir or, more probably, a collection of autobiographical texts. (Come to think of it, what is any Burroughs book but a collection of autobiographical texts?)

As a postscript, it’s interesting to note that RealityStudio has hitherto been unable to find the line “My past was an evil river” or even the string “fleuve maudit” in Saint-John Perse. It’s not in Anabasis, and neither Google nor Amazon turn up any results. On the other hand, in 1946 a British author named George Millar published a book titled My Past Was an Evil River, a novel about the American occupation of Germany after World War II. Was Burroughs familiar with the book? Might he have misremembered the “evil river” line? Or did Burroughs and Millar both derive it from Saint-John Perse? If anybody has any further clarifications, please post it to the forum. Thanks!

Published October 2004.

“My Past Was an Evil River”

There is an autobiographical work or fragment by Burroughs called Evil River that will be published sometime next year. Burroughs frequently mentioned what he recalled as a line of poetry as the source for the title: “My past was an evil river.” Editors of Word Virus claimed that the line comes from St. John Perse, but reader Adam noticed the following Last Words entry for January 29, 1997:

“My past was an evil river.” Verlaine. (See page 67.)

Did the line really come from Verlaine and not from St. John Perse?

RealityStudio did its best to scour Verlaine’s poetry for such a line, or for the French phrase “fleuve maudit” which Burroughs cites in another context. As it turns out, there is a line similar to “my past was an evil river” in one of the poems in Verlaine’s Sagesse collection. In French, the line is this:

Ce passé, comme un mauvais fleuve!

Translated literally:

This past, like an evil river!

Google translates it like this:

This past, like a bad river!

You could debate several legitimate translations for mauvais, including bad or evil. (To compare, the “evil” in Flowers of Evil is mal, not mauvais.) Unfortunately, the poem does not appear to be included in either of the two currently available English translations of Verlaine. It’s in neither One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine nor Selected Poems.

It seems quite plausible that Verlaine’s poem is the source Burroughs had in mind for the line, though he may also have mixed it up with George Millar’s 1946 war novel My Past Was an Evil River. (Incidentally, can anybody find a copy of this book? RealityStudio.org hasn’t been able to come up with it yet.) It would also be plausible that a translator somewhere rendered “comme un mauvais fleuve” as “my past was an evil river,” and that both Burroughs and Millar derived the line from there.

Verlaine published the collection Sagesse in 1880, and generally speaking the poems depict Verlaine’s spiritual rebirth and conversion to Catholicism. In particular, the “evil river” poem — which begins “Désormais le sage…” — speaks of reviewing the past from the new vantage point of faith and religious conviction.

Here is the “evil river” stanza, and you can find the complete poem on biblisem.net, a site devoted to spiritual and mystic literature.

Même, — et pour tenir abaissé
L’orgueil, qui fit son âme veuve,
Il remontera le passé,
Ce passé, comme un mauvais fleuve!

Published October 2004. Thanks to Adam for the heads-up re Verlaine.

Evil River Update

Amazon now lists the book as shipping on December 30th, 2005.

In addition, RealityStudio finally managed to track down a copy of George Millar’s war novel, My Past Was an Evil River. Its epigraph is indeed the Verlaine poem mentioned above. It seems quite probable that Burroughs learned of the poem via the book. Though there is no definitive record that Burroughs actually read the novel, it seems likely to have interested him. The book contains some passages about the sexuality of Hitler that were sure to have intrigued Burroughs. For example, here is a conversation between two characters in the book, Willy and The Hyena. (Willy claims to have been “the personal friend and confidant of the Fuhrer.”)

THE HYENA: What you meant was that sexully he [Hitler] was a perfectly normal man?

WILLY: Apparently so, yes.

THE HYENA: Are you aware that during the war and for some time previous to the war more than half the civilised world believed that Hitler was a homosexual?

WILLY: Preposterous! (p185)

It is easy to imagine Burroughs noting the book for its insights about Hitler’s sexuality, appropriating the title for his own use many years later, but misremembering where he first heard it.

Published August 2005.

5 thoughts on “Evil River

  1. Interesting info–but you never answered the question. Is there a WSB bio called Evil River and if so, when will it be published? I’m starting to believe this is some myth, like a second autobiography from Harry Crews or the Will Christopher Baer novel Godspeed.

  2. I’m sure you know this but George Millar was a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge, (I can’t remember which), also a fluent French speaker who spent time in France as a young man and who served with SOE in the Second World War; parachuted behind enemy lines ahead of D Day to create havoc in occupied France.

    He may well have created the translation of which you speak specifically as a title for his novel. I, on the other hand, am not an educated man and had never heard of the said Verlaine, but was searching in google for the origins of George Millars title. Thanks for that!

  3. I just read this Millar book … It is not without substance even though the dynamic is conventional. It has interesting structures (eg odd passages of dialogue, parallel narratives ) and I can well imagine (and let’s accept Burroughs did read it once) that it appealed to Burroughs on this account and for it’s essential didact: forget the past (i.e. Hitler and what he stood for) or it will poison/kill you (i.e. continuing the war as guerillas, as some Nazis did, will get you nowhere). His marriage to Ilse may well have resonated.. as would have his reliance on Freudian therapy to cope with the evil river of his past sexual encounters. This maybe simplifies matters too easily but it has helped me understand a few things. And I can well imagine that there is a book/mss with that title waiting in the Amazon wings to appear….

  4. In my copy of George Millar’s novel ‘My Past Is An Evil River- there’s a signed inscription dated 1957: ‘With all good wishes from an author who fears this book was written too close to it’s subject’. 60 years ago that was understandable but the passing of time has obscured that thought somewhat. Millar had read French poetry, and in WW2 as an agent of SOE with the French resistance chose a remembered line of Baudelaire as a secret signal for the BBC to broadcast when a supply drop was to be made to a parachuting ground he’d organised: ‘La langoureuse Asie et la brulante Afrique’. Similarly, lines of Verlaine were used to warn the resistance of the imminence of the D-Day invasion.

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