Grand trans­gres­sive with a gift for fab­u­lism

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Dun­can Fal­low­ell

Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs: A Life By Barry Miles Weidenfeld & Ni­col­son, 736pp, $45 (HB) WIL­LIAM S. Bur­roughs lived his life in the grand trans­gres­sive tra­di­tion of Lord By­ron and Os­car Wilde and, like all dandies, he had a nose for he­do­nis­tic hot spots that he could mythol­o­gise along with him­self.

On the oc­ca­sion of his cen­te­nary, Barry Miles takes us through these gor­geous, macabre sce­nar­ios with an at­ten­tion to de­tail rem­i­nis­cent of Richard Dadd or Hierony­mus Bosch: the boy­hood in St Louis; Har­vard and early trips to Europe; the war; Green­wich Vil­lage and the beats; Latin Amer­ica and ex­ile in 1950s Tang­ier; ex­is­ten­tial Paris, Swing­ing Lon­don; the re­turn to the US and emer­gence as a lit­er­ary celebrity.

The wheels are oiled with drugs, guns and sex, sui­cides and mur­ders, com­edy, neu­roses and mad­ness, in­tel­lec­tual ex­per­i­ment, nu­mer­ous cranky col­lab­o­ra­tors and far-out dis­ci­ples. But the muse touched the mess — and, hey presto, a great writer was born.

April 12-13, 2014

The his­tory of mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture is the his­tory of “out­sider­dom’’ and Bur­roughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) is the last key novel in that par­tic­u­lar tra­jec­tory. With its mon­tage “open text’’ tech­niques, it is also the herald of post­mod­ernism and of his own fu­ture work. The fact his drug-ad­dled brain by that time could not pro­duce co­her­ent nar­ra­tive does not un­der­mine Bur­roughs’s achieve­ment, be­cause the vi­tal­ity of the oeu­vre is inar­guable: texts aswarm with new crea­tures, im­ages, ideas, bizarre hilarities and prosodic in­ge­nu­ities. Miles’s bi­og­ra­phy is es­pe­cially use­ful in demon­strat­ing how the nov­els sprang from their au­thor’s life.

Much of the story is al­ready fa­mil­iar be­cause the beat move­ment is a sort of later Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent to Eng­land’s Blooms­bury Group — a so­cial and artis­tic avant-garde cel­e­brated as soap opera in count­less films and books, with Bur­roughs as the Lyt­ton Stra­chey fig­ure, a pre­sid­ing author­ity of ou­trage and cool. He be­came in due course the cyno­sure of ev­ery smart-alec drug­gie know-all, but Miles man­ages to get be­hind this to iden­tify a warmer, more vul­ner­a­ble man of rich com­plex­ity.

Since Bur­roughs is one of the most im­por­tant writ­ers of the 20th century, it’s worth not­ing some reser­va­tions con­cern­ing this lat­est bi­og­ra­phy. Miles chooses to open with a long ac­count of the ex­or­cism Bur­roughs un­der­went with a Navajo shaman, hop­ing to rid him­self of an “ugly spirit’’ he be­lieved had pos­sessed him. Bur­roughs’s oc­cultism may be an as­pect of his po­et­i­cal mind; but like his other fads it can be fatu­ous if not kept in per­spec­tive be­cause here was a man var­i­ously stoned on opi­ates, mar­i­juana, al­co­hol and other drugs to the end of his days. For his bi­og­ra­pher to em­pha­sise oc­cultism at the out­set reads like a bid for Car­los Cas­taneda-style mo­men­tous­ness and is de­grad­ing.

Bur­roughs saw him­self as a sci­en­tist too, re­search­ing psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, po­lit­i­cal the­ory, bi­ol­ogy and neu­rol­ogy. Again, these pur­suits have no au­ton­o­mous aca­demic worth and are im­por­tant to the ex­tent that they fed his gift for fab­u­lism. He was a gen­er­ous op­er­a­tor, but his cen­tre is not as prophet or philoso­pher but as a writer of fic­tion. Lit­er­a­ture can in­clude spec­u­la­tive ideas; but it di­min­ishes him, and lit­er­a­ture, to try to re­verse the prece­dence.

The same ap­plies to his paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy: very at­trac­tive but de­riv­a­tive, and sig­nif­i­cant only by virtue of his sta­tus as a nov­el­ist. We must al­ways come back to this, other­wise the Bur­roughs phe­nom­e­non can peter out in Aleis­ter Crow­ley silli­ness. Miles never makes this point clearly — per­haps he doesn’t agree with it — and one is left with the feel­ing that, for all his mag­nif­i­cent bu­reau­cratic ex­er­tions, his bi­og­ra­phy is still a prod­uct from the in­ner cir­cle of devo­tees.

There is lit­tle on the re­cep­tion of the nov­els af­ter Naked Lunch or on how fi­nal drafts were put to­gether, es­pe­cially the de­gree of at­tri­bu­tion due to the col­lab­o­ra­tors. I de­lib­er­ately saved Bur­roughs’s last book, The Western Lands, to read for the first time only two years ago; and I was star­tled by its phan­tas­magor­i­cal beauty, with the au­thor’s abid­ing themes re­freshed in prose of high man­darin sheen — so much so that I did won­der to what ex­tent an as­sis­tant might have been at work with the pol­isher.

Un­sur­pris­ingly in such a vast con­coc­tion, Miles’s bi­og­ra­phy is pep­pered with mi­nor er­rors. For ex­am­ple Bayswa­ter is early Vic­to­rian rather than Re­gency. This may sound carp­ing, but these things should be ironed out in what pre­sum­ably will be the stan­dard bi­og­ra­phy of ref­er­ence for decades to come.

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