- The Letters of William Burroughs, 1949-1959 edited by Oliver Harris
Picador, 472 pp, £17.50, August 1993, ISBN 0 330 33074 8
If a certain stoicism was required to get through William Burroughs’s disgusting novel, Naked Lunch, there are fewer problems with his mail. Indeed, the only danger is over-indulgence, for this stuff slides easily off the end of the fork. The letters here were written between 1945 and 1959. They begin with Burroughs at his family home in St Louis, from which he moves smartly through a series of addresses in the US. They continue across four troubled years in Latin America, followed by the celebrated stint in Tangier, which begins in 1954 and ends almost four years later with the manuscript of Naked Lunch in presentable form. The remaining letters are from Paris. Altogether there are more than 180, most of them fascinating. The majority by far are addressed to Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged Burroughs to persist with his writing and brought order to the mass of notes and written ‘routines’ that finished up as Naked Lunch – or The Naked Lunch, as the British edition used to be called.
Many of these routines – experiments with tone, narrative and character – had their origin in the letters. ‘Maybe the real novel is letters to you,’ Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg from Tangier six months after his arrival. Throughout, the letters bear down on ‘Dear Allen’ with touching affection and bludgeoning self-regard. It’s as well, therefore, to read them as a tribute to their recipient, especially since the nature of the collection means that Ginsberg fails, unusually, to get a word in edgeways.
Ginsberg was noisier and altogether more generous than Burroughs. He was a better scholarly bricoleur and indulged a more systematic passion for reading. He attended at length to the careers of other writers besides this troubled figure from a wealthy St Louis family; and like Pound to Eliot, he was at times the better craftsman, though he couldn’t manage Pound’s stentorian vulgarity, even if he sometimes made a stab at it. Nor did his quandaries about masculinity allow much scope for dandyism or machismo: that was left to Burroughs, whose stylish impersonation of an embalmed body brought back to life as an embalmer made him a darling of the refusés (mainly in absentia, his favourite haunt) and, by the Seventies, of orthodox salons too. Everywhere, his appearances had a mannered post-humous quality. In the most sinister photos, he seems to be standing with one foot squarely planted on the neck of posterity.
This camp deadpan, evident despite the bravura of the letters, was not Ginsberg’s style at all. Burroughs’s correspondent would eventually become a generous, open-hearted queen, but, like Whitman, a republican too, which put the crown and most gay livery comfortably out of bounds. Meanwhile, Ginsberg still aspired to heterosexuality and was encouraged to do so by his analyst (or ‘Doc friend’, as Burroughs has it). Burroughs, who was briefly involved with Ginsberg in 1953, saw his friend’s confusion as a narrow consequence of envy. ‘Can you imagine a man in a lifeboat getting envious because somebody somewhere is drinking champagne?’ he asks in a spiky missive from Mexico City, in 1951.
No, because he knows where he is. All envy is based on the proposition, ‘I could be getting that’ ... I am acquainted with the drawbacks of being queer. Better acquainted than you. Like you say, it ‘multiplies problems’. But here is the point. My boy in the lifeboat knows he is not in a good place. But knowing what a bad spot he is in will not get him somewhere else. So the point is not how dissatisfied you are with being queer. The point is do you get everything you want in the way of sex from a woman?
It is clear from this, and many of the other letters, that Burroughs is a man for a point: not just the needle, the male member and the firearm but that brusque assertion of the ‘central issue’ which is common to all chancers, from the software salesman to the politician. Throughout the letters and much of the work, Burroughs is making a point, or scoring one (‘better acquainted than you’), or asking someone else to get to one, or getting off one himself when it doesn’t suit him – whence, eventually, the recourse to ‘cut-up’, a pop-literary transposition of collage, announced to Ginsberg with crankish hush-hush in the last letter of the volume: ‘I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training.’
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[*] Flamingo Modern Classics, HarperCollins, 201 pp., £5.99, 12 July, 0 586 80560 2.