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The ‘Priest’, They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S Burroughs

By Graham Caveney

The problem for any biographer of William Burroughs, as for any devotee of his writing, is that, as Caveney puts it his introduction: ‘He is a signifier of the terminally hip, a name dropped so frequently that it resurfaces with a (lack of) identity all of its own...Fans of Burroughs become so before they have read him (often without bothering to do so) - the very idea of him is as exciting as his work.’ The life has made a greater contribution to the myth than has the work, thus obscuring it, to the extent that Burroughs may well have wished that he’d stayed home in St Louis, with slippers by the fireside, instead of trailing around the world indulging in high times, often seeming to be engaged on a personal mission to disprove the then current laws of medical science. There again, Philip Larkin, who contrived to lead as boring - if not as conventional - a life as possible, was still the subject of a warts and all biography by Andrew Motion, and J D Salinger’s extreme reclusivity did not protect him from Ian Hamilton’s effort at rooting out his secrets. (What price a Pynchon biography, sometime soon?) Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, would appear to be the message, when it comes to the publicity game.

The irony of this extravagantly designed and lavishly illustrated book is that it can only further exacerbate this quandary. Caveney admits that what is on offer is ‘a chronology of the Burroughs phenomenon’, rather than an attempt to uncover his ‘authentic personality’, but for any long-time Burroughs admirer there is nothing new here, either biographically or critically.

The bare facts of the life are already common currency: born in 1914 into a bourgeois mid-western family; a dull childhood; an indifferent English degree from Harvard, an experience which left him with a lifelong disdain and distrust of the dead hand of academia; friendship with Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg - the Beats - and his affair with the latter; the shooting dead during a drunken William Tell act of his common law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951, an event that has provoked much speculation in the accidental/intentional department, and which Burroughs has pinpointed as the defining moment of his life, the resultant trauma shocking him into taking himself seriously as a writer, and informing much of his writing (Burroughs, incidentally, provides great solace for all of life’s late-starters, becoming a first-time novelist aged 42, and a first-time home buyer aged 70); protracted periods of residence in Tangier, Paris, London and New York; and old age in Lawrence, Kansas.

To be fair, Caveney does go further than merely presenting the usual ‘junkie, queer, rebel’ image, to highlighting how the novels represent a thorough-going interrogation of the fear and attraction of imprisoning systems of control, from drugs, desire and religion to language itself. He hints at, if never explores, how Burroughs, unlike his contemporaries, was ‘less interested in side-stepping systems of control than in exploding them from within...The Beats produced alternative ideologies; Burroughs looked at how we are produced by them’. Caveney is also good at enumerating Burroughs’ various filmic and musical collaborations, and discusses the shotgun paintings. But again, this is all common knowledge for any fan, and the newcomer would be better off reading some of the novels than swallowing this glossy pabulum. From the early succes de scandale of Naked Lunch to the maturity of The Western Lands, it is amazing how Burroughs continued to reinvent himself and improve as a writer, the latter text being a virtual blueprint for immortality.

In many ways, this artefact exemplifies the idiocy of the ‘90s: a coffee table book about Burroughs, featuring the writer as lifestyle accessory. The hagiographic tone is all the odder, in a tome from a major London publisher, since so much of Burroughs’ work is at variance with the domestic realism currently enjoying a hegemony there. Or maybe not so odd at all, given the market-driven, consumerist ethos of publishing these days. One wonders what would become of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet or Burroughs if they were looking for a start today, and John Calder is to be commended for having given a platform to these highly idiosyncratic talents. Of course, we are no slouches ourselves when it comes to posthumously exploiting the reputations of our more subversive writers, usually to boost the tourism industry, most especially the ones who found it impossible to live here when they were alive. Marketing will be the death of us all.

‘Now we are left with the career novelists’ lamented J G Ballard, in his obituary of Burroughs last August. But Burroughs is probably not losing too much sleep over this hoopla, wherever he is, for like other cultural icons of our time - Beckett and Warhol - the more ubiquitous his image, the more enigmatic he becomes. With his amalgamation of mandarin intellect with hipster cool, he remains one of the most important writers of the century.

First published in The Sunday Tribune

 

 

 

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