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William S. Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£30, 736 pages (Published in the US as ‘Call Me Burroughs’ by Twelve)
In Mexico City in 1951, wretchedly, William Burroughs shot dead his common-law wife Joan Vollmer by attempting to blast a highball glass off her head. Inebriated and drugged at the time, Burroughs spent just 13 days in jail for the William Tell misadventure, his brother having bribed the Mexican authorities.
Barry Miles, an expert on British underground culture, met Burroughs in London in 1965 and became his friend. In his scholarly biography, William S. Burroughs: A Life, he argues that Burroughs became a writer chiefly as a consequence of his wife’s death. Always prone to bouts of melancholy and guilt at having to live off his parents’ money, he sought ways to channel off the “Ugly Spirit” that he believed had caused the shooting. Blaming an occult force for his wife’s culpable homicide might look like a craven default of responsibility. Nevertheless, writing was, for Burroughs, a form of exorcism and atonement for the terrible thing he had done.
Burroughs was born 100 years ago this month in St Louis, Missouri. A scion of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, even in youth he was a patrician-looking character of formal manners and unsmiling, WC Fields-like humour. This biography differs little in substance from Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs, published in 1988. However, Miles has much to add about Burroughs’ time in 1960s and early 1970s London, as well as his final years in Lawrence, Kansas, where he lived surrounded by cats, raccoons, possums and a much-used arsenal of firearms.
In a career that spanned almost half a century, Burroughs delighted in causing indignation. His most famous novel, Naked Lunch, published in 1959 in Paris before coming out in slightly different form in the US three years later, is structured around pages of vaudeville comedy and hallucinatory picaresque; it remains a key work in the post-Joycean experiment, darkly humorous and mocking. Without Naked Lunch, it is safe to say, JG Ballard would not have written Crash, or Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange.
By any standards, Burroughs’ was an eventful life. In 1936, having graduated in English from Harvard University, he studied medicine briefly in Vienna. In the Adriatic port of Dubrovnik he befriended a German-Jewish woman, Ilse Klapper, with whom he later entered a marriage of convenience so she could gain a US visa. On his return to New York he worked alternately as an exterminator with a fumigating company and as a private detective. He and Klapper formally divorced in 1946. Burroughs began a relationship with Vollmer later that year, having developed a Benzedrine habit to match her own. Though Burroughs considered himself essentially homosexual, he was attracted to witty, high-spirited women such as Joan; they had a child, Billy, who was to die in 1981 of alcohol complications.
In well-researched pages, Miles describes Burroughs’ milieu in early 1950s New York among the Beat writers and drifters of whom Vollmer was one. Jack Kerouac and other beatniks let out a breathy “yeah” for bebop and Jackson Pollock, and thought of themselves as Beatific.
Burroughs, who dressed and spoke more like an undertaker than a jazz-enthused hipster, mooched round the New York bars, automats and spaghetti joints frequented by Vollmer, Allen Ginsberg and their morphine-injecting friends. With Kerouac in 1944-45 Burroughs wrote an unpublished novel, And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, about a real-life murder that occurred in Manhattan at that time. Lucien Carr, an intimate of the Vollmer-Kerouac circle, had stabbed his admirer-turned-stalker, David Kammerer, during a brawl and dragged his body into the Hudson river. The murder (dramatised in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings) made front-page news in the US.
Burroughs’ debut, Junky, appeared in 1953 under the pseudonym William Lee. Written in a spare, Dashiell Hammett-style prose, it remains a grimly absorbing confessional in the school of De Quincey and Jean Genet. Burroughs’ need to outwit the “Ugly Spirit” and its manipulations took him in the late 1950s to the Moroccan seaport of Tangiers, where he mingled with trumpery aristocrats, shady remittance men, unfrocked priests and absconders from justice.
The smell of the city, compact of burning charcoal, excrement and marijuana, worked on him like an aphrodisiac, suggests Miles. He explored the kasbah in his trademark private eye fedora and gabardine, and began to write sections of Naked Lunch while addicted to heroin. (“Virtually all of Burroughs’ writing was done when he was high on something,” Miles notes.) In Tangiers, importantly, Burroughs met the English-born painter Brion Gysin, who encouraged him to experiment with the “cut-up” method of writing, which borrowed from the Dadaists and TS Eliot to invent a new, “cubist” literature based on randomly rearranged texts.
Burroughs’ ethereally strange 1960s trilogy of novels – The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express – jettisoned narrative for a mosaic of arbitrarily juxtaposed “cut-ups” from newspapers, magazines and even other writers’ fiction. The trilogy was put together mostly in London at a time of counter-cultural experiment. At night Burroughs walked the streets around Earl’s Court and Bayswater with a tape recorder in hand, picking up random voices and sounds for use in cut-up films and fiction. In 1967, having sold the film rights to Naked Lunch, he moved into a “rather expensive flat” in Duke Street, Piccadilly, round the corner from the London Library, from where he made forays to Fortnum & Mason and the gay pick-up spots off Leicester Square.
During the 1980s while living in Kansas, Burroughs supplemented his income through public recitals of his work. The readings, delivered in a Midwestern adenoidal drone, confirmed Burroughs as a Beat icon for a new generation. Eighty-three when he died in Kansas in 1997 of heart failure, Burroughs was something of a biological miracle to have lived so long, given the quantities of morphine and alcohol he had absorbed. Miles’s biography, for all its occasional repetitiveness, provides a riveting documentary of a most peculiar life lived in the American underbelly.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage)