September 01, 2009

Naked Lunch's anniversary

I’ve been carrying Naked Lunch around with me for at least a month and I think it’s time to realise that I am just not going to read more than the approximately 50 scattered pages I read during the first 36 hrs after I picked it up: about 25% of it, more or less the same amount as I read the first time I encountered it. That was in the guise of Il pasto nudo, in Italy, at some point in my twenties, at the house of a friend who had once seen William S. Burroughs at JFK Airport, I seem to recall. Or maybe he had made a pilgrimage to Burroughs’s house, and it was Cousin Joe (also very old and very cool, but a bluesman) that he stood in line behind at JFK?

Never mind. I think it’s right in the spirit of Burroughs to just read bits and pieces, my own personal cut-up, you might say. The official caretaker of the Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas cheerfully admits to never having gotten through Naked Lunch either. In fact, I could even have read less of it, and still appreciated it just as much. These lines alone, just at the start, when he has run into the subway fleeing from a narc and is racing for the train, would have sufficed for me to unreservedly call it a great book:

"Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type: comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, calls the counterman in Nedick’s by his first name. A real asshole."

How do I know the track record of the official caretaker of the Burroughs house? Because it’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch this year, and that intrigues me, so I've been reading up. Of the many, the one I liked the best was the one Duncan Fallowell wrote in the New Statesman in July. He had some interesting things to say about Naked Lunch. First he amazed me by calling it the last of the landmark modern novels. What? It’s revolutionary. How can it be the last of something?

So I asked myself, well, what does Fallowell probably think the first modern novel is? And I realised it would probably be Ulysses. And then it made sense. I had a sudden vision of all these grand old men of modernity, in those black and white photos we see of them, aged, ravaged, intense: Joyce, Beckett, Orwell. W.H. Auden. Ezra Pound. Burroughs. It’s like The Wild Bunch, and he is definitely one of them, and yeah, probably the last.

At the end, this stabbing observation: 'His essential message – escape the machine – could well be more relevant, and difficult to emulate, than ever.'

You can read the article online.

When Burroughs died in 1997, phoned J.G.Ballard and asked him what Burroughs had meant to him. Absolute honesty, he said:

"Burroughs called his greatest novel "Naked Lunch," by which he meant it's what you see on the end of a fork. Telling the truth. It's very difficult to do that in fiction because the whole process of writing fiction is a process of sidestepping the truth. I think he got very close to it, in his way, and I hope I've done the same in mine."

You can read all the interview on It's good to remember J.G. Ballard, who departed from this world he believed so strongly in seeing and writing about from "both sides of my retina", as he used to say, earlier this year.

Some other things I found:
A website with the covers of all of Burroughs’s novels, and their translations, through the years. Really fun to look at. Syringes of all shapes and sizes of course, but also serious attempts to depict a hallucinating eye, and even a naked… woman for the Yugoslavs. I see that the French translator, rather than Dejeuner Nu, which would have seemed the obvious choice, with its echo of Dejeuner sur l’herbe -- what more naked lunch than that? some say it was Burroughs’s inspiration -- chose Festin Nu, or Naked Banquet, as in Cezanne’s great painting Le Festin, the Banquet, quite energetically Nu itself.

On you can read about the anniversary celebrations around the world. I quote from the Parisian symposium programme “The session before lunch makes connections between Burroughs, French culture, and traditions of drug-taking through three very different approaches". No mention of what happens at lunch. Aperitif hour, however, offers “Fiona Paton focuses on the spiritual dimension in Naked Lunch by focusing on recurrent imagery of ectoplasm”.

Lawrence Kansas was the one I liked the most, for the photo of Burroughs they chose, for having a show of WSB’s art called “Naked leftovers”, for putting on the program (have to spell it this way) an accordion serenade and “some of the Old Man’s favorite songs on the iPod”.

Lawrence Kansas reminds me of a good book: Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti – it’s actually Albert Einstein’s brain which he is driving across the US (it's a true story), together with the pathologist who had kept it after the autopsy. This pathologist happened to have lived next door to WSB in Lawrence and they stop in to visit him. I drove through Kansas once and I am sure we stopped in Lawrence for either the world’s deepest well, or the world’s best catfish. Unfortunately it wasn’t when Burroughs was living there. I checked. What do I remember about Kansas? The wind, the cowboy boots, and the way the natives threw around names like "Dodge City", as in "There's a great shopping mall up in Dodge City."

Other things that 1959 brought the world besides Naked Lunch:
1. Picasso was working on the sketches for his "Dejeuner sur l’herbe". He didn’t actually put his brush to the canvas until 1960 but I had to put this in anyway. The Musee d’Orsay had an exhibition this year on the Picasso- Manet Dejeuners.
2. Asterix
3. The first Barbie doll
4. The first Mini
5. The first Aluminum Beer Can
6. The Historic Monkey flight, ie the first time a living being (actually 2) went into space and came back alive. You just know this had to have influenced Burroughs.

Two recommended online reads

William Burroughs Interview by Paris Review, 1965 Beats In Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland

And a book to get from the library:
Last words : the final journals of William S. Burroughs

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger.