William Burroughs’s most entertaining book? A review of Letters 1945-59.

The letters in this book- written mostly to Allen Ginsberg with some to other notable recipients like Jack Kerouac and Brion Gysin scattered among them- are amongst some of the most entertaining and well written by any writer that I’ve come across.

They cover a key period in Burroughs’s life, commencing in the mid 40s when he was trying to make a go of being a family man and a farmer. Odd to think of this latter day scourge of authority and conservatism worrying about how much his carrot and cotton crops will fetch, but he did all the same. Then comes the move to Mexico, the fatal ‘William Tell routine’ gone wrong when he shot his wife Joan, and the years of addiction and wandering, first through South America, and then to the Continent and North Africa.  All of this is fully documented here, at length and in fascinating detail.

If you want to learn more about what made Burroughs the man and the writer he was, and how his later world view developed, I think a lot of the answers are in these letters. Certainly without the letters I don’t think he could have been the writer he was. In fact on a very real level I don’t think he would have progressed as a writer at all without these letters as the initial spur to get his thoughts out and onto the page. They were his lifeline- at one stage he comments on how much he needs an audience, and for a long time Ginsberg and Kerouac fulfilled this role- at a time when he was effectively serving his writing apprenticeship, looking for things to write and still without an audience. The letters effectively kept him going and gave him a chance to develop. Also, we see his world view change and mature and by the end of this book we’ve seen him come to terms with his status as an outsider.

From would-be farmer worrying about how much his crops will yield, to a fully-fledged avant-garde artist in 15 years is pretty good going, Along the way there’s a lot of hardship, a lot of moaning about his lot and above all some genuinely funny passages. You can gain a lot from reading these letters in their own right, and if you’ve always been left cold by Burroughs or put off him, they will help you understand a lot more about why he wrote as he did and where his particular sardonic take on the world came from.

In a similar vein, the William Burroughs ‘reader’ called Word Virus is well worth a look.

In effect, this is Burroughs for slackers and lazy readers like me. I have had my copy for a fair while now, and I still regularly dip into it. While I think he’s a great writer, I have to admit that most of his work after Naked Lunch is a bit of a trial to get through. For example, whole novels written via the cut-up method are just too much for me to wade through, I’m afraid, even though I will readily admit that it can be a really exciting and often illuminating way of writing.

This is why this anthology is so valuable, in that it gives you tasters of everything of note he ever published. There is some stunning work in here, including samples of the very readable 1950s letters mentioned above, excerpts from early works like Junky and Queer, and also excerpts from Naked Lunch. There are also some stand alone gems collected in the book, like the chilling “Last Words” and also “Remembering Jack Kerouac”, a heartfelt and wise memoir of his friend and colleague, which manages to reveal a great deal about Burroughs himself, as well as his whole psychological approach to writing.

An extra bonus the extended biographical notes that link each section. These not only explain a lot of the work and put it into context, but they also fill you in on the key points of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary writing life.

This is perhaps all the Burroughs you will ever need, at least until you pluck up courage to get to grips with the individual texts in their entirety.

 

 

Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

Giuseppe-di-Lampedusa-in--006

Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.