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#1976Club – “…the essence of self is words…” #williamsburroughs

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It’s become a tradition of mine during our club reading weeks to not only pull books from the mountainous TBR, but also try to read a variety of different kinds of work. So far this week I’ve focused on classic crime and highlighted some previous reads from 1976. Today is the turn of an author I read a lot of in my youth but who’s only featured a little on the Ramblings – William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs is best known as one of the triumvirate of American Beat authors, along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. A scion of the wealthy Burroughs adding machine family, he was a writer, visual artist and drug addict who’s now regarded as a major postmodern author. His works are often complex, and he helped popularise the cut-up technique which went on to be widely used, most notably by David Bowie. Burroughs was a controversial figure for many reasons: his sexuality, his drugs use, his killing of his wife in a shooting accident, and the extreme imagery in his writing. Yet as I commented on my review of his Penguin Modern, he can be “readable, entertaining, often funny and sometimes moving”. I haven’t read any of his heavier titles for decades, but I thought I would check to see if there were any of his writings available from 1976, and indeed there were.

The seventies for Burroughs were a strange time; hunkered down in his New York dwelling, ‘The Bunker’, he produced a number of experimental pieces, and I found two of these from 1976 hidden away in a collection I have called “The Burroughs File”. The works are “The Retreat Diaries” and “Cobble Stone Gardens” and so I figured the #1976Club would be a good time to reacquaint myself with Burroughs in provocative mode…

If I’m truly honest, these are not Burroughs at his easiest. “Retreat…” draws on a dream diary kept by the author when on a Buddhist retreat. By neccessity it’s a fragmentary work, filled with the strangeness and incoherence of half-remembered images that haunt the mind when asleep. Often beautiful sentences and phrases jump out, but there’s no single coherent narrative (although it *is* clear that Burroughs doesn’t agree that a Buddhist can make a good novelist, as he obviously intends to follow his muse whenever it appears, regardless of the strictures of the retreat!) In constrat, “Cobble Stone Gardens” (which is dedicated to the memory of the author’s parents) is much closer to Burrough’s more challenging works. Often scatalogical, full of startling and sexual imagery, it’s not for the faint hearted; yet, as with his other writings, there’ll be a sudden sentence or phrase which will jump out at you and stick in the mind. Part of the book seems to be fragmentary memories of his childhood, and I believe the original edition came with some very odd photographic illustrations…

Burroughs in 1983 – Chuck Patch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Both of these pieces originally appeared in small publications, and were gathered with a number of others in “The Burroughs File”, along with some reproductions of scrapbook entries plus commentary by James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ companion and amanuensis. The whole collection is worthy of exploration, giving a fascinating insight into the mind of a true maverick, a one-off writer who can be challenging and rewarding to read. His influence is wider than you might expect (as my review of “Mentored by A Madman” by Andrew Lees makes clear); and if you like a little challenge in your reading I can recommend him (although this is not necessarily the best place to begin). I’m really glad that 1976 has taken me in the direction of reading some Burroughs – a reminder of my reading roots and also of the need to not always take the easy reading option!

Penguin Moderns 25 and 26 – Left-field and kind of weird….

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It’s a little disconcerting how the Penguin Moderns pairs that I pull out to read often seem to fall quite naturally together. The last two, 23 and 24, were inspiration women authors; however 25 and 26 go off in a very different direction, with a duo of dudes who most definitely want to push the envelope!

Penguin Modern 25 – The Finger by William S. Burroughs

Burroughs is something of a notorious figure (or at least, he was, back when I was reading him in the 1980s!). Connected to the Beat movement by his friendship with Kerouac, Ginsberg et al, his writing is individual, often shocking and frequently labelled obscene because of its treatment of sex and drugs. Yet it’s also often very, very funny; and although things like “Naked Lunch” can be considered difficult to read, he’s also capable of much more straightforward narratives. This Penguin Modern gathers six short pieces, drawn from a collection called “Interzone” and they’re readable, entertaining, often funny and sometimes moving.

Burroughs in 1983 – Chuck Patch [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

So The Finger is a skewed tale of a deliberate amputation; The Junky’s Christmas a wistful and wishful-thinking fantasy; Lee and the Boys a vignette of life in Tangiers; In the Cafe Central captures the hidden truth beneath surface level impressions; and Dream of the Penal Colony is just that, a surreal imagining of imprisonment. The story that perhaps affected me most, though, was Driving Lesson; all of the stories in effect draw on Burroughs’ life featuring his alter ego Lee (autofiction again, anyone??), but this seemed rooted in his youth in St. Louis, scion of a rich family who couldn’t understand him, and there was an underlying sense of melancholy which touched me.

It was three o’clock in the morning. Not a car on the street, not a sound. A pocket of immobile silence… Jack’s face was blank, oblivious, the beautiful mouth a little open. Bill lit a cigarette from the dashboard lighter, muttering a denunciation of car lighters and car clocks. A piece of burning tobacco fell on his thigh, and he brushed away it away petulantly. He looked at Jack’s face and put the cigarettes away. The car had moved into a dream beyond contact with the lives, forces and objects of the city. They were alone, safe, floating in the summer night, moon spinning around the world. The dashboard shone like a fireplace, lighting the two young faces: one weak and beautiful, with a beauty that would show every day that much older; the other thin, intense, reflecting unmistakably the qualities loosely covered by the word ‘intellectual,’ at the same time with the look of a tormented, trapped animal. The speedometer crept up… 50… 60…

I haven’t read Burroughs in decades, though I do still have his books on my shelves. However, having read this, as well as Andrew Lees’ excellent “Mentored by a Madman“, I do find myself drawn back to his work. Perhaps a re-read is in order…

Penguin Modern 26 – The End by Samuel Beckett

In contrast, Beckett (an equally controversial author) is someone I’ve never read; the closest I’ve come is the old Open University version of “Waiting for Godot” featuring Leo McKern and Max Wall which used to turn up in the wee small hours of BBC2 decades ago. I found “Godot” intriguing, so why I’ve never explored Beckett’s writing is unclear… 😀

Samuel Beckett – Roger Pic [Public domain] – via Wikimedia Commons

Anyways, as they say, this Penguin Modern contains two stories by the great man, The End and The Calmative. Both were written in French and published in 1954; in 1967 they were translated into English, The Calmative by Beckett himself and The End by Richard Seaver in association with Beckett. And a strange little pair of fictions they are. Both are narrated by vagabonds; are they alive, are they dead, are the ill, do they really exist? Nothing is clear with Beckett, which is be expected I suppose, if “Godot” is anything to go by. The narrators wander; look for shelter; decay; beg; scrape together food occasionally; and ponder on the apparent reality around them. I’m not sure what to actually make of these stories – I guess I need to read a bit more of Beckett to get a handle on him – but they were unusual, entertaining, often bleakly funny and quite unsettling. Which is no doubt what the author intended… 😀

******

So what an unusual and thought-provoking pair of Penguin Moderns this was. I enjoyed re-encountering Burroughs and found myself intrigued by Beckett. The pair of Bs turned out to be bleak, black and often affecting. Yay for the Penguin Moderns for taking me to authors I wouldn’t necessarily seek out myself! 😀

Erasing the line between literature and science @ajlees @NottingHillEds

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Mentored by a Madman by A.J. Lees

One of the things I love about small and indie publishers is the sheer variety of books they publish. I love the quirky or the unusual or the frankly left of centre, and there’s often little of that to be found from mainstream books nowadays. A favourite imprint is Notting Hill Editions, and I’ve read and reviewed any number of their beautiful hardback essay collections – they really are a treat. However, they publish some of their works in very lovely paperback editions, with French flaps and slightly deckled edges; and a fascinating volume popped through my door recently, which turned out to be a quite marvellous, stimulating and rather unusual book!

The book is subtitled “The William Burroughs Experiment” which is actually the key to what this book is about. Lees is an award-winning neurologist, currently serving as Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London and University College London. According to Wikipedia, he’s been named in the past as the world’s most highly cited Parkinson’s disease researcher, and a quick look down their entry for him reveals that he’s been responsible for a number of breakthroughs in the treatment of that disease, as well as overseeing all manner of different branches of research,

“Mentored…” is a kind of memoir, where Lees looks back over his life and career, pinpointing the various junctures in his life where he’s had lightbulb moments, gone down dead ends, come back to follow a different path to then make those imaginative leaps that take research forward into uncharted territory. And running through all of this is the presence of author (and addict!) William S. Burroughs, creator of the alarming character of Dr. Benway, amongst other manic medics! (Here’s Burroughs/Benway in action – not for the faint-hearted!)

So taking your medical guidance from WSB might be regarded as the height of madness (which I suppose is where the title of this book comes from!); however as Lees reveals, while tracing his career, Burroughs actually turned out to be a surprisingly good guide when it came to exploring the possibilities of developing new drugs for use in the treatment of Parkinson’s. In particular, WSB’s championing of apomorphine (which he used to wean himself off junk) eventually lead to Lees exploring the use of that drug for treating the effects of Parkinson’s with some success…

Lees and Burroughs never met, though the former was an avid reader of the latter, and in later years made contact with a number of Burroughs’ friends and associates, often in serendipitous ways. And Lees obviously regards the presence of Burroughs in his life to be a constant, a thread always returned to and always providing guidance. As the author traces the line of his life and career, that willingness of Burroughs to look outside the box is reflected in Lees’ desire to explore the unusual and use his intuition, as well as refusing to be hidebound by bureaucracy when it comes to research; a tendency which has obviously borne fruit!

As a layperson, I did wonder whether I would be a bit overwhelmed by jargon when reading this book (a worry that has made me a little nervous also about approaching Oliver Sacks; coincidentally a friend and contact of Lees). However, the narrative is always clear and understandable, and absolutely fascinating. I followed Lees’ attempts to find solutions for his patients as anxiously as the families involved must have, cheering at successes and disappointed by set-backs; it’s an involving read. Lees also draws on the history of his field, looking back at the work of those who came before him; and reveals the influence, perhaps surprisingly, of Sherlock Holmes! One particularly valuable aspect seemed to be Burroughs’ understanding of the form addiction takes in humans, which was particularly relevant when Lees was dealing with addition issues arising from some treatments. As Lees reminds us:

He believed that all humans were hard-wired to be insatiable wanting machines. Sugar, laxatives and even shoplifting had the potential to become external objects of false satisfaction. Provided a novelty factor was introduced almost anything could be turned into a consumable. Corporations increased their stranglehold on the masses by alluring advertising. Junk was the ultimate merchandise and, in his paranoid but prescient world, a part of the global conspiracy.

Looking around at our rabid capitalist society, he’s not wrong, is he? 😦

What shone through very forcibly, however, was Lees’ humanity; at the root of all of his work is his care for his patients and (a rarity in my experience) he feels strongly that those being treated deserve compassion, understanding and respect. He also decries the control exerted by the pharmaceutical companies, who are only motivated by making huge profits and whose interests restrict the research process. It’s nowadays harder to take risks or imaginative leaps to try to find better cures for disease simply because if there isn’t big money in it, the companies have no interest. He laments the high prices they charge for some drugs, and certainly I’ve seen issues surrounding colleagues who need a particular medication but it’s expensive or impossible to source because of the control of the manufacturing companies. Lees rightly lambasts rigid, inflexible thinking and the concern only for money being the factors which control the development of new medicine, and he’s right; imagination and inventiveness are needed for exploration, and that’s sadly lacking nowadays, with attempts at innovation being drowned in red tape.

… I felt uncomfortable about a system where money was made out of illness and where the patient was treated as a customer. The company knew the price but not the value to the patients.

“Mentored by a Madman” was an absolutely fascinating read, and even if you know nothing about Burroughs I think you would get a lot out of this book (though personally, I read tons of his work back in the day and I’m a huge fan of his dark, dry wit and drawling delivery). Lees comes across as a humane and committed man, determined to do his best for his fellows and obviously frustrated by the modern money-men and the outsourcing of the NHS. As well as that, the book reflects the times, from the opening steps of his journey in the 1960s through the changing times of the end of the twentieth century and into our corporate modern world. I’m old enough to remember some of that, and it made me realise that although we’ve made many gains with progress, we’ve also lost so much individuality.

And, very importantly, Lees writes marvellously, proving that science and literature can combine in a work of art. His compassion shines through, his erudition is worn lightly and his book is never less than engrossing. “Mentored by a Madman” is not a book I would necessarily have stumbled across had it not been for Notting Hill Editions, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – a wonderful, subversive, enlightening and often moving reading experience.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

*****

Whilst noodling around online in prep for this post, I came across a number of interesting interviews with, and videos featuring, Andrew Lees talking about his life and work and books. These two – a conversation, and a reading plus interview session at Shakespeare and Co – are particularly fascinating for anyone wanting to explore further. There’s also plenty of Burroughs online, but you can find that yourself! 😀

 

 

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