Sunday, 22 February 2015

William S Burroughs: A Life

Back in the early half of last year I started on the 700-page behemoth, William S Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles. It's a recently-published biography, the first to emerge on the surrealist writer and heroin addict in a quarter of a century. This week I finished reading it.

William Burroughs (1914-1997) was a surrealist author, one of the founders of the “cut-up” technique of writing (literally slicing up printed works and mixing them with others) and a major heroin abuser. He was an outlaw not just because of his liberal drug stance: he was a gay man who lived in the USA and the UK during times when both countries were still prohibiting homosexuality.

The book charts his youth in St Louis, Missouri, where he went to school with the vampire hunter Vincent Price, his acceptance into Harvard, his migration to South America and the accidental killing of his wife (a marriage of convenience rather than love), the release of his most celebrated work, Naked Lunch, his time spent in Paris and London, and his twilight years state-side in Kansas.

The detail and level of research that Miles went to to produce this book is exceptional- granted, he was a friend of Burroughs for 30 years, so he would have some first-hand knowledge. But the interviews he conducted and the existing published material he unearthed must have taken a long time to collate. The notes accompanying the text, on their own, take up 37 pages of the book. It may be a lengthy account of the man's life but the content is always intriguing, usually bizarre and frequently laden with tense scenarios (The State Department trying to frame him for drug smuggling on one side of the Atlantic, and the Obscene Publications Squad trying to take Naked Lunch out of British book stores on the other).

I loved reading this book, even if I only read it in bursts. The first quarter I read over one weekend in early July. I was house-sitting a Rotary Centre in the Peak District whilst family and their college friends were out walking in the hills. The rest took until this week.

When you spend that much time reading about one person's life, you start to form a connection to the subject and you begin to sympathise with them (if you didn't after that many pages, something is wrong). So when you reach the section covering 2nd August 1997, you can't help be affected when the 83-year-old legendary writer slips out of the world on a Lawrence Kansas hospital bed.

A fantastic read. I'm looking forward to reading the Cut-up Trilogy.

I bought the book at an exhibition of Burroughs' photography in London.

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