Published: 20 February 2014
Updated: 16:12, 20 February 2014
William Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles (Weidenfeld, £30)
In 1958, after intercepting a letter from Allen Ginsberg to her son, Jack Kerouac’s mother wrote back: “You miserable bums all you have in your filthy minds is dirty sex and dope … we don’t want sex fiens or dope fiens around us.” (Sic.) Expressed more eruditely, and with better spelling, this was more or less the view of the Times Literary Supplement in its 1963 review — famously headlined “Ugh”— of William Burroughs’s first novel, Naked Lunch.
Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were the nucleus of the Beats, as they were known (the name has a quaint ring to it now), and you have to admit that dirty sex and dope were indeed major preoccupations of at least Burroughs and Ginsberg. But they were also interested in other things: Ginsberg, of course, in poetry and radical politics; and Burroughs in, to tot up some of his enthusiasms: guns, Scientology, alien abduction, Genet, shamanism, Beckett, cats and — a bit of a surprise to those who mainly know him as a celebrated heroin addict — good food.
You can count in the book’s authoritative bibliography around 50 books and significant studies of Burroughs and his circle; three of them are by Barry Miles himself. You might ask why or if we need another (Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw and Miles’s own El Hombre Invisible are, respectively, definitive and a good place to start); but this is a very creditable attempt to produce the last one we’ll need for a time.
Burroughs, who was a late starter as a writer, had managed to fill his first years with plenty of incident, starting when he was around four years old, when he claimed to an analyst that his nurse would fellate him in order to send him to sleep. Well, stranger things have happened, and it could account for a lot, but what Burroughs came to believe was that he had been possessed by something that he called (after it had been named by his friend, the painter Brion Gysin) Ugly Spirit, from his earliest youth. He believed this Ugly Spirit accounted for some of the worst episodes and impulses of his life, the most traumatic of which was his shooting of his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head after a drunken William Tell-inspired party trick went horribly wrong.
This is the incident which, above all others, inspired Burroughs to write, and much of his life and work can be interpreted as dealing with the guilt of that incident. (I am not inclined to dismiss the notion of Burroughs’s possession out of hand after reading this book; Miles opens with a description of an exorcism performed by a native American healer and calls his entire book “the story of William Burroughs’s battle with the Ugly Spirit” but he doesn’t plug away at this notion too hard or tiresomely at all.)
Miles’s biography separates the cult from the man and shows us that there were, in fact, deep roots to Burroughs’s other-worldly, alienated and unsettlingly affectless fiction — about which literary opinion is still divided. Which, 100 years after his birth, is quite impressive, really.
Go to standard.co.uk/booksdirect to buy this book for £23, or phone 0843 060 0029, free UK p&p