WITH WILLIAM BURROUGHS - A REPORT FROM THE BUNKER
By Victor Bockis
Peter Beard, Nicolas Roeg and William Burroughs at Victor Bockris' flat after their conversations. Photo by Bobby Grossman
DINNER WITH NICOLAS ROEG, LOU REED, BOCKRIS WYLIE AND GERARD MALANGA: NEW YORK 1978
BURROUGHS [talking about Graham Greene's Brighton Rock]: It's a good book. It's got a strange shape. He's suddenly saying you're a bad Catholic. That's a very good book.
NICOLAS ROEG: I'm interested by your liking Brighton Rock. It is an overlooked book in literature. Hands up those who read Brighton Rock? Excellent! Go to the top of the form. And stay there till I come for you.
BOCKRIS: What's that one about?
BURROUGHS: It's about boys-seventeen-year-old boooooooiiiiiyyyysss. With razor blades strapped on their fingertips or something. I never got into that razor blade thing exactly . . . Do you know a writer named Denton Welch?
ROEG.: Who was that?
BURROUGHS: He was sort of the original punk, and his father called him Punky. He was riding on a bicycle when he was twenty, and some complete cunt hit him and crippled him for the rest of his life. He died in 1948 at the age of thirty-three after writing four excellent books. He was a very great writer, very precious.
ROEG: Punk is a very good word. It's an old English word. Shakespeare used it and it originally meant prostitute. In fact, it used to appear in the forties in the movies. I guess it must have different connotations in America. I love the subtle differences in the language. Americans are able to cut it down and make it much slicker. Where we say lift you say elevator. Where you say automobile we say car.
Lou Reed came in with his Chinese girlfriend and some guitarists, sat down and immediately launched into a playful attack. He told Burroughs that he'd read his great essay called Kerouac in High Times and asked why he didn't write more stuff like that.
BURROUGHS: I write quite a lot.
Reed wondered whether Bill had written any more books with a straight narrative since Junky.
BURROUGHS: Certainly. Certainly. The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, for example. And my new novel, Cities of the Red Night, has a fairly straight narrative line.
I got up, went across the room and returned with a copy of The Last Words of Dutch Schultz. Reed asked if it was an opera.
BURROUGHS: No man, no. You don't know about the last words of Dutch Schultz? You obviously don't know. They had a stenographer at his bedside in the hospital taking down everything he said. These cops are sitting around asking him questions, sending out for sandwiches, it went on for 24 hours. He's saying things like, "A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim," and the cops are saying, "C'mon, don't give us that. Who shot ya?" It's incredible. Gertrude Stein said that he outdid her. Gertrude really liked Dutch Schultz.
BOCKRIS-WYLIE: Do you know where Genet is now?
BURROUGHS: Nobody knows. The people who know him just don't seem to know where he is. Brion knows him very well. I thought he was one of the most charming people I ever met. Most perceptive and extremely intelligent. While his English is nonexistent and my French very bad, we never had the slightest difficulty in communicating. That can be disastrous. You get a real intellectual French type like Sartre, the fact that I didn't speak French would just end the discussion right there.
BOCKRIS WYLIE: Where'd you meet Genet?
BURROUGHS: I met him in Chicago at the convention.
BOCKRIS-WYLIE: What was he like? What was he wearing?
BURROUGHS: He was wearing corduroy trousers and some old beat up jacket, and no tie. For one thing he's just completely there, sincere and straight-forward. Right there is Genet. When people were chased out of Lincoln Park, there was a cop right behind Genet with a nightstick and Genet turned around and did like this, "I'm an old man." And the guy veered away, didn't hit him. There were more coming up, so he went into an apartment at random, knocked at a door, and someone said, "Who's there?" He said, "MONSIEUR GENET!" The guy opened the door and it turned out he was writing his thesis on Genet. BOCKRIS-WYLIE: How do you feel about Cocteau? Proust?
BURROUGHS: l think Proust is a very great writer. Much greater writer than Cocteau or (Gide. I was in the army hospital in the process of getting discharged. And because of the bureaucracy it took four months for this to come through, so I had the time to read Remembrance of Things Past from start to finish. It is a terrifically great work. Cocteau appears as a minor poseur next to this tremendous work of fiction. And Gide appears as a prissy old queen.
BOCKRIS: I understand you met Céline shortly before he died?
BURROUGHS: This expedition to see Céline was organized in 1958 by Allen Ginsberg who had got his address from someone. It is in Meudon. across the river from Paris proper. We finally found a bus that let us off in a shower of French transit directions: "Tout droit, Messieurs . . . " Walked for half a mile in this rundown suburban neighborhood, shabby villas with flaking stucco-it looked sort of like the outskirts of Los Angeles-and suddenly there's this great cacophony of barking dogs. Big dogs, you could tell by the bark. "This must be it," Allen said. Here's Céline shouting at the dogs, and then he stepped into the driveway and motioned to us to come in. He seemed glad to see us and clearly we were expected. We sat down at a table in a paved courtyard behind a two-story building and his wife, who taught dancing-she had a dancing studio-brought coffee.
Céline looked exactly as you would expect him to look. He had on a dark suit, scarves and shawls wrapped around him, and the dogs, confined in a fenced-in area behind the villa, could be heard from time to time barking and howling. Allen asked if they ever killed anyone and Céline said, "Nooo. I just keep them for the noise." Allen gave him some books, Howl and some poems by Gregory Corso and my book Junky. Céline glanced at the books without interest and laid them sort of definitively aside. Clearly he had no intention of wasting his time. He was sitting out there in Meudon. Céline thinks of himself as the greatest French writer, and no one's paying any attention to him. So, you know, there's somebody who wanted to come and see him. He had no conception of who we were.
Allen asked him what he thought of Beckett, Genet, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henri Michaux, just everybody he could think of. He waved this thin, blue-veined hand in dismissal: "Every year there is la new fish in the literary pond.
"It is nothing. It is nothing. It is nothing," he said about all of them.
"Are you a good doctor?" Allen asked.
And he said: "Well . . . I am reasonable."
Was he on good terms with the neighbors? Of course not.
"I take my dogs to the village because of the Jeeews. The postmaster destroys my letters. The druggist won't fill my prescriptions. . . The barking dogs punctuated his words.
We walked right into a Céline novel. And he's telling us what shits the Danes were. Then a story about being shipped out during the war: the ship was torpedoed and the passengers are hysterical so Céline lines them all up and gives each of them a big shot of morphine, and they all got sick and vomited all over the boat.
He waved goodbye from the driveway and the dogs were raging and jumping against the fence.
BOCKRIS: Who else do you read?
BURROUGHS: A writer who I read and reread constantly is Conrad. I've read practically all of him. He has somewhat the same gift of transmutation that Genet does. Genet is talking about people who are very commonplace and dull. The same with Conrad. He's not dealing with unusual people at all, but it's his vision of them that transmutes them. His novels are very carefully written.
BOCKRIS: Is there anyone in particular who influenced your work?
BURROUGHS: I'd say Rimbaud is one of my influences, even though I'm a novelist rather than a poet. I have also been very much influenced by Baudelaire, and St.-John Perse, who in his turn was very much influenced by Rimbaud. I've actually cut out pages of Rimbaud and used some of that in my work. Any of the poetic or image sections of my work would show his influence.
MALANGA: Are you very self-critical or critical of others?
BURROUGHS: I'm certainly very self-critical. I'm critical of my work. And I do a great deal of editing. Sinclair Lewis said if you have just written something you think is absolutely great and you can't wait to publish it or show it to someone, throw it away. And I've found that to be very accurate. Tear it into small pieces and throw it into someone else's garbage can. It's terrible!
MALANGA: Do you have a lot of secrets?
BURROUGHS: I would say that I have no secrets. In the film The Seventh Seal the man asked Death, "What are your secrets?" Death replied, "I have no secrets." No writer has any secrets. It's all in his work.
MALANGA: In an article by your son that appeared in Esquire you were quoted as saying, "All past is fiction." Maybe you could explain this further.
BURROUGHS: Sure. We think of the past as being something that has just happened, right? Therefore, it is fact; but nothing could be further from the truth. This conversation is being recorded. Now suppose ten years from now you tamper with the recordings and change them around, after I was dead. who could say that wasn't the actual recording? The past is something that can be changed, altered at your discretion. [Burroughs points to the two Sonycorders facing each other that are taping this dinner.] The only evidence that this conversation ever took place here is the recording, and if those recordings were altered, then that would be the only record. The past only exists in some record of it, right? There are no facts. We don't know how much of history is completely fiction. There was a young man named Peter Webber. He died in Paris, I believe, in 1956. His papers fell into my hands, quite by chance. I attempted to reconstruct the circumstances of his death. I talked to his girlfriend. I talked to all sorts of people. Everywhere I got a different story. He had died in this hotel. He had died in that hotel. He had died of an OD of heroin. He had died of withdrawal from heroin. He had died of a brain tumor. Everybody was either lying or covering up something; it was a regular Rashomon [reference is to the Japanese film in which everybody gives a different account of the story; even the dead man who they bring back with a medium tells a completely different story] or they were simply confused. This investigation was undertaken two years after his death. Now imagine the inaccuracy of something that was one hundred years ago! The past is largely a fabrication by the living. And history is simply a bundle of fabrication. You see, there's no record this conversation ever took place or what was said, except what is on these machines. If the recordings were lost, or they got near a magnet and were wiped out, there would be no recordings whatever. So what were the actual facts? What was actually said here? There are no actual facts.
MALANGA: Is ESP something that has helped you m your writing?
BURROUGHS: Yes, I think all writers are actually dealing in this area. If you're not to some extent telepathic, then you can't be a writer, at least not a novelist where you have to be able to get into someone else's mind and see experience and what that person feels. I think that telepathy, far from being a special ability confined to a few psychics is quite widespread and used every day in all walks of life. Watch two horse traders. You can see the figures taking shape . . . "Won't go above . . . won't go below." Card players pride themselves on the ability to block telepathy, the "poker face." Anybody who is good at anything uses ESP.
Interrupting Bill again, thou asked him which one of his books was his favorite.
BURROUGHS: Authors are notoriously bad judges of their own work. I don't really know . . .
Reed claimed that he had gone out and bought Naked Lunch as soon as it was published. He then asked what Burroughs thought of City of Night by John Rechy and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, adding that these two books couldn't have been written without what Burroughs had done.
BURROUGHS: I admire Last Exit to Brooklyn very much. you can see the amount of time that went into the making of that book. It took seven years to write. And I like Rechy's work very much too. We met him out in L.A. Very pleasant man, I thought; we only saw him for about half an hour.
Reed asked whether Rechy had read Burroughs.
BURROUGHS: I didn t ask him, no.
Changing his tack radically, Lou said he'd heard that Burroughs had cut his toe off to avoid the draft.
BURROUGHS [chuckling]: I would prefer to neither confirm nor deny any of these statements.
Lou then wanted to know why Bill had used the name William Lee on Junky.
BURROUGHS: Because my parents were still alive and I didn't want them to be embarrassed.
Reed asked whether Burroughs' parents read. BURROUGHS: They might have.
Reed told Bill that he felt Junky was his most important book because of the way it says something that hadn't been said before so straightforwardly. Reed then asked Bill if he was boring him.
BURROUGHS [staring blankly at the table]: Wha . . . ?
|William Burroughs' and Brion Gysin's resources
EnglishOn writing: Dîner with Nicolas Roeg, Lou Reed, Bockris-Wylie and Gerard Malanga : New York 1978 DINNER WITH SUSAN SONTAG, STEWART MEYER, AND GERARD MAL.ANGA: NEW YORK 1980
On Politics: DINNER WITH SUSAN SONTAG: NEW YORK 1980
FrenchSur l'écriture: Dîner avec Nicolas Roeg, Lou Reed, Bockris-Wylie et Cérard Malanga: New York 1978 Dîner avec Susan Sontag, Stewart Meyer et Gérard Malanga : New York 1980 Sur la Politique: Dîner avec Susan Sontag - New York 1980
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