on 13 April 2014
If you have any interest in Burroughs at all then you have to read this well-written and informative biography. It builds on the earlier biography of Ted Morgan in that Miles had access to both Morgan’s taped interviews with Burroughs and to James Grauerholz’s extensive research. I think it sensible that James handed over the writing of this volume to Miles in that it must have been most difficult for James to write on a life in which he had been so closely involved. I hope we can look forward to a more intimate volume of memories from James in due course. Although Miles knew Burroughs over many years, he is a practised biographer of people that he has known well, and an experienced and very readable writer.
Sensibly Miles has chosen not to dwell on the most well known and already much documented events in Burroughs’ life, namely the deaths of David Kammerer and Joan Vollmer. There are interesting details of his earlier friendship with David Kammerer and Lucien Carr, but there is little more that seems to be able to be written on these matters unless the deaths of all the main protagonists has freed up sources that could not be used previously due to the seriousness of the crimes. However, there is a wealth of new information regarding Burroughs’ childhood and adult life prior to meeting Jack, Allen and Joan, which I found most interesting in giving me more of a sense of where he was coming from prior to the Beat saga. There is also much more detail on his social contacts in Tangier and on his later life in Kansas….and in fact much of interest in every phase of Burroughs’ life. I have read all biographies of the Beats as they have come out (and have probably forgotten most of them other than the vague outlines) but this in no way took away from my pleasure in reading this book. Although Ted Morgan’s effort was excellent, we have all been waiting for a new updated and overdue biography.
In any biography it must be difficult deciding what/who to keep in and leave out, and this must be very much the case with Burroughs given the length of his life and his interests. Personally I would like to have a lengthier explanation and discussion of his private magical world/beliefs, for example more detail on his thinking around psychic attack using cut-ups such as the Moka Bar incident, some verification/details of the alleged Abramelin working with Brion Gysin and Mikey Portman, more detail on his interest in the spirit worlds that he viewed through Brion’s paintings and his own shotgun blasted work. I hope that there will be a book focusing primarily on this significant aspect of Burroughs in due course. However, this excellent biography is a very solid and detailed account of a remarkable life. There is also a fair amount of linking of events and people to his written work, though not excessively so.
I thought that taking the Ugly Spirit as a starting point worked well in framing the biography. I am reminded in reading this biography of just how much therapy Burroughs experienced in his life. I think it likely that the extensive psychoanalysis in his 20s helped him find the independent thinking that is so marked in his life, as well as enabling him to feel more at ease with his own neediness, and be more comfortable with his subpersonalities. Burroughs had a remarkably keen mind and in his understanding of psychoanalytic theory he seems to have looked to identify significant trauma as the way forward in finding greater ease in himself. I wonder if the more recent understanding of object relations, attachment theory, and dissociative processes might have been a more helpful framework for his self-understanding. It may have been the mood I was in while reading, but I was very affected by what I experienced as his vulnerability and neediness in the years immediately after Joan’s death, particularly when in Morocco. I suspect that much of his interest in scientology was that it may have enabled him to find more distance from his emotional distress. It is hard to imagine the devastating effect on one of killing someone to whom one felt so close in a moment of unintended stupidity.
I am left with some wonderful images, for example:
Paul McCartney chatting with Burroughs and Ian Sommerville while composing Eleanor Rigby
An elderly Burroughs ecstatic at watching a thirteen foot King Cobra crawling around on his Lawrence sofa
Burroughs mistaking Sting and Andy Summers for plain clothes police: “I don’t know if you are holding, but someone told me that those guys over there are cops”.
on 6 June 2014
as usual, Barry Miles (a very talented & sympathetic yet rigorous biographer - having previously done Allen Ginsberg & Frank Zappa among other luminaries) has done a very thorough yet congenial job in laying out Burroughs' long & fruitful, albeit revolutionary life before us in all its varied panoply. Burroughs & his works, ideas & sympathies are judiciously put into context - having always been seen in terms of pejorative or reducible cliché,(drugs, homosexuality, loose living,unorthodoxy) - as a pariah's/outsider's & very 'weird', such as is seen in his notable works: Junky, Naked Lunch, Exterminator, Interzone, The yage letters, The cat Inside, & the Late trilogy (Cities of the red night, The place of dead roads,The western lands). we are given all the documented, colourful facts of this great writer's picaresque wanderjahre, with all his travels & encounters examined in fine detail. the controversial maverick that Burroughs was is empathetically explored & many angles pertaining to his rich & multifaceted life & ideas are exhaustively looked into. Burroughs' iconoclastic writing methods & the umpteen concerns & the significances that they deal with are gone into by Miles, without sparing us any of those more salacious or unconventional low-downs or indeed, without cosmeticising them or giving them a revisionist gloss. unlike that other, earlier biographer, Ted Morgan, whose nevertheless excellent biography of Burroughs petered out after arriving at Burroughs' 60's, Miles goes the entire distance by regaling us with the very wide-ranging & eventful lifespan right up to & including Burroughs' senescence, death & the aftermath in literary, cultural, & political terms & his inevitable absorption into the mainstream. notwithstanding, for those that may have not read his books, this biography renders a very informative & entertaining read & celebrates the life & works of arguably one of the greatest modern writers/thinkers gracing western culture . . . highly recommended