The world of Burroughs is a dark, brooding place full of insanity, violent (homo)sexuality and blood. In his many letters you get the essence of the myopic innovator as he bums his way around Europe and North Africa in search of money, inspiration, rent boys and an elusive language of the future mutating before his very eyes. Much of it is mundane: complaints about people and places, disputes over money, teacherly advice to younger savants about his techniques and experiments, savage bitching about his publisher, snipes and gripes chalked up. Amongst the clutter of his letters is the man in quest of a new language made up of the fragments and dreams and overheard snippets of sentences, the shady world of narcotics addiction, low life associates and encounters. Life seen through the eye of the hypodermic needle. The concertina of Burrough's daily life was played out on a wheezing, rasping instrument (his own body) of his own fabrication and modulation. He is hungry for psychic relevance and signifcance in numbers, the alchemy of strange places and people's metamorphic expressions are pertinent and provocative. Reading his extraordinary novels is totally unlike reading his letters which are more humdrum, focused on the exasperating details of the day to day existence of the self imposed exile as anti-intellectual guru.This book offers curious glimpses into his wanderlust and is a useful compendium to anyone reading his other books.
I very much enjoyed the first volume of Burroughs' letters which spanned the beat days of 1944-1959 with the publishing of Naked Lunch.With this new volume we pick up his life post Naked Lunch and pre going back to new york and becoming the king of the punks.Its an odd time for Burroughs and makes oddly muted reading.Gone is the love sick terrified man of the early days,affection and companionship has replaced the sick love he felt for Ginsberg .Here we have a far more unapproachable Burroughs battling against Ron Hubbard and his publishers.In this period the cut ups were the most important factor in his work and its something I've never been able to enjoy very much (I think he should have stopped after the soft machine) and I find that Burroughs as a man is simply boring during this period too.I found myself skipping past great swathes of this book in frustration as he muses on the benefits of Scientology and his discussion of the cut ups which I also found extremely repetitive.Gone is the angry and frustrated nomad wondering the globe and instead we have a sedate man about town in quiet (relatively speaking) SW1.Whereas the first volume of letters were essential to our knowledge of Burroughs as a person I feel this volume as a mere afterthought.
I give this collection five stars because I think it truly a privilege to be able to read the letters of this unusual man. At the same time I have to admit that some of the content is over my head. However, there is also much that I found interesting. Many of the letters are to his old friend and collaborator Brion Gysin, and there are also letters to Ian Sommerville, son Billy (William Burroughs Jr), Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, mother Laura, Paul Bowles, assorted publishers and many others. Pleasant surprises for me include: Two letters in response to a proposal of marriage from someone he has never met who is threatening suicide: "I am saying no to your proposal of marriage as I would say no to any proposal of marriage. This is not a rejection of you. Our illusion systems simply do not coincide." Two letters to hustler/boyfriend John Brady : "And how many times have I told you that when you are in difficulties the `logical' thing to do is always wrong since it is just this `logic' that has put you in the present difficulties." A letter to Truman Capote: "As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me for a long time. This is my last visit."
I had really enjoyed the previous volume of letters (1949 - 1959). I found them very readable, funny, informative and they showed me a human side of Burroughs that I simply had not appreciated before. In contrast, I found this selection disappointing, and after an initial look gave up on them until my interest was rekindled recently by Barry Miles' excellent biography. I experience these letters as more detached, more unemotional, more intellectual and I am left feeling somewhat excluded from the inner Burroughs. This is particularly the case in his letters to Brion where I feel that I am missing something important that I don't understand. In this context I admit that I have never got into his writing from Naked Lunch on, I have never really understood his obsessive interest in cut-up methodology, and I am not a scientology initiate. At the same time I am very interested in Burroughs as an individual. I do appreciate that his interests in cut-ups and in scientology were very significant for him in his search for inner and outer freedom from his own conditioning/distress and that of those around him. I also appreciate that my experience of this collection of letters as disappointing may simply reflect Burroughs himself feeling more in control of his life and more at ease in himself.
One continued thread throughout these letters is the continued hope of selling his writings, of making money, and always being disappointed in this. I am impressed by how seriously he took his work and how hard he worked at his writing. I find his work rate the more impressive (assuming it is true) given that he was continually using drugs of one kind or another throughout this time.
I think this collection is a must for the serious dedicated Burroughs follower and there is much of interest. However I do think that the reader should be prepared for disappointment if he or she is hoping for significant revelation.
Letters are a dying form of communication. Where will we be in 50 years form now? Will anyone publish a book of email, tweets and Facebook postings? Maybe they will. If you want to read how relationships evolved and ideas developed before the Internet, and how events contribute to these changes, Burroughs letters are an excellent example of this. Read with the earlier Letters 1945-59 (Penguin Modern Classics) and you get know the real person a little more.