Surrealist life of William Burroughs far surpassed even that of his fiction


In 1959, the American cult writer, William Burroughs, at that time a relative newcomer, wrote to his one-time lover, the poet Allen Ginsberg: "Unless I can reach a point where my writing has the danger and immediate urgency of bull-fighting, it is nowhere." Almost everything about Burroughs, who died on Saturday at the age of 83, tended towards the most bizarre reaches of the extreme. Even his admirers would have to concede that the surrealism of Burroughs's life far surpassed even that of his fiction, which through its fantasies and nightmares, its obsessive images featuring the erections of hanged men and episodes of anal rape, offers the first portrait of the inner landscape of the post-war world. Author of Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961), Nova Express (1964), his literary immortality may come to rest on his first book, Junkie, which was published in 1953 and is the story of his life as a drug addict. Though he became a guru for many who regarded him as a prophet of the rebel era, Burroughs for all his personal rebellion against bourgeois society was never aggressive in his stance and instead opted for personifying the definitive drop-out. And drop out he did.

He was born in St Louis in 1914. His paternal grandfather had invented what was to become the Burroughs adding machine. While still a boy attending private school the outlaw figure of his future self was already apparent, causing the father of a school-mate to remark of him: "That boy looks like a sheep-killing dog." Burroughs for his part decided he was destined to be a misfit and not only fatalistically accepted this but pursued it as if it were a life choice. By 16, he had already begun to experiment with drugs.

Graduating from Harvard University already suffering from syphilis and confirmed in a low opinion of academic life, he had no other formal ideas or ambitions. However, his parents gave him a monthly allowance of $200. This financial support, which continued for the next 25 years, allowed him options. Moving on to New York, where he worked briefly as a private detective, he then began his travels. First port of call was New Orleans, from where he travelled on to Mexico, where he shot his wife dead in an accident: he was trying to shoot a glass off her head. Many claims have been made for his originality and Burroughs certainly experimented with a range of devices, frequently exploring the illogic of dreams. He always maintained one of his favourite novelists was William Golding.

Whether he in time proves to be the "pioneer mutant" he was once called by the critic Leslie Fiedler, William Burroughs for all the excess and gimmickry, remains a spokesman of the literary avant garde. When I met him in London shortly after he had recovered from heart treatment a decade ago, he seemed remarkably buoyant for a man in his 70s and exuded a boyishness which dispelled the more sinister aura often attributed to him. Burroughs was 10 years older than Ginsberg, who died on April 5th this year. With the deaths of Ginsberg and now Burroughs, only the novelist and composer Paul Bowles, still living in Tangier, remains as the last spokesman of the Beat generation.