Beatnik Bohemia

As Reviewed By: Ernest Hilbert

The Beat Hotel by Barry Miles. Grove Press. 294 pages. $24.95.

The byronic images and locales of La Boheme, Giacomo Puccini’s nineteenth-century depiction of classically starving artists in Paris’s Latin Quarter, have come to dominate, rather predictably, portrayals of young artists, writers, and singers: whiskered rogues in whose unwashed ears the muses Aoide, Erato, and very often Melpomene whisper. This is almost too picturesque to be believed, but it is, perhaps not so surprisingly, frequently the case, as much in the outer boroughs of New York City today as Paris of 1880. With the Beatniks, who made a universal event of bohemian activity, this sensibility was magnified tenfold in the Paris of the 1950s and early 60s. Barry Miles, the Boswell of the group, returns with yet another tale of Beatnik idealism and legendary misbehavior.

[private]Miles believes that the Beat Hotel, located fittingly in Paris’s Latin Quarter, is as important a geographic locus of Beat literature as Haight Ashbury and the West Village were before it. By all accounts it was Gregory Corso who first referred to 9 rue Git-le-Cœur as the Beat Hotel, pointing some young hipsters back there to meet Allen Ginsberg, the already well-known author of Howl. The Beats were drawn there for its low rents as much as its insouciant artistic milieu. Madame Rachou, the hotel’s matron, enjoyed having artists in the hotel and was very permissive, so long as overnight guests signed the register, a perfunctory police regulation.

9 rue Git-le-Cœur was classified as the lowest grade of hotel by the French government, which meant that it merely had to maintain the simplest of ordinances and was otherwise left alone. Rats scurried through the halls and eminent editors turned back in their quests to locate the Beats after slipping on dog shit in the stairwells. Many of the walls were almost literally paper-thin. The inhabitants of multiple floors shared, sometimes reluctantly, a single bathroom (usually daubed with urine and vomit), and some rooms had a very low-voltage outlet (use of a hotplate, for instance, would often blow the fuse for the whole floor). Patrons came and went at will, so long as they were paid up.

Madame Rachou accepted canvases and manuscripts in lieu of rent but rarely kept them, as she was certain that they were valueless (it is likely that she innocently discarded an accumulation that today would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars). Three of the principal four Beat authors enjoyed remarkably prolific periods at the hotel. William Burroughs, who spent the most time there, was at first reluctant to move there from Tangiers, where pliant Arab boys and stupefacient powders were inexpensive and licit. Gregory Corso, the most exclusively poetic and bohemian of the group, relied on it as a command center during his travels through Europe. Allen Ginsberg, certainly the most famous Beatnik in the world at the time (Jack Keruoac had not yet published On the Road when the Beat Hotel was christened) was feted by moneyed Europeans and thronged by disciples, lecturing his many guests on the ways and hopes of the Beat movement.

It was in the hotel that the triumvirate of Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky devised (insofar as this was possible) their scheme for the “international Love Brain”, which would be brought about once sexual promiscuity of unprecedented levels dispersed “love” across all borders thus annulling jurisdictions and nations. The Beats, undoubtedly the most enduringly peripatetic literary movement in American history, treated 9 Git-le-Cœur in several ways: first as a bohemian refuge from American drug laws and claustrophobic sexual climate; second as a party den (an aesthete’s fraternity house of sorts); and third as factory and headquarters.

There is little question that the three spent a great deal of time writing while there, and this is the real reason that it is of interest to us (they could have gotten high and laid anywhere, and did). Arts patrons and literati who sought them out expecting to witness a reenactment of the gilded Paris of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce were distressed to find instead a decidedly unsartorial group that sometimes went days without eating and was nearly always drunk or stoned.

Nonetheless, Allen Ginsberg wrote some of his better poems there, including ‘To Aunt Rose’, ‘At Apollinaire’s Grave’ (he left a copy of Howl and Other Poems on the grave for Apollinaire “to read in heaven”), and an early draft of what would become the fifth section of his best long poem, ‘Kaddish’. Gregory Corso wrote ‘Marriage’ and ‘Bomb’ there, as well as most of the other poems that wound up in his most popular collection, The Happy Birthday of Death (still available after twelve printings). Burroughs hurriedly arranged and edited Naked Lunch (formerly Interzone and thenThe Naked Lunch) while there. In fact, in the latter days of the hotel, Burroughs spent long hours nearly every day, despite a sometimes nearly crippling addition to various opiates, working on his radical reformulation of language and compositional technique, which he termed “cut-ups”, and later the audio extension of these experiments, “cut-ins”, with Brion Gyson.

They were, by standards then and now, a feral band. They managed to get themselves into ample trouble, and often they seem to have been deliberately glib and vulgar, posing for the international news media (the Parisians resolutely ignored them; they had seen more compelling artistic movements). France had by the late 1950s sunk into a vicious internal conflict over the Algerian bid for independence, with the colonial (known as “colons”) determination to retain the territory under French authority. The colonial position was sanctioned and actively supported by the military, creating a debilitating impasse. The gendarmes had little time to bother with a few shabby American expatriates with a penchant for boys and heroin.

There is no dearth of lewd anecdotes extending from this period of expatriation, and Barry Miles has no interest in holding any back; these stories are, after all, the warp and woof of the generation’s legacy. Ginsberg emerges as a very intelligent, if neurotic, poet with considerable ambition, taking advantage of the publicity occasioned by the San Francisco obscenity trial for his first book, Howl and Other Poems (during which he was conspicuously absent). Deluged with correspondence from overeager acquaintances and remote followers, Ginsberg complained that he rarely had time to write poetry (this condition would persist to the end of his life). LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka’s given name) posted a letter to Ginsberg on toilet paper, asking him to contribute to his new literary magazine; Ginsberg replied, suggesting a number of potential contributors, on French toilet paper, which Jones remarked was far more sturdy and better for writing. Ginsberg very actively proclaimed the putative genius of his friends (and loves), and was responsible for most of the Beat literature that found its way into print (he successfully lobbied for Keruoac’s first book Town and Country with Harcourt Brace, Burroughs’s first book Junkie with Ace Books, and Corso’s second collection Gasoline with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books). One could successfully argue that there wouldn’t have been a Beat generation if it hadn’t been for the emissarial efforts of Ginsberg, who, despite his iconic pre-hippie façade, was a very capable editor and critic, even if his judgment was sometimes fogged by his unswerving dedication to his friends.

It is also during this period that Time-Life increased its long love-hate engagement with the constantly self-publicizing Beats. Whatever the merits of their art, they made great copy and scared straight America out of all proportion to their actual activities (J. Edgar Hoover named Beatniks one of the top three threats to American national security). Ginsberg was very literary, and he made much of his time in Paris, visiting gravesites and museums, frequenting clubs and cafés, wandering the labyrinthine medieval streets of Paris’s Left Bank. He, along with Gregory, who was always out for kicks when not pursuing women in the Parisian night, would smoke hashish and visit the Louvre or stare at gargoyles at Notre Dame.

Although he spent a short time in Paris en route to New York from Tangiers with an early version of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in his knapsack for a potential Parisian publisher, Keruoac never felt entirely at ease away from his native hangouts and, after the publication of On the Road, rarely ventured far from his mother’s Long Island home (readers often forget that the laureled bard of the open road spent most of his time drinking beer in his mom’s living room). He admitted that while among the narrow European streets he longed for Wheaties and the household aroma of pine cleaner in the American morning.
Gregory Corso, who threw himself with glee into the uninhibited Beat lifestyle in Paris, considered himself a poet in the classical sense, as touched by the muse and insulated, in a saintly way, from society at large. He lived primarily on the largesse of young women, usually of good family, who supported his various romps and jaunts around the continent. He once told Art Buchwald in an interview for The Herald Tribune: “I get money from girls. Everytime [sic] I meet a girl I ask her how much money she has and then I demand half of it. I’m not doing anything wrong with money. I just use it to buy food.” He inhabited the attic room of the hotel and strolled the boulevards with cane and cape, declaring himself a poet (at a Joan Miro opening, he shouted to Picasso “I am starving. I am starving” before being removed from the room). He lived the eccentric and generally squalid life that he and others believed suited a poet, replete with dingy garret, Shelleyan garb, pockets empty save for poems, and presumptuous belief that he, being gifted with the wings of poesy, should be permitted to do pretty much whatever he liked whenever he liked. While they may have caused a great deal of loathing and even fist-fights at the time, his exploits are amusing to recount.
William Burroughs, the elder of the group by more than a decade, is, without question, the most inexplicable and mysterious member of the Beats. He undertook his most important work while at the hotel. It is there that the bizarre Routines, originally written into letters to Ginsberg (with whom Burroughs was at that time infatuated), were revised and arranged into the manuscript of Naked Lunch for littérateur and pornographer Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press, which published primarily adult books, or DBs, dirty books (usually written by literary if impecunious figures such as Guillaume Apollinaire). Girodias only agreed to publish the book after the scandal it produced in culturally-hidebound Chicago, where several chapters intended for the Chicago Review were suppressed and then later seized when published in the magazine Big Table (although he had nothing to do with the publication itself, the name of the magazine was Keruoac’s; when petitioned for a suggestion, he glanced around his desk and saw a note to himself reading “buy big table”).
Burroughs also first began with the technique of cut-ups and fold-ins at the hotel. Along with a small group of other authors, he developed a method of composition that incorporated an element of chance with an almost painterly degree of relational deliberation: sections from a newspaper or book would be cut apart and rearranged to “get at” the hidden meanings behind the original syntax. Burroughs approached this system with a gravity approaching that of science or occultism, both of which appealed to him (John Ashbery, who lived in Paris during the Beats stay there, applied the technique of cut-ups and collage in his most difficult and critically-disputed book, The Tennis-Court Oath; despite this affiliation of technique, there is no record of Ashbery having encountered any of the Beats). His second novel, The Soft Machine, was also written (assembled) in this manner and published by Olympia while he was at the hotel (though he was forced to make it more accessible for American publication by Barney Rossett’s Grove Press).
Brion Gyson’s experiments with visual Alpha Wave manipulation took place at the hotel as well, resulting in his creation, the Dreammachine (a device consisting of a band with exposures revolving around a light at a speed between eight and thirteen times per second in order to stimulate dream-waves).
The second half of the hotel’s existence as Beat center of operations, after Ginsberg returned to New York to enjoy his celebrity, is centered on the collaborative work of Burroughs and Gyson, with some interaction with Cambridge mathematics undergraduate (and Burroughs’s paramour) Ian Sommerville and South African poet Sinclair Beiles, who went mad not long after indulging in the reintegrative (and at times disintegrative) endeavor of cut-ups (Burroughs attributed Beiles’s insanity directly to revelations issuing from his cut-ups). These “experiments” continued until the hotel’s closing in the spring of 1963.
Much as David Lehman’s friendship with member of the New York School poets attributed greatly to the buoyancy and authority of his The Last Avant Garde, Barry Miles had the good fortune to have known many of the Beats personally and so was able to make use of privately recorded interviews and even bits of personal conversation. His association also provided him with unprecedented access to manuscripts and other artifacts. Though the Beat Hotel period predates his involvement with the Beats, he resides in France and is qualified where matters of geography and French language are concerned. Though he falls prey to some of the myth-making that so often clouds accounts of the Beats, this is actually a benefit in the case of The Beat Hotel, as it mirrors the boyish hyperbole with which the Beats approached their surroundings and themselves (the book, being a history, is, however, in drastic need of an index).
Miles’s intimate history is also attractive for its coverage of the brief contact the Beats had with other figures of considerable artistic importance, such as W.H. Auden, Günter Grass, and Marcel Duchamp. These meetings are fascinating, and they throw the movements and aspirations of the Beats into relief against a broader historical and artistic canvas. Like Miles’s other books, his biographies of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, The Beat Hotel rewards those seeking the clamorous ghosts of America’s most famous prodigal sons in all their exilic glory and awkward beauty.

Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in NowCulture. [/private]

About Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert edited the Contemporary Poetry Review from 2005 until 2010. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review. His debut collection is Sixty Sonnets (2009). He graduated from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He hosts the popular blog and video show and is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
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