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The Boston Phoenix Paris Beat

Ginsberg and company howl

By William Corbett

AUGUST 21, 2000: 

Barry Miles has published biographies of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. He seems to know all there currently is to know about the Beat Generation. In The Beat Hotel Miles recycles this knowledge, focusing on the fleabag Paris hotel at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur in the Latin Quarter where Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the obstreperous Gregory Corso lived on and off from 1957 to 1963. Miles writes clear journalistic prose and this is a lively book, but it breaks no new ground. Which probably does not matter. American readers are a bottomless pit where the Beats are concerned.

In 1957 before Ginsberg's Howl had been acquitted of obscenity, before Kerouac's On the Road appeared, and thus before the Beat Generation became public, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Corso went to Paris. Burroughs soon joined them from Tangiers. They were there to do what American writers and artists had been doing since the beginning of the century -- enjoy the freedom of a cosmopolitan city. They imbibed all varieties of dope and drink, had myriad sexual adventures separately and together, talked through many nights, and generally raised hell. They did not learn French, and beyond sightseeing (in which Burroughs did not participate), they had little contact with French literary or artistic life. Paris was cheap, and the authorities left foreigners, with the exception of Arabs, alone. This was perfect for men who carried on flamboyantly. In America they would have landed in jail.

Back in the states, Kerouac, who never stayed at the Beat Hotel, published On the Road, bringing the Beat Generation to the notice of Life magazine. His best work behind him, his alcoholism worsening, Kerouac must have shared Jackson Pollock's alarm after Life featured him and his work. Pollock had remarked that he felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. Miles reports that Ginsberg in Paris was already tired of being Allen Ginsberg. The Beat Hotel catches these men just before celebrity changed all their lives and just after.

The book is essentially in two parts: 1) the year and a half Ginsberg lived at the hotel before returning to New York in 1958, and 2) the years Burroughs stayed on, joined by the painter and writer Brion Gysin, to finish Naked Lunch and see it published by Maurice Girodias's notorious Olympia Press. Miles reminds us that these men were working writers (women were, in the phrase of Kerouac's lover, memoirist and novelist Joyce Johnson, "minor characters"). For all their beatnikery, Ginsberg wrote a number of fine poems while in Paris (the often-anthologized "To Aunt Rose" among them), Corso wrote up a storm, and Burroughs worked intermittently on the pages that became Naked Lunch.

It has been pointed out that the Beats lived boy's-book lives. Their interests may not have been as innocent as those of Huckleberry Finn, but they had "lit out for the territory" and were responsible first to the experiences they craved. Not that they stopped at these experiences. That is what bohemians did. Ginsberg and company exhaustively analyzed the sex, drugs, and drunken high jinks in the Beat Hotel and after. These men had a need to tell one another everything and then to write most of it down. For them the examined life was the only one worth living.

On a rainy April night in 1958 I ran away from the Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut. I had just read On the Road and my destination was -- well, I did not know exactly where I was going. I had no idea the Beats were in Paris. As I sat by the deserted highway in Newtown at 3 a.m., the sense that I had nowhere to go knocked me off course. I hitchhiked and trudged back to Wooster, sneaking into my bed, exhausted and forlorn, just as the morning bell rang. Today a 15-year-old could plot his course on the World Wide Web and use his credit card to get him to wherever he chose to be.

It is impossible to read The Beat Hotel without thinking about how times have changed. Paris is no longer cheap enough to be a movable feast. To live in Manhattan, where the Beats began, the young need wealthy parents or dot-com fortunes of their own. What has not changed is how rare friends of the heart are. The fidelity of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso to one another over almost 50 years is exemplary. Norman Podhoretz once dismissed them as "know-nothings," and he has bragged in print of his many ex-friends, Allen Ginsberg prominently among them. Anyone can make enemies in argument; few among us can sustain friendship. The Beat Hotel records moments in the lives of men who stayed friends while writing more memorable pages than Mr. Podhoretz or any of their other critics.


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