William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and the Beat Hotel

Danger Cover

In a piece I wrote last month on William Burroughs, and the composition and publication of his 1959 novel Naked Lunch, I noted his defining relationship with the artist Brion Gysin. Burroughs and Gysin met while staying at the ‘Beat Hotel’ in Paris – which had become a hub for the Beats upon Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky joining Gregory Corso there in October 1957. Corso endowed the forty-two cheap rooms at 9 rue Gît-le-Cœur, in Paris’s Latin Quarter, with their famous appellation.

The hotel and its bar and café were run by Madame Rachou, who in 1933 had opened the place with her husband. It offered intermittent hot water, a bath only on the ground floor, and changed bed linen once a month at most; while Burroughs would recall the frequent early-morning checks carried out by French immigration officials:

‘The immigration police made passport checks from time to time, always at eight in the morning, and would often take away some guest whose papers were not in order. The detainee would be back in a few hours, having paid—not a fine—but a tax, attendant on the application for a carte de sejour; though few had the time and patience to fulfill the complex bureaucratic regulations required to obtain this coveted document.’

But Madame Rachou protected her tenants from the local police, some of whom she had worked with during the Resistance; and she offered a warm welcome to her carefully selected artists, whom she often allowed to stay in return for artworks rather than rent. After the death of her husband in an automobile accident, just prior to the arrival of the Beats, it was to these artists that she increasingly turned for friendship. Brion Gysin became especially friendly with Madame Rachou. In The Third Mind, published in 1978, he fondly recollected:

‘I view life as a fortuitous collaboration ascribable to the fact that one finds oneself in the right place at the right time. For us, the “right place” was the famous “Beat Hotel” in Paris, roughly from 1958 to 1963.’

And in the same book, written in collaboration with Burroughs, Gysin evaluated the late evolution of Naked Lunch and the innovation of the cut-up technique which would prove pivotal for both of their careers:

‘William Burroughs and I first went into techniques of writing, together, back in room #15 of the Beat Hotel during the cold Paris spring of 1958. Naked Lunch manuscript of every age and condition floated around the hermetically sealed room as Burroughs, thrashing about in an ectoplasmic cloud of smoke, ranted through the gargantuan roles of Doc Benway, A. J., Clem & Jody and hundreds of others he never had time to ram through the typewriter. “Am I an octopus?” he used to whine as he shuffled through shoals of typescript with all tentacles waving in the undersea atmosphere.

It looked, in those days, as though Naked Lunch, named so long before its birth by Kerouac, might never see the light of day outside room #15.

[…]

Burroughs was more intent on Scotch-taping his photos together into one great continuum on the wall, where scenes faded and slipped into one another, than occupied with editing the monster manuscript. When he found himself in front of the wrecked typewriter, he hammered out new stuff. There were already dozens of variants and, if something seemed missing, slices of earlier writing slid silently into place alongside later routines because none of the pages was numbered.

What to do with all this? Stick it on the wall along with the photographs and see what it looks like. Here, just stick these two pages together and cut down the middle. Stick it all together, end to end, and send it back like a big roll of music for a pianola. It’s just material, after all. There is nothing sacred about words.

“Word falling. Photo falling. Breakthrough in grey room.”

Naked Lunch appeared and Burroughs disappeared. He kicked his habit with apomorphine and flew off to London to see Dr Dent, who had first turned him on to the cure.

While cutting a mount for a drawing in room #15, I sliced through a pile of newspapers with my Stanley blade and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about he necessity for turning painters’ techniques directly into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts that later appeared as “First Cut-Ups” in “Minutes to Go.” At the time I thought them hilariously funny and hysterically meaningful. I laughed so hard my neighbors thought I’d flipped. I hope you may discover this unusual pleasure for yourselves—this shortlived but unique intoxication. Cut up this page you are reading and see what happens. See what I say as well as hear it.’

For his part, Burroughs reflected on his own behalf:

‘The cut-up method was used in Naked Lunch without the author’s full awareness of the method he was using. The final form of Naked Lunch and the juxtaposition of sections were determined by the order in which material went – at random – to the printer’.

* * *

While the photographer Harold Chapman is the best known documentarian of the Beats in Paris – and was apparently the last to leave the Beat Hotel when it closed in 1963, as Madame Rachou moved to a new location just across the street – Brion Gysin also took a series of photographs shortly after the publication of Naked Lunch, as a means of publicising Burroughs and his novel.

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William Burroughs outside the Institut française, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs outside the Institut française, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs and Maurice Girodias on the corner of the rue Gît-le-Cœur and quai des Grands-Augustins, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs on the corner of the rue Gît-le-Cœur and quai des Grands-Augustins, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs and Maurice Girodias walking along the rue Gît-le-Cœur, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs in front of the Beat Hotel on the rue Gît-le-Cœur. Madame Rachou’s name is on the door behind him. Photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs standing by an automobile and two drunks, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs overlooking the Seine, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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William Burroughs sitting outside the café La Palette on the rue de Seine, photographed by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.

As part of the same series, Ian Sommerville – Burroughs’ partner during this period – took hold of the camera for a couple of photographs of Gysin.

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Brion Gysin and friend, photographed by Ian Sommerville. Paris, October 1959.
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Brion Gysin, photographed by Ian Sommerville. Paris, October 1959.

And a discrete set of photographs taken by Gysin at the same time, known as the ‘Danger Series’, show Burroughs with a cigarette in front of construction work outside of the old Théâtre Odeon, not far from the rue Gît-le-Cœur.

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Danger I. Photograph by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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Danger II. Photograph by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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Danger III. Photograph by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.
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Danger IV. Photograph by Brion Gysin. Paris, October 1959.

Burroughs, W. S. & Gysin, B. The Third Mind (New York: Viking Press, 1978). Via Nikoskorpio.net.

Miles, B. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963 (Grove Press, 2001). Excerpt via The New York Times.

Miles, B. William S. Burroughs: A Life (Hachette, 2014). Preview via Google Books.

Photographs via October Gallery and Maggs.com.