Sunday, 5 July 2009
NAKED LUNCH 50th ANNIVERSARY at the BEAT HOTEL, PARIS
July 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch by Olympia Press in Paris. To mark this auspicious occasion, this week the city hosted a number of events to pay tribute: Burroughs scholars attended a three day symposium; Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays was published; and at the site of the Beat Hotel, a commemorative plaque was unveiled.
The Beat Hotel, home at various times from 1957 to Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso at el, and birthplace of countless creations from poems to cut-ups, paintings to Dream Machines, closed in 1963 and is now the swanky Relais Hotel Vieux Paris. There’s nothing left of the old interior, save some timber beams and joists the new rooms have been built around. The rooms have been spruced up, decorated in sea of migraine inducing garishness: the same bright flowery pattern on the wallpaper, bedspread and headboard, curtains, cushions and table cloth. In its heyday it was officially known solely by the address of 9 Rue Git-Le-Coeur. The Beat Hotel title, given by Corso, made it sound grander than it was; in modern parlance it would be a shithole. There really was a hole in the floor the residents shat in, and those who didn’t bring their own paper made do with pages of the telephone directory. The rooms were known as cells, some, like Corso’s, you had to crawl on your knees to get in. There was little light and the electricity barely powered a dim light bulb and tiny radio in each room. What it did have was cheap rent, you were left alone, you could do what you wanted and providing the owner Madame Rachou (and her cat, Mirtaud) liked you, you’d have the authorities kept off your case. This freedom attracted the bohemian community of writers, poets, painters, photographers and prostitutes to live and for the Beats – especially Burroughs – to create.
Feeling the heat closing in on sweltering day fifty years later, around 80 people from both sides of the Atlantic and a film crew, gathered outside the hotel in the narrow Parisian alley to witness the unveiling of a “plaque commemorative”. Despite overlooking the Seine and across from Notre Dame, there’s little reason to venture down Rue Git-Le-Coeur so the event was mercifully spared rubbernecking passersby. Speeches and readings reverberated in the street, including lively tributes to Harold Norse, former resident and author of Beat Hotel who died only a few weeks earlier. A champagne reception was hosted in the hotel foyer where the old hotel café once stood and framed photographs of its famous residents looked down. A chap played the mandolin until the sweat and condensation on his glasses blinded him.
For all the beat associations with the site, the most famous is as the place Naked Lunch was finally completed. For years the manuscript was reworked and rewritten and rejected. Then, suddenly, Burroughs and pals had two weeks to type a completed version ready for publication by Olympia Press situated a few streets away.
So what would the plaque look like? What would it say? French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel had the honour of revelling all. On a transparent, rectangular sign, it read: “Beat Hotel. Ici vecurent: B.Gysin, H. Norse, G. Corso, A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, I. Sommerville, W. Burroughs y acheva le Festin Nu (1959)”. I was expecting something about Bill and Naked Lunch, or the Beats in general; I wasn’t expecting to see some of those names but I’m pleased they’re there although that feeling wasn’t shared by some the hardcore Burroughsians. “Peter Orlovsky? Ginsberg’s boyfriend. What did he ever do?” In fact, there was nothing to say who these people were. So an “I. Sommerville” lived there. Onlookers will ask who he was. What did he do? When did he live there? I’m wary of anyone who doesn’t know William Burroughs, yet I wouldn’t expect many to have the foggiest about Ian Sommerville.
From an aesthetic point of view, the font looked a bit crap; the way the names were arranged diagonally that made “Burroughs” out of line looked rubbish; the way the names were listed with initials was disappointing; and why that order? It wasn’t alphabetically, it wasn’t in order of their time there, so I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was a cut-up. It could – and should – have looked brilliant, yet looked like a bit more thought was needed. On the plus side, it’s at least something and a nice way to doff the fedora to a book that’s as startlingly original today as it was fifty years ago.
The Youtube footage I took is here