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John Boland on a new biography marking the centenary of the birth of William Burroughs


Influence that transcended the literary: William Burroughs even had a walk-on cameo in one of U2’s videos

Influence that transcended the literary: William Burroughs even had a walk-on cameo in one of U2’s videos

Admired: William Burroughs featured in the iconic ‘Sgt Peppers’ album cover

Admired: William Burroughs featured in the iconic ‘Sgt Peppers’ album cover

William Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles

William Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles


Influence that transcended the literary: William Burroughs even had a walk-on cameo in one of U2’s videos

In his severely-cut three-piece suits he looked like an uptight accountant, yet he was known as the Godfather of Punk.

 For most of his adult life he was a drug addict, yet he managed to survive until the age of 83. Born into a wealthy family of St Louis industrialists, he nonetheless believed that he and the rest of the human race were descended from a race of alien insects.

But then contradictions abounded in the life and personality of William Burroughs, who was born 100 years ago this month and who died in 1997.

He was gay but twice married. He was vehemently anti-bourgeois but lived on an allowance from his parents until well into middle-age. His literary work was prosecuted for obscenity but he ended up being feted by the American Academy. And after a lifetime visiting exotically seedy hotspots around the globe (Tangiers he especially loved as "a promised land flowing with junk and boys"), he opted to finish his days amid the conformity of rural Kansas.

He was notable, too, in that his influence transcended the merely literary, his disciples including filmmakers, painters and such diverse musicians as Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain and Bono – his image appearing on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, while 20 years later he had a walk-on cameo in one of U2's videos.

However, he was extravagantly admired by fellow writers, too – his youthful flatmate and long-time friend Jack Kerouac deeming him the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift", JG Ballard calling him "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War" and Norman Mailer declaring him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius".

But then the flamboyant Mailer, who liked to cultivate the image of a hard man, probably saw in Burroughs someone far more transgressive, both in his life and in his writings, than he himself would ever be. Indeed, although a drunken Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele, at a Manhattan party in the mid-1950s, Burroughs had gone one better a few years earlier in Mexico City when he shot his second wife, Joan, through the head.

This – the result, he claimed, of a drunken and drug-fuelled 'William Tell' party game that went badly wrong – saw him arrested for murder, but family connections and the bribery of local lawyers got him bailed and enabled him to flee back to the United States, though in his absence he received a two-year suspended sentence for culpable homicide.

The killing, he later said, had a profound effect on his psyche and on his writing. "I am forced to the appalling conclusion", he said, "that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death", though he had begun writing in the mid-1940s when Kerouac and himself collaborated on a mystery novel. However, the writings that made his name began in the 1950s with Junkie and Queer, both of them drawing graphically on his experiences in Mexico and South America, and continued with the more experimental Naked Lunch (1959), a structurally fragmented work arranged by its author in a "cut-up" non-linear manner.

This was the book that was to make him famous. Published by Maurice Girodias of the risk-taking Olympia Press in Paris (which also published Nabokov's Lolita and Donleavy's The Ginger Man), its appearance in the US led to a prosecution for obscenity, though a 1966 appeals verdict deemed it not obscene.

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At the time, though, it was a cause celebre, giving Burroughs an international literary profile he'd hitherto lacked and turning him into an ageing countercultural hero of sorts.

However, the book itself proved too uncompromising – in its depictions of drug addiction, outre sexual practices and physical violence – to be embraced by a 1960s young audience that preferred the comfortingly hippy-dippy fantasies of Richard Brautigan, Herman Hesse and other soft-centred heroes of a flower-power generation, while its structural and linguistic challenges didn't make for easy reading, either.

He remains just as difficult today, though a comprehensive new biography by Barry Miles, who knew him well, should find him new admirers. In its pages, they'll encounter a man full of the contradictions mentioned earlier, along with other oddities – during a 1960s sojourn in London he became obsessed with Scientology, while there's a troubling strain of misogyny that runs through a lot of his writings and that perhaps explains why few of his most fervent disciples have been women.

Yet he had close friendships with Patti Smith and Susan Sontag, and in his later years he collaborated with Tom Waits and Nick Cave, for whom he was clearly The Man. You can also detect his influence on David Lynch, while his dabblings in science fiction had an impact on a generation of other sci-fi writers.

Indeed, it's for his influence that Burroughs is more likely to survive than for his books – what once seemed daringly avant-garde now comes across as somewhat old-hat, not least in its determination to shock.

No one's shockable anymore, though Burroughs should probably be given credit for helping to make that so.

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