Burroughs on Beckett and Proust

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edward_de_vere
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Burroughs on Beckett and Proust

Post by edward_de_vere » Mon Apr 17, 2017 10:50 pm

I recently watched the (recently) late, great John Hurt's performance in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, and it reminded me of an essay by Burroughs on Beckett in The Adding Machine. Unfortunately, I can't find an online link to the entire essay, though all but the first page shows up in a Google Books search.

What struck me when I read the essay "Beckett and Proust" was WSB's comparison of Beckett to Proust and his claim of being solidly closer to Proust in style and substance. For instance:

...Proust and Beckett are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Proust is principally concerned with time, Beckett is virtually timeless...I am very much closer to Proust than to Beckett, I am concerned with the creation of character. In fact, I can say that this is my principal preoccupation. If I am remembered for anything, it will be for my characters, for Dr. Penway and AJ and Audrey and Kim Carsons, for the Vigilante and the Heavy Metal Kid, for Hamburger Mary and Salt Chunk Mary...

Beckett is quite literally inhuman, you look in vain for human motivations of jealousy, hate or love. even fear is absent, nothing remains of human emotions except weariness and distress tinged with remote sadness. Proust on the other hand reflects all manner of emotion, fear, contempt, hatred, and love...

There is no suspense in Beckett...there are no characters as such, and certainly no character development. He is perhaps the purest writer who has ever written. There is nothing there but the writing itself."


I admit to only having read excerpts of Remembrances of Things Past, in contrast to having gone through a great number of Beckett's novels and plays. In spite of this caveat, I can say that in my opinion, Burroughs is thoroughly on the Beckett rather than the Proust end of the spectrum as he defines it here - on the side of pure writing as an expression of the inner psyche, as opposed to writing for the sake of creating stories or characters.

Critics, including admiring ones, have said more or less the same things about Burroughs' novels that he says about Beckett - for instance, the lack of real characters and character development (especially Naked Lunch and the cut-up trilogy, where the "characters" are basically walking nicknames and avatars), the lack of any real emotions between characters other than raw lust for sex, craving for drugs, and paroxysms of violence. And certainly Burroughs' view of Beckett's work as writing for its own sake rather than for the sake of storytelling applies doubly so to much of WSB's own experimental fiction.

I wonder to what extent WSB's attitude of admiring Beckett from a distance was just an attempt to preemptively reject similar criticisms of his own work? Or, alternatively, was it WSB's way of venting some resentment towards Beckett's half-admiring, half-dismissive assessment of Burroughs' writing, and to the polite but cold reception he got from Beckett in person?

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dheadley
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Re: Burroughs on Beckett and Proust

Post by dheadley » Tue Apr 18, 2017 8:23 am

It’s interesting to compare the three like that. I don’t think any of them can be accused of writing for its own sake. There’s more to them than that.

Proust was homosexual and people have speculated about him using drugs. So perhaps WSB felt closer to him than Beckett. There is no evidence of homosexuality or drugs with Beckett so perhaps that’s where he and WSB part company. It's possible Beckett disapproved in as much as he made moral judgments.

Ginsberg and WSB did meet Beckett in East Berlin but they have completely different memories of it. Ginsberg thought it was a blast. WSB thought Beckett wanted nothing to do with them.

Beckett wrote an essay about Proust btw…

http://english.fsu.edu/jobs/num01/Num1Pilling.htm

edward_de_vere
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Re: Burroughs on Beckett and Proust

Post by edward_de_vere » Tue Apr 18, 2017 10:18 am

Perhaps it's true that WSB had more in common personally with Proust than with Beckett (in terms of sexuality and Bohemian lifestyle), but on the other hand, Beckett's approach to writing and even his style puts him much closer to Burroughs than to Proust. However, I find it hard to believe that Burroughs prefers one writer over another simply on account of sexuality, otherwise he wouldn't have had such an affinity towards Celine, Joyce, or Conrad.

In NL and the cut-ups, there are no "characters" and certainly no character development as such, any more than in Beckett's How it Is. In WSB's later novels, there is some characterization, but of characters that are stand-ins for Burroughs himself. Burroughs created no 3 dimensional, fleshed out characters except as projections of himself in his later works, and not at all in many of his earlier works. This puts him closer to his own characterization of Beckett than his description of Proust. Proust gets inside the minds and motives of individuals who aren't just stand-ins for himself or projections of his inner psyche.

Even more importantly than the role of character in their writing is the fact that in his early works, Burroughs wasn't interested in storytelling, certainly not in the cut-ups. Neither was Beckett. In contrast, Proust was a storyteller. The same can be said about the range of emotions expressed: you see as limited a palette of emotions in WSB as in Beckett. There's certainly a similar lack of human warmth in both of their fictional universes, albeit differently expressed.

Moreover Beckett and Burroughs are heir to the same literary traditions of stream of consciousness, surrealism, and absurd/dark humor. It seems to me that if WSB felt no intellectual or spiritual affinity, it was probably due more to personal dislike than any objective assessment of writing style. I wasn't aware of Ginsberg coming away from the meeting with Beckett with a much more favorable impression than WSB - it seems hard to believe that if Beckett's cold, stand-offish demeanor repelled Burroughs that the much more gregarious Ginsberg didn't mind it. By all accounts, Beckett had a small circle of close friends with whom he was very warm and open but didn't have much need for anyone outside this circle. You'd think that WSB would relate at some level to a fellow introvert who often lived in his own little world, but apparently not. Perhaps they were too alike in ways to get along? Or perhaps he couldn't forgive Beckett's quip about cut-ups being more like plumbing than writing?

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dheadley
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Re: Burroughs on Beckett and Proust

Post by dheadley » Tue Apr 18, 2017 10:42 am

Yes, from WSB's perspective it probably has more to do with writing style than sex and drugs. But the modern mind can't help making these connections. Was it a factor in Beckett's opinion of WSB? We'll never know.

Seems Ginsberg enjoyed the meeting in East Berlin. Burroughs less so. But that could just be their different temperaments. One assumes Ginsberg kept his clothes on.

I got the info here...

http://www.booktryst.com/2012/02/when-g ... amuel.html

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