Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs: celebrating the Beats in Paris

In the late 50 s the Beat movement reached its high point, with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs sharing rooms in a rundown hotel near the Seine. James Campbell visits a new exhibition at the Pompidou Centre and a pivotal moment in cultural history

If you want to read Jack Kerouacs fiction On the Road in its original scroll sort this summer, the place to go to is the Beat Generation exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will require more than one visit the 36.6 m scroll is exhibited in its entire length across the central room, like the Bayeux Tapestry but while you are there you can also watch Robert Franks 30 -minute film Pull My Daisy ( 1959 ), with Kerouacs voiceover, scrutinise the heavily rewritten typescript of Allen Ginsbergs lyric Howl, dance to Harry Smiths experimental jazz films and relish the sight of numerous rare publications under glass, such as Gary Snyders Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End and issues of the publications Big Table and Kulchur.

Paris has acquired the habit of mounting major exhibitions on literary topics Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian have been at the Bibliothque Nationale in recent years, Jean Cocteauand Roland Barthes at the Pompidou but why the Beats, and why now? The notion is to demonstrate these liberties, which were fought for then, and which are in danger of disappearing, says Philippe-Alain Michaud who has curated the depict with assistance from the poet Jean-Jacques Lebel, translator of several Beat works into French, and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute. Michaud isnt disposed to attain the case for a resurgence of interest, since France never paid much attention to Beat writing in the first place. We wanted to show the multimedia nature of the movement not just writing but painting and film as well and how the idea of travel was central to it.

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Pull My Daisy, directed by Robert Frank

There is another good reason for bringing the Beat to Paris. More than Tangier, which often gets the credit, the French capital was where Beat production reached its high point, between 1957 and 1960. With the turning of the decade, what had been an underground movement rose to the surface and become subject to damaging commercial illuminate. The living quarters were a cheap hotel in rue Gt-le-Coeur, near the Seine. Known as the Hotel Rachou, after its owner, it has passed into legend as the Beat Hotel. Just a short walk away, across the Boulevard St Michel, was the office of the Olympia Press in rue St Sverin, the nearest thing to a house publisher for Beat writing in Europe. It was at the Beat Hotel in 1959 that the dishevelled routines of William S Burroughs were shuffled into some kind of shape by Ginsberg, Sinclair Beiles and others a random shape, according to Burroughs himself before being brought to the proprietor of Olympia, Maurice Girodias. Four or five weeks later, Naked Lunch , with a now rare dust jacket designed by the author and many typoes committed by non-English-reading compositors( fortunately, given the content ), was in the few shops willing to stock it. The cut-up technique, which Burroughs used to produce his next two novels, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Explosion also published by Olympia was accidentally revealed to his regular collaborator Brion Gysin at the Beat Hotel. Gysins original cut-up weapon, a Stanley knife, is on display, as is Burroughss vintage Underwood typewriter and an adding machine of the kind refined by his grandfather, also William S Burroughs, which brought the family status and wealth at the end of the 19 th century. It was in Paris that Ginsberg began writing Kaddish, his greatest lyric, and it was from here that Gregory Corso sent the lyric for his collecting Gasoline to City Lights Books in San Francisco. Hes probably the greatest poet in America, Ginsberg wrote in a preface, and hes starving in Europe. Starving at the Beat Hotel, to be precise, where Corso lived in a room almost too small to stand up in, as we see from one of the many photo by the English photographer Harold Chapman.

Neal Cassady by Ettore Sottsass( 1962)

Beat Generation does not claim the movement for Paris but it shows the importance of the city in the lives and works of several of its leading novelists. Kerouac spent little time there, but for Ginsberg and others there was the exhilaration of gazing at the same cityscapes and dawdling in the same cafe as Henry Miller, a reluctant forbear, Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. The run of all three was as yet unavailable in the US, but all were published by the Olympia Press, the literary importance of which has never got through to the French reading public.

The Hotel Rachou has long since been converted into a four-star hotel Singh says she was forbidden to take a group inside recently while resulting a Beat walking but visitors to the Pompidou will have their imaginations primed by an installation structured on contemporary pictures of Burroughs in his dismal room, some by Chapman, others by the Life magazine photographer Loomis Dean. There is a replica of the sagging brass bed with a bare light bulb above and reproductions of Burroughss pictures on the wall. All that is missing is a stuffed dummy of the cadaverous figure himself, staring into the abyss of total want, Burroughss term for heroin addiction. Mme Rachou, who enjoyed the company of the local gendarmerie as well as of beatniks, is no longer around to explain why she acknowledged these eccentric kinds one tenant filled his room up with straws while rejecting entry to a more ordinary sort of tourist. Her genial presence is visible in some of Chapmans photos, while those of the bar at the Beat Hotel give a vivid impression of Left Bank life in the 50 s.

Michaud faces a harder task in presenting the shadowy side of the Beat soul, though he is well aware of it. Freedom isnt always fun. There was madness and criminality in the Beat family genes: Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs had all seen the insides of psychiatric hospital by the age of 30. Corso got his higher education in prison. Burroughs shot his common-law spouse in the head during a game of William Tell in Mexico. At the Beat Hotel, Gysin disliked Ginsberg for his hold over Burroughs. The latter, oscillating between addiction and withdrawal, veered towards paranoia, while aching from his obsessive love for Ginsberg. In San Francisco, Neal Cassadys girlfriend Natalie Jackson threw herself from the top of a building. Elise Cowen, one of Ginsbergs admirers, killed herself while “hes in” Bombay in 1962. Always felt revulsion for the demise aroma in her hair, he wrote to Corso.

Le Roi Jones and his Family( 1964) by Bob Thompson; 1964; Oil on canvas; 36 3/8 x 48 1/2 in.( 92.4 x 123.2 cm ); Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 Beat Generation Photograph: Joseph H Hirshhorn/ Lee Stalsworth

In recent years, there has been interest in the women of the Beat generation, but Singh, who worked with Ginsberg and is an expert on the cinemas of Harry Smith, admits that it was mainly the guys. The shows richly exemplified catalogue contains her interview with Joanne Kyger, whose Collected Poems was published in 2007 and who analyse Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 1960 s with her then-husband Gary Snyder. The catalogue also has archive interviews conducted by the Beat historian Barry Miles with Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure( all translated from English into French ). While the Beats might have done a lot to generate greater acceptance of homosexuality, the liberalising ideals of feminism didnt move them. Pull My Daisy is more than just a guys movie; it is downright misogynistic( though not in the brutal way of Burroughs at his worst ). Ginsberg, Corso and others play themselves, while the pop artist Larry Rivers takes the Cassady role( Milo) with Delphine Seyrig as his long-suffering wife, based on Carolyn Cassady. Shell get over it, Kerouacs voiceover assures viewers, as the weeping spouse is abandoned to household drudgery while the guys are back where they want to be, in freedoms playground. As for the influence of black style on the Ivy League-educated Beats leading to the birth of the white negro, to use Norman Mailers expression there are references in the reveal to the San Francisco poet Bob Kaufman and to LeRoi Jones. In the mid-6 0s, Jones interred his old Beat self in Greenwich Village, leaving behind his Jewish spouse Hettie( herself a poet and childrens novelist ), and resurrected himself in Newark, New Jersey, as Amiri Baraka, black patriot activist and antisemite( I got the extermination blues, jewboys/ I got the Hitler syndrome figured ). There is a striking oil painting of LeRoi Jones and his family by Bob Thompson, and the typescript of Joness Poem to be Read at Bob Thompsons Funeral( 1966 ). The bridge spanning the divided American culture is supposed to be jazz, of which “were not receiving” shortage in the exhibitions air.

One of the more pleasant astounds in store for guests is the interest in visual arts on the part of the writers. Ginsberg was a talented photographer. Always conscious of the epoch-making nature of the Beat enterprise Lawrence Ferlinghetti , among others, has accused him of fabricating the entire thing he kept a pictorial record until his death in 1997. Several of his carefully preserved paintings, with hand-written captions, are exhibited. There are also photographs by Burroughs, including some of his room at the Beat Hotel, and many examples of his script-and-image collage work. Paints by Kerouac are on display, as well as a portrait of him by Larry Rivers and a lively draw of Burroughs by Corso. One of the scoops for the curators is a 1.8 m manuscript poem by Corso, probably made at the Beat Hotel: There is no more SAFETY Protection/ There is only DANGER/ and it leans against the final/ lampost gobbling/ St Tropez SHOES. There are paintings and collages by more recognised artists such as Wallace Berman, Julian Beck and Alfred Leslie. Among the best use of the visual exhibits is Gysins enforcing assemblage of hieroglyphics, Calligraphie .

Calligraphie( 1960) by Brion Gysin Photograph: Jonathan Greet
The foundation myth is travel. Kerouac wrote urgently about the need to go go run, and here is a rare opportunity to see the manuscript of one of the few volumes in the western canon that mimics the means of running the On the Road scroll, the book as a road, paved in paper. It is hence suitable that Michaud has arranged his exhibits according to locating. Not only New York, San Francisco, Paris, the exhibitions subtitle, but Mexico, Tangier and the far east. London, a city skulking under a grey cloud in the 1950 s, barely features. Burroughs chose to live in Mayfair in the 1960 s and early 70 s but, as Jean-Jacques Lebel says, that was because he could be anonymous there.

Today, Paris is the city glancing nervously at threatening skies. The continual explorations of freedom its literary culture has been subject to, from Rimbaud and Apollinaire to Camus and Vian have been a source of inspiration to artists the world over. As I wandered through the Pompidou, I procured myself thinking that the artistic-intellectual crisis in Paris was being “was talkin about a” long before the current political one, and wondering how the two might be linked. Burroughs would have read the answer to the question between the cut-up lines. Meanwhile, it is heartening to know that a mad dash for freedom which set off from Columbia University 75 years ago is being celebrated in the dimmed City of Light this summer.

James Campbell is the author of Paris Interzone and This Is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris . Beat Generation is at Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 3 October. .

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