The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963
Miles, Barry. New York: Grove, 2000. 294 p., $14.00, paperback. ISBN: 082138179.
There persists in our cultural imagination an image of the Beat generation writers shuttling endlessly from New York to San Francisco. To the extent that they are on the road, it seems that road is more often than not one in America. Unlike the earlier lost generation, which tended to define itself though its relationship to Europe, the Beats have had a far more domestic image. Perhaps the best aspect of Barry Miles's The Beat Hotel is its correction of this perception. Miles chronicles the expatriate experience of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, as well as their various lovers, friends and associates including Peter Orlovsky, Brion Gysin, Harold Norse, and Maurice Girodias.
There is very little in the way of new material in The Beat Hotel. Readers familiar with Miles's other books, or with major biographical works on the Beats, such as Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, or the more recent Dharma Lion : A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher will not discover many new or revealing facts. However, Miles's book is nonetheless an intriguing look at an often ignored moment in the Beat story. The hotel of Miles's title was set at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur. The forty-two room hotel had no official name, gradually becoming known simply as the Beat hotel through the presence of its famous guests. Miles explains the origins of this anonymous space, and its crucial role in fostering some of the most innovative work by the Beats, including Burroughs's Naked Lunch and Corso's "Bomb." However, it is the hotel itself that is the major character in the book, and the fascinating details of its rooms, plumbing, proprietors, and odd system for the distribution of electricity are without a doubt the best material in the book.
In addition to painting a remarkably vivid picture of the day to day existence of the hotel and its inhabitants, Miles does a great deal to draw our attention to the dis/connections of the Americans to French culture. He reminds us how odd it is that the Beats never made any contact with the existentialist writers who were at the center of the French literary culture of the time. Instead, the Beats sought out introductions to the older generation of Surrealists and Dadaists, meeting with Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, and Henri Michaux among others. Miles points out that the Beat experience of Paris was one of nostalgia for the Paris of the historical avant-garde, though he leaves it to the reader to decide what this curious fact may mean.
The final chapters of the book once again present the familiar story of Gysin and Burroughs inventing the cut-up technique, and though this is well written, it seems as if Miles was reaching for material at times.
Nonetheless, there is more then enough interesting and well written material here to make this book an excellent source for anyone working on the history of the Beats.