American writer and critic meet with Nobel Prize winner in Berlin
I spent some time rearranging books this afternoon. Among the shelves was an old copy of With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, a collection of interviews and candid conversations with the American writer, recorded and transcribed by the counter-cultural biographer Victor Bockris. What is particularly interesting about the collection, to my mind, is the way it records not just the outlook of one of America's greatest authors, but catches an impression of his social circle in the 1970s and '80s.
Among the dinner parties and celebrity get-togethers are appearances from Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and even Mick Jagger - all of whom are more than willing to share their thoughts on art, music, literature and the counter-cultural movement. The conversations recorded provide a sharp and often entertaining insight into Burroughs's mind, and an intimate glimpse of his ever-present celebrity entourage at a particular cultural moment.
One of the sections that caught my eye, for reasons that are probably obvious, details a conversation between Victor Bockris, William Burroughs and the writer Susan Sontag. Burroughs and Sontag share their experiences and reflections on meeting Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett in Berlin:
Dinner with Susan Sontag, Maurice Girodias: New York, 1980.
Susan Sontag: It all started like this: we were staying in this picturesque hotel in Berlin and Allen Ginsberg said, "We're going to see Beckett, c'mon," and I said, "Oh, William [Burroughs] are you are going, I don't want to butt in," and he said, "No, c'mon, c'mon," and we went. We knocked on the door of this beautiful atelier with great double height ceilings, very white. This beautiful, very thin man who tilts forward when he stands answered the door. He was alone. Everything was very clean and bare and white. I actually had seen him the day before on the grounds of the theater of the Akademie Der Kunst. Beckett comes to Berlin because he knows his privacy will be respected. He received us in a very courtly way and we sat at a very big long table. He waited for us to talk. Allen was, as usual, very forthcoming and did a great deal of talking. He did manage to draw Beckett out asking him about Joyce. That was somehow deeply embarrassing to me. Then we talked about singing, and Beckett and Allen began to sing while I was getting more and more embarrassed.
Victor Bockris: Bill [William Burroughs] says Beckett made you feel as if you would be welcome to leave as soon as you could.
Sontag: He didn't actually throw us out.
William Burroughs: Oh, the hell he didn't! See, I have an entirely different slant on the whole thing. In the first place, John Calder said, "Bring along some liquor," which we did. I know that Beckett considers other people different from him and he doesn't really like to see them. He's got nothing particular against the being there, it's just that there are limits to how long he can stand being with people. So I figured that about twenty minutes would be enough. Someone brought up the fact that my son was due for transplants, and Beckett talked about the problem of rejection, about which he'd read an article. I don't remember this singing episode at all. You see Susan says it seemed long, it seemed to me extremely short. Soon after we got there, and the talk about transplant, everybody looked at their watch, and it was very obviously time to go. We'd only brought along a pint and it had disappeared by that time.
Sontag: Allen said, "What was it like to be with Joyce? I understand Joyce had a beautiful voice, and that he liked to sing." Allen did some kind of "OM" and Beckett said, "Yes, indeed he had a beautiful voice," and I kept thinking what a beautiful voice he had. I had seen Beckett before in a café in Paris, but I had never heard him speak and I was struck by the Irish accent. After more than half a century in France he has a very pure speech which is unmarked by living abroad. I know hardly anybody who's younger than Beckett, who has spent a great deal of time abroad who hasn't in some way adjusted his or her speech to living abroad. There's always a kind of deliberateness or an accommodation to the fact that even when you speak your own language you're speaking to people whose first language it's not and Beckett didn't seem in any way like someone who has lived most of his life in a country that was not the country of his original speech. He has a beautiful Irish musical voice. I don't remember that he made us feel we had to go, but I think we all felt we couldn't stay very long.
Bockris: Did you feel the psychic push? That Beckett had "placed" you outside the room?
Burroughs: Everybody knew that they weren't supposed to stay very long. I think it was ten minutes after six that we got out of there. [...] He gave me one of the greatest compliment that I ever heard. Someone asked him, "What do you think of Burroughs?" and he said - grudgingly - "Well, he's a writer."
Sontag: High praise indeed.
Burroughs: I esteemed it very highly. Someone who really knows about writing, or say about medicine says, "Well, he's a doctor. He gets in the operating room and he knows what he's doing."
Sontag: But at the same time you thought he was hostile to some of your procedures?
Burroughs: Yes, he was, and we talked about that very briefly when we first came in during the Berlin visit. He remembered perfectly the occasion.
Sontag: Do you think he reads much?
Burroughs: I would doubt it. Beckett is someone who needs no input as such. To me it's a very relaxed feeling to be around someone who doesn't need me for anything and wouldn't care if died right there the next minute. Most people have to get themselves needed or noticed. I don't have that feeling at all. But there's no point in being there, because he had no desire or need to see people.
Bockris: How did you feel when you left that meeting?
Sontag: I was very glad I had seen him. I was more interested just to see what he looks like, if he was as good-looking as he is in photos.
Burroughs: He looked very well and in very good shape. Beckett is about seventy-five. He's very thin and his face looks quite youthful. It's really almost an Irish streetboy face. We got up and left, the visit had been, as I say, very cordial, decorous...
Sontag: More decorous than cordial I would say. It was a weightless experience, because it's true, nothing happened.
Burroughs: Nothing happened at all.
Victor Bockris, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker