Fans of William Burroughs Mark Golden Anniversary of ‘Naked Lunch'

William Burroughs's novel sparked celebratory events.
William Burroughs's novel sparked celebratory events.
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Agence France-Presse
Thursday, July 2, 2009

PARIS, July 1 -- Fans of the American beat writer William Burroughs gathered in Paris on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of his explicit cult novel "The Naked Lunch," unveiling a plaque at the former Left Bank flophouse where he wrote it.

Conferences and readings, drawing Burroughsians from several countries, were to follow the unveiling at the Hotel du Vieux Paris.

Now a smartly kept establishment in the heart of Paris's tourist districts, in Burroughs's time it was a run-down joint known as the Beat Hotel.

Burroughs finished "The Naked Lunch" while living there, along with other writers such as poet Allen Ginsburg, and published the novel in Paris in 1959. Enthusiasts of the beat literature movement hail it as a masterpiece.

"After 50 years you'd have thought it would have aged, but it doesn't -- it still pushes all the buttons," said Oliver Harris, a leading academic expert on Burroughs and one of the organizers of the Paris conferences, which run until Friday.

His organization,, plans further events elsewhere, including one in New York in October.

Burroughs wrote widely of his heroin addiction and homosexuality, themes treated in grim detail in "The Naked Lunch," a free-flowing narrative that starts with a drug addict fleeing the police. He reveled in the fact that many judged it obscene at the time.

"It's not a 'pleasant' book," Harris told AFP. "It's very funny, very dirty, very nasty . . . but what really gives it life is its form -- a collage in a frenzy of fragments."

Despite the book's unorthodox narrative, it has a serious rebellious message, Harris adds. "You can tell that here is someone with a purpose."

Translator Michael Kellner came from Hamburg to attend the Paris commemoration, having recently published his new German version of "The Naked Lunch." He says he tried to capture the dry humor of the author, whose intense style was difficult to translate, especially at the time of its publication.

"In the early '60s there were just no words for junky slang in German," Kellner said.

"It's a tough book," he added. "A journey into the mind and the human condition -- that's how you have to see, it in my opinion."

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