Tag Archives: William Burroughs

More Letters Of Note

Letters

More Letters Of Note –
Correspondence Deserving Of A Wider Audience
Compiled by Shaun Usher
Canongate Books – £30.00

If nothing else, this simply wonderful book reiterates the degree to which an entire medium of literary beauty has, for all intents and rather depressing purposes, almost disappeared.

Letter writing, that all too brilliant and potentially poignant pastime, does indeed shed oodles of inadvertent light on who ever is doing the writing. Alas, the mere fact that most letters are quintessentially naked, accounts for their being real and revelatory, personal and perplexing, as well as idiosyncratic and, dare I say it, unnecessarily insulting – if not a tad over the top.

The following 1973 letter (‘Your Type Is A Dime A Dozen’) to Anthony Burgess from none other than Hunter S. Thompson, being a surprisingly perfect example of the latter:

Dear Mr. Burgess,

Herr Werner has forwarded your useless letter from Rome to the National Affairs Desk for my examination and/or reply.
Unfortunately, we have no International Gibberish Desk, or it would have ended up there.
What kind of lame, half-mad bullshit are you trying to sneak over on us? When Rolling Stone asks for ”a thinkpiece,” goddamnit, we want a fucking Thinkpiece… and don’t try to weasel out with any of your limey bullshit about a ”50,000 word novella about the condition humaine, etc…”
Do you take us for a gang of brainless lizards? Rich hoodlums? Dilettante thugs?
You lazy cocksucker. I want that Thinkpiece on my desk by Labor Day. And I want it ready for press. The time has come & gone when cheapjack scum like you can get away with the kind of scams you got rich from in the past.
Get your worthless ass out of the piazza and back to the typewriter. Your type is a dime a dozen around here, Burgess, and I’m fucked if I’m going to stand for it any longer.
Sincerely,
Hunter S. Thompson

Suffice to say, not all of the letters throughout this meticulously designed and rather handsome book are of a similar persuasion. I merely wanted to clarify the degree to which honesty prevails throughout these 351 pages, by quoting the above (somewhat colourful communication) in its entirety.

Naturally, there are numerous flip-sides to that of the above.

Richard Burton’s profound proclamation of love towards Elizabeth Taylor amid ‘You’re Off, By God,’ more than substantiates as much: ”You may rest assured that I will not have affairs with any other female. I shall gloom a lot and stare morosely into unimaginable distances and act a bit – probably on the stage – to keep me in booze and butter, but chiefly and above all I shall write. Not about you, I hasten to add. No Millerinski Me, with a double M. There are many other and ludicrous and human comedies to constitute my shroud.”

As does ‘It’s Burning Hell Without you,’ in which Dylan Thomas writes to his wife Caitlin Thomas from New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel: ”There is nothing to tell you other than that you know; I am profoundly in love with you, the only profundity I know. Every day’s dull torture, & every night burning for you.”

From record producer Steve Albini writing to the band Nirvana, the poetess Sylvia Plath to her family, Marge Simpson to Barbara Bush, John Lennon To Eric Clapton, William Burroughs to Truman Capote, Samuel Goldwyn to Walt Disney and countless others, More Letters Of Note is an outstanding, veritable merry-go-round of personal missives. Replete with a number of excellent photographs and reproductions of some of the letters (including John Lennon’s and David Bowie’s), all of them clearly have something to stay.

A few of which will forever remain in the memory.

None more so than a letter written by US President, Abraham Lincoln (‘Sorrow Comes To All’), to a distraught 22 a year-old, Fanny McCullough whose father, Lieutenant Colonel William McCullough, had been killed in America’s Civil War: ”It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.”

David Marx

Advertisements

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V

auden

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden – Volume V
Prose 1963-1968
Princeton University Press – £44.95

Having already reviewed the previous four volumes of W.H. Auden’s colossal body of work that Princeton University Press have published over the years; it should come as no surprise that I’d be more than compelled to write about this rather marvellous collection too.

Weighted in overt literary curiosity, my reasoning is such that almost all of Auden’s work, whether it’s prose, poetry or indeed, just about anything, remains so instantly enlightening. Not to mention consistently refreshing and invigorating to read.

In the words of The London Review of Books’ Frank Kermode: ”When you add in the volumes already devoted to plays, libretti, poems, it becomes hard to avoid describing the whole enterprise as heroic. In fact it could also be described as unique, for no other twentieth-century English poet has been so fully and patiently honoured.”

Indeed, it’s not remotely easy to even marginally fathom what makes W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968 so very readable. So very enjoyable; other than it being a darn good read of the highest (and I do mean the highest) calibre.

With the possible exception of only a handful of exceptional writers such as Burroughs, Camus or Orwell, where else would one read such colourful and quintessentially vital provocation in any other book’s Introduction – as any of the following: ”When in love, the soldier fights more bravely, the thinker thinks more clearly, the carpenter fashions with greater skill […]. It is quite true, as you say, that a fair principle does not get bald and fat or run away with somebody else. On the other hand, a fair principle cannot give me a smile of welcome when I come into a room. Love of a human being may be, as you say, a lower form of love than love for a principle, but you must admit that it is a damn sight more interesting […]. For millions of people today, words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy, have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee-reflex […]. Propaganda, like the sword, attempts to eliminate consent or dissent, and, in our age, magical language has to a great extent replaced the sword.”

Replete with philosophical undercurrent(s), the above quotations are equally cerebral and regal. Yet the tonality of the actual language used, remains nothing less than that which one has come to wholeheartedly expect from surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest of poets.

Yetr, what set Auden apart from so many of his contemporaries, was his uncanny and sometimes audacious ability to wax lyrical without ever falling into the trap of taking his eye off the ball. A facet of both thinking and writing, that still isn’t all too easy to accommodate. As not only was his writing simultaneously succinct and elaborate, it was anchored in being acutely fundamental: ”[…] ”there is no comprehensible relationship between the moral quality of a maker’s life and the aesthetic value of the works he makes;” the sources of every artist’s art ”are what Yeats called ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,’ its lusts, its hatreds, its envies.””

Suffice to say, the above is a mere tip of the extraordinary, literary iceberg contained within these 509 pages (excluding seven sections of Appendix, numerous Textual Notes and an Index of Titles ad Books Reviewed). From the very outset of Prose 1963-1968, Auden testifies to his own resounding translucent belief, where, in a Foreword to The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary, 1930-1956, he writes: ”[…] in deceiving others, I cannot help knowing that I am telling a lie. I can, of course, choose to avoid learning certain facts because I am afraid of the truth and prefer to remain in ignorance, as the average German under Hitler, though he knew that concentration camps existed, preferred not to think about them […]. We must not, of course, imagine that political freedom in itself guarantees the creation of good art; indeed one of the most obvious characteristics of any country where there is freedom of speech and publication is the vast quantity of rubbish which gets spoken and printed. Persons with a love of and a talent to perceive and utter it are, unfortunately, a minority, but only under conditions of freedom can this minority develop its powers and have an influence.”

Hopefully, what I’ve written will give just some indication as to the sheer breadth and depth of W.H. Auden – Prose 1963-1968. To simply call it an altogether wonderful book could be construed as getting off too lightly, but in truth, that really is what it is: ”The articles will delight any reader with their wit, charm, and elegance (Charles Rosen, New York Review of Books).

David Marx