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Grove Serves Up Naked Lunch

from Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2001
posted July 16, 2001

In a 1966 obscenity trial, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts declared William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch—the novel that renders an urban wasteland of paranoid police, raving sex addicts, and psychotic doctors through the eyes of a narcotics junky—"not obscene." Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and John Ciardi were among the witnesses to testify on the novel's behalf; the words of John Dewey and Sigmund Freud were invoked in its defense. Add the facts of the 1991 film of the same name directed by David Cronenberg and that Burroughs, years after Naked Lunch was published, claimed to have no precise memory of writing it, and you have a book with a history.

In August, Grove Press, the original American publisher of the book, will release Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. The new edition features the novel as it was originally published in Paris by Olympia Press in 1959, along with an appendix of previously unpublished pages. James Grauerholz, Burroughs's longtime companion, editor, and literary executor, discovered the lost fragments while sorting through a collection of Burroughs manuscripts that had been sold to Ohio State University. "I looked through a few boxes, and I said, ‘My God, these are a lot of the drafts that went to the typesetter in Paris.'"

After discovering the material, Grauerholz invited Barry Miles, an old friend of Burroughs's who had worked on an archive sale of the author's papers in 1973 and who later wrote the biography William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible (Hyperion, 1993), to join him in editing a more or less definitive text. Grauerholz and Miles then approached Grove with the project, and the publisher embraced the idea. According to Grauerholz, the previously unpublished pages included in the new version are sections that were part of the book in its penultimate draft.

"Naked Lunch has a very checkered, funky editing and publishing history," says Grauerholz. The book wasn't written in the typical manner—Burroughs didn't produce cohesive drafts subject to endless revisions. Rather, the manuscript was a scattershot collection of thousands of notes until Burroughs's friends compiled them into a complete work. Its publication history is no less idiosyncratic: The original English publication was typeset by French-speaking compositors in Paris. As a result it had, as Grauerholz says, "all kinds of goofs." The goofs were also a by-product of Burroughs's somewhat erratic spelling and punctuation habits. Burroughs "brought his own innovative approach to all of that," says Grauerholz, "but by and large he always relied on people to tie things up."

According to Miles, the Grove edition published in 1962 had goofs as well—significant alterations in the text that stemmed from miscommunication between Grove and Burroughs when Grove requested a longer edition of the text to publish. It included material Burroughs originally cut from the Olympia edition, along with irregularities—tense shifts and pronoun disagreements—that were a result of the additions. "The Grove edition is the [one] that has entered the canon and we did not want to change it too much," Miles says. "Our main work was reconciling the Grove and Olympia editions. It was a bit like the various editors of Ulysses, correcting but respectful of the past."

Grauerholz's relationship with the author began in New York City in the early 1970s, and evolved from a brief love affair into an intense working relationship that continued until Burroughs's death. In 1975, Burroughs changed his will to make Grauerholz—along with Brion Gysin, Burroughs's close friend and sometime collaborator—literary executor. When Gysin died in 1986, Grauerholz became, as he describes it, "keeper of the flame, so to speak." And Grauerholz intends to do just that—he hopes to oversee the reissue of many Burroughs classics, and he is currently at work on a biography that is due at Grove in spring 2002. Four years after Burroughs's death, Grauerholz still lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where he had persuaded the author to move in 1981 to "quiet things down" when it became clear that Burroughs was having trouble living down his reputation as a prodigious drug abuser.

While Grauerholz's biography won't be the first of its kind, he believes it will avoid certain pitfalls that sidetracked other Burroughs biographers, namely, a heavy reliance on Burroughs's own memory. "William omitted things, he misremembered things; you can't just rely on the subject's narrative of his own life," Grauerholz says. "My interest is corroborative documentary evidence, because all of us, even in this century, we all leave behind a paper trail in dimensions far beyond what you are likely to expect."

Nick Twemlow is a poet and filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn.