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  • The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation: Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac's Appropriations of Modern Literature, from Rimbaud to Michaux by Véronique Lane
  • Damian Catani
The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation: Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac's Appropriations of Modern Literature, from Rimbaud to Michaux. By Véronique Lane. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 264 pp., ill.

Véronique Lane's groundbreaking study convincingly argues that the three main Beat authors—William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg—actively and imaginatively appropriated, as opposed to passively absorbed, French writers and poets. Their numerous appropriations shaped not only their collective aesthetic endeavours as fellow Beat authors, but also their individual and ethical ones, which often intermeshed specific biographical and literary concerns. Thus, in Chapters 1 and 2, Hippos, the text that was co-authored by Burroughs and Kerouac (written in 1945; published in 2008), and was inspired by Rimbaud and the reallife murder of their mutual friend Lucien Carr, is shown to have been rewritten by Kerouac alone as 'I Wish I Were You', marking a clear stylistic break with his older mentor. He replaced Burroughs's 'cut-ups' with his own, more cinematically inspired 'book movies', drawing on the multiple viewpoints and empathy of Marcel Carné's poetic realism and the reflexive movies of Jean Cocteau. Chapter 3 analyses the contradictory attractions for Kerouac of Céline's exasperated nihilism (which he aligned with Sartre's existentialism) and Dostoevsky's more hopeful spiritual humanism. Céline's novels, and especially his fictional character Robinson, epitomize the revolt of consciousness against hypocritical complacency and provide an accurate moral barometer of Kerouac's own life and those of his acquaintances. Chapter 4 deftly uncovers the latent homoerotic genealogy Burroughs identified in Gide's L'Immoraliste, the death of the fictional Michel's wife serving as a traumatic reminder of his murder of his own spouse in 1952. Chapters 5 and 6 subtly analyse Ginsberg's 'open secrecy': namely, the subtle hints he offered to the sophisticated reader he coveted, both in his famous poem Howl and its subsequent varorium edition, about the French literary influences that lurked beneath their more obvious American counterparts. Such a reader would be able to detect the presence of Saint-John Perse beneath the dominant and contrasting figures of Eliot and Whitman. Chapters 7 and 8 return us to Burroughs: firstly, to his competitive obsession with Genet as fellow queer outsider and brilliantly provocative prose stylist of 'shamelessness'; and secondly, to his more implicit identification with Henri Michaux. Both [End Page 471] Burroughs's Mugwumps and his 'insect writing' recall Michaux's Meidosems in their experimental quest for an organic, biologically hybrid visual language that would escape the evolutionary impasse of anthropomorphic thought. Burroughs's ethical, rather than purely aesthetic, experiments intriguingly lead Lane to consider him a posthuman rather than postmodern writer, a label that, to a lesser degree, she also applies to Ginsberg and Kerouac. By her own admission, however, rigid adherence to this conceptual term runs the risk of normalizing and silencing each writer's distinctive voice. If Burroughs's voice is the most audible of the three (he features in four of the eight chapters), this is a minor quibble in what is an otherwise excellent book, and one that is replete with original and perceptive comparative close readings that will appeal to French as well as Beat literature specialists. In particular, Lane emphatically dispels the Americano-centric view that French influences on the Beats are essentially reducible to Surrealism and Dada.

Damian Catani
Birkbeck, University of London


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pp. 471-472
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