Searching for the Villa Muniria
Every few years, there seems to be a reawakening of interest in the Beat Generation. This year, the poet and founder of City Lights publishing house in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, turned 97 and announced he was writing an autobiography of sorts. One of the last living links to the Beat Generation, he also published many of its authors and turned down an early draft of Naked Lunch, which he later published.
This year, too, Paris' Centre Pompidou museum is holding a wide-ranging retrospective that will include readings, performances, concerts and films dedicated to the literary and artistic movement that began in the late 1940s. Finally, for those traveling to Tangier this summer, the Villa Muniria still exists, now called the Hotel El Muniria.
By Andrew Madigan
William S. Burroughs II was, by all accounts, a very strange man. He came from a wealthy St. Louis family, attended Harvard, avoided work, and lived on a trust fund—a ne’er-do-well haunting the scuzzy precincts of Times Square, Harlem and the Village. Junky, hustler, inveterate traveler, writer of postmodern fiction. Lover of guns and cats. He shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City, killing her in an ostensible accident during a game of “William Tell.” He was the father of another ne’er-do-well son, Billy, who shared much more than the old man’s name. He resented Billy’s freeloading and laziness, even as his own father tried to persuade Burroughs away from freeloading and laziness.
Addiction expert, Wilhelm Reich enthusiast, Beat forefather, mentor to rock stars, natty dresser, croaky-voiced alterna-icon in his later years, Burroughs was many things but, above all, he was the author of Naked Lunch, which Allen Ginsberg called an “endless novel that will drive us all mad.”
The plot is difficult, and useless, to summarize. William Lee, a junky, narrates. The setting—like the tone and story—perpetually shifts. America, Mexico, Tangier, the enhanced realism of Interzone. Like many of Burroughs’ works, Naked Lunch is a potluck of autobiography, surrealism, science fiction, medicine, paranoia, satire, chemistry, pseudoscience, and documentary accounts of places that don’t exist.
The novel’s gestation period is murky. The title first appeared in a 1954 letter to Ginsberg, but the ideas had long been percolating in the sketches—routines, as Burroughs called them—fragments and orphaned passages that he wrote and acted out for friends.
After traveling through Latin America for several months, Burroughs settled in Tangier in late-1953. He first lodged at “Dutch Tony’s” in the medina. This became risky, however, with the rise of nationalist unrest after Sultan Mohammad V was exiled by the French government (he would return to become king in 1957). As a result, Burroughs moved to the Villa Muniria, a quiet pension, in 1955. This is where he wrote the bulk of Naked Lunch.
The Villa Muniria, now called the Hotel el-Muniria, sits at the top of a steep cobblestone hill in north-central Tangier. The buildings here are white, tidy, rectilinear, unadorned. The Bay of Tangier is visible below, and the port. Beyond this lies the Strait of Gibraltar and, farther north, Spain. The old medina isn’t too far away. The pension is at #1 Rue Magellan—a grandiose name for a slim, grubby corridor. The street winds in a circle, eating its own tail. Much like Naked Lunch.
Burroughs and his friend, American writer David Woolman, rented the uppermost rooms, #7 and #8, for $15 a month. The British criminal Paul Lund—who ran guns for Haile Selassie and was called “the smiling damned villain”—already lived at the pension. This no doubt pleased Burroughs, who was, throughout his life, drawn to crime, weapons, and the underworld. The apartment wasn’t ideal, however. Drunk and drugged much of the time, Burroughs nearly fell off the rooftop terrace on several occasions, so the owner moved him to #9, in the basement.
Today, #9 is a private room and the Hotel el-Muniria is a family-run pension with a good reputation, but in 1955 it was a bolt-hole for lowlifes, artists and murky figures of all description: a microcosm of permissive, dark, treacherous Tangier. The owner, a Vietnamese woman who Burroughs claimed was a junky and former brothel-operator, turned a blind eye to his drugs and young prostitutes. She may have moved him to #9, however, not so much for his safety but to keep his proclivities ensconced in the less public basement flat.
Burroughs composed, or perhaps assembled, Naked Lunch here and during his travels—London, Copenhagen, Paris—working sporadically while writing other books and using, or recovering from, morphine, heroin, majoun, Eukodol and kif. According to Burroughs' companion, editor and literary executor, James Grauerholz, and biographer Barry Miles, the novel “evolved slowly and unpredictably over nine tumultuous years… not according to a premeditated outline or plan, but accumulated through a decade of travel and turmoil on four continents.”
The novel’s development was not characterized by neatness, drive, efficiency, organization, or a sense of urgency. Paul Bowles describes walking into Burroughs’ room at the Villa Muniria and seeing it littered with hundreds of manuscript pages, rat droppings, and leftover meals. Burroughs’ daily routine included rowing in the bay, shooting his guns, writing, drinking with Woolman and Calamity Kate Gifford, an eccentric Englishman. He also enjoyed sitting for hours in an “orgone accumulator,” a dubious invention of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. This contraption was a box that supposedly harnessed one’s energy, sexual vigor, and “universal life force.”
Burroughs had many visitors at the Villa Muniria. Peter Orlovsky, Paul Bowles, Gregory Corso, Timothy Leary and Francis Bacon among others. Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac arrived in 1957 to find Burroughs, after four years in Tangier, strung-out and frail. Naked Lunch was as disheveled and disorganized as its author, drowning in a sea of incorrigible pages. Ginsberg and Kerouac typed and edited the disparate sections of the “novel”—if the word applied at that point—cobbling together the scraps into a reasonably coherent text.
Burroughs moved to Paris in 1958. Interzone—as the manuscript was then called—was rejected by City Lights. Burroughs continued to write and revise. He lived in the Latin Quarter at the Beat Hotel, a ramshackle inn which became a clubhouse for artists. Here, the British painter Brion Gysin showed Burroughs the “cut-up,” a technique whereby a work is sliced apart, rearranged in random order, and thus repurposed into a new object. A more geometric and methodical form of action painting.
During the summer of 1959 Naked Lunch was published by Olympia Press of Paris. In Boston the novel was banned, on the grounds of obscenity, from 1962-1966. It depicts, among other things, drug use, pedophilia and child murder. Burroughs claims that his novel can be read in any order, though most readers opt for the traditional front-to-back, left-to-right method. It’s astonishing that Naked Lunch was ever completed and published, but the fact that it’s now considered a classic is as unlikely as the events in the book itself. It’s not an easy read, by any standard. In fact, some people would offer Burroughsian conspiracy theories as to how Naked Lunch came to be regarded as “brilliant.” Nonetheless, we can’t overlook the fact that Naked Lunch, its author, and the book’s transnational creation are specimens worthy of examination.