William Burroughs – Creative Reading 2 (Conrad and Fitzgerald – 2)

[William Burroughs (1914-1997) – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg]



William Burroughs on Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim continues from here

WSB: There really is so many parallels here that I’m sure that Fitzgerald must have read Lord Jim and certainly was influenced by it and there’s a great deal of similarity. They’re both these very improbable Romantic heroes. How many of you saw the… either of the films. Were they any good?

Student: Not The Great Gatsby

WSB: The Great Gatsby.. Well, I don’t think that The Great Gatsby is film material. I mean all of it, the whole point of it, is in the prose. You take, for example, the last page of The Great Gatsby, which is I think one of the finest passages of prose in the English language, but how can you translate that into film terms? You can’t really, (except for the very unsuccessful device of having a narrator speaking over the film, which just never works – I think they used that, didn’t they, in The Great Gatsby? – Yes? )

Student: Caraway..

WSB: Caraway, yes, Caraway actually, reads this, so that..

Student: (As voice-over)

WSB: Yes

(Anne Waldman): What was that last passage?

WSB: Pardon?

(AW: What was that last passage?)

WSB: Oh, well, you’ve got a passage, a prose passage, like the end of The Great Gatsby, but I don’t see any way that you can,,,it’s a great prose passage, actually, one of the great prose passages in the English language, really, but how can you turn that into film terms?. I don’t think you can. And most of the book. It obviously is not written to be a film. And I think the same is true of Lord Jim. Its.. I don’t see how you could make it… Who saw Lord Jim, the film? How was that?

Student: It’s been years, (since I)…

WSB: It was Peter O’Toole wasn’t it?

Student: (It was pretty poor, because it was trying to convey the images from the book, without any of Conrad’s (prose) stature…..)

WSB: Well, did it follow the book very closely?

Student: Yeah

WSB: To the end where Doramin shoots him?

Student: (Just the rhythm of it was very….)

WSB: Yeah, well as I say, I can’t see either one as a film really. But.. I believe I.. I said at one time that the dialogue in The Great Gatsby is very wooden and, still, it was not altogether true, there’s some very sharp dialogue, particularly from Tom Buchanan, who is a very clearly-drawn, very limited character, particularly the party, in the flat of Wilson’s wife, there’s some quite funny exchanges there. And, I don’t know, I think the dialogue is pretty good. At the end, the whole bit of Wilson shooting..shooting Gatsby, I just feel it was very much.. hard-to-believe..  And the same, I think, is true of the end of Lord Jim. It doesn’t really convince one. When I got to the end, to the.. near the end, where Jim really begins to pluck up, I found it really difficult to read on .Now, of course, he fucked up in many ways. Obviously he didn’t know anything about power, or the exercise of power, so the first thing he should have done, I mean, and when he took over, was to kill Cornelius and the Rajah Allang.  And not to have done so..  He isn’t going to.. It isn’t just himself and his own ideas of conduct that are at issue there, he was endangering his friends., and he had.. his remissness, in this respect, in leaving Cornelius alive, of course, led to the death of Doramin’s son. And also endangered Captain Marlow himself.  He had.. Marlow drinking the Rogers’ coffee. Well, this shouldn’t have happened. So he did definitely.. didn’t follow through at all. And the ghastly thing, Wilson does, coming in there, just seems, not to have any, any sort of validity.

Talking about parallels between the books, there’s the last glimpse that Caraway has of Gatsby – “His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps”,  and then here, in Lord Jim, the last glimpse, Marlow’s last glimpse of Jim, was in his white suit, a speck of whiteand then.. I’ll see if I can find that passage (but it is so strikingly similar that I’ m sure that Fitzgerald must have read Lord Jim and was unconsciously or consciously modeling the ..his narrative on that). Yeah, here it is – “the strip of sand had sunk already under his feet,  he himself appeared no bigger than a child – then only a speck, a tiny white speck that seemed to catch all the light  left in a darkened world… And suddenly I lost him..”’ – It’s really strikingly similar,those two passages, the last glimpse that the narrator has of the protagonist

And then – he speaks of “that unfamiliar though recognizeable look that was back again in Gatsby’s face” (well, that “unfamiliar though recognizable look”  is the Gatsby who was engaged in all these illegitimate enterprises and was very very good at it indeed. And, every now and then, Gatsby, who, mostly, sounds really just very stupid and very inane (the “old sport”, and all these lies about tiger-hunting and everything),  will come out with something very dark. Like he says to Tom (no, here we are… this is..  they’re all over at Tom Buchanan’s, and Tom is about to attack Gatsby, of  course:

“Gatsby turned to me rigidly – “I can’t say anything in his house, old sport”- “She’s got an indiscreet voice, I remarked, It’s full of – I hesitated, – ”Her voice is full of money”, he said suddenly.” – Exactly! –“I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.. high in a white palace, the king’s daughter, the golden girl…”

And it comes right down to it – the American Dream, as articulated by Fitzgerald is just that – it’s money – it’s houses on Long Island and big cars and swimming pools – pretty, pretty thin. As I say (that) Fitzgerald would not have been able to maintain his belief in the American Dream if he had lived very much longer.

Well, we can have some questions and discussion on these books. I was reading them both for the second time and I think they both read very well, re-read very well,. I think that seems to me one of the marks of a good book if you can re-read it, re-read it any number of times. How many of you were re-reading these two books? Yes..How did you find that they re-read? well?

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-one-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in]


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