Beat Hotel

by Harold Norse
   Originally published in German translation by Maro Verlag in 1975, harold norse’s Beat Hotel is a significant work not simply as an accomplished collection of cut-up routines but also, ultimately, as a record of one of the most dynamic collaborative scenes in Beat history.
   Norse, a friend and devotee to W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, had been writing and translating in Italy since the mid-1950s. In 1960 Williams, also a mentor to allen ginsberg, wrote to tell Norse of a collection of notable young writers who had recently converged on Paris, including Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and gregory corso. The young Beat writers, who had begun their respective rapid and clumsy climbs to stardom just a few years prior, were all living in a nameless “flea-bag” motel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Coeur, run by a Madame Rachou. Dubbed the “Beat Hotel,” (a name originally given to it by Corso) in a famous Life magazine article on the Beats, it housed some combination of these and other fellow travelers until 1963, when Rachou sold the hotel she had operated for 32 years. By the time of Norse’s arrival at the Beat Hotel in 1960, coaxed by invitations from Burroughs (Norse originally had rented a room nearby once allegedly occupied by Arthur Rimbaud), Norse began to experiment with the cut-up style of writing that had been discovered by Brion Gysin and made famous by Burroughs. Cut-up routines consisted of literally cutting blocks of text and reassembling the paragraphs or pages to create a less predictable and more random narrative. By allowing chance to become a part of the writing process, Burroughs believed one broke the rational word/image lock and freed one’s mind from a certain amount of manipulation. While Burroughs and Gysin often mixed newspaper paragraphs, song lyrics, and the work of other writers into their cut-up experiments, Norse stayed mostly to his own work, creating elaborate narratives that he then rearranged into often hilarious and occasionally brilliant chapters. In doing so, Norse saw himself in the same tradition as John Cage in music or Jackson Pollock in painting, “telescop[ing] language in word clusters in a way James Joyce had pioneered, but with this difference: I allowed the element of chance to determine novel and surprising configurations of language.” The most famous cut-up chapter of his Beat Hotel is entitled “Sniffing Keyholes,” which is, as he describes in a postscript, “a sex/dope scene between a muscular black youth called Melo and a blond Russian princess called Z. Z.” The often-somber Burroughs legendarily laughed out loud when he first read this chapter and attempted (in vein) to convince his naked luncH publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, to publish a book of Norse’s cut-ups. Girodias felt the work was too similar to Burroughs’s, but eventually the chapters that Norse did not lose along the way were published. At times Norse’s cut-ups play like a Georges Braque Cubist painting to Burroughs’s Picasso: the untrained eye unable to decipher the difference. Equal in significance to the book itself are the three postscripts added by Norse. One postscript details the methodology of the cut-ups, while another serves as an abridged memoir of the last days in the Beat Hotel. This last section in particular makes Beat Hotel an important artifact from a tremendously important time in Beat history when the international literary community first began to recognize the sensation these writers had created. Norse’s prophecy, “the fleabag shrine will be documented by art historians,” has come true.
■ Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
   Chuck Carlise

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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