In the late 50s the Beat movement reached its high point, with Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs sharing rooms in a rundown hotel near the Seine. James Campbell visits a new exhibition at the Pompidou Centre and a pivotal moment in cultural history
If you want to read Jack Kerouacs novel On the Road in its original scroll form this summer, the place to go to is the Beat Generation exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It will require more than one visit the 36.6m scroll is exhibited in its entire length across the central room, like the Bayeux Tapestry but while you are there you can also watch Robert Franks 30-minute film Pull My Daisy (1959), with Kerouacs voiceover, scrutinise the heavily revised typescript of Allen Ginsbergs poem Howl, dance to Harry Smiths experimental jazz films and relish the sight of numerous rare publications under glass, such as Gary Snyders Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End and issues of the magazines Big Table and Kulchur.
Paris has acquired the habit of mounting major exhibitions on literary subjects Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Vian have been at the Bibliothque Nationale in recent years, Jean Cocteau and Roland Barthes at the Pompidou but why the Beats, and why now? The idea is to show these freedoms, which were fought for then, and which are in danger of disappearing, says Philippe-Alain Michaud who has curated the show with assistance from the poet Jean-Jacques Lebel, translator of several Beat works into French, and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute. Michaud isnt disposed to make the case for a revival of interest, since France never paid much attention to Beat writing in the first place. We wanted to show the multimedia nature of the movement not just writing but painting and film as well and how the idea of travel was central to it.
There is another good reason for bringing the Beats to Paris. More than Tangier, which often gets the credit, the French capital was where Beat production reached its high point, between 1957 and 1960. With the turn of the decade, what had been an underground movement rose to the surface and was exposed to damaging commercial light. The living quarters were a cheap hotel in rue Gt-le-Coeur, near the Seine. Known as the Hotel Rachou, after its owner, it has passed into legend as the Beat Hotel. Just a short walk away, across the Boulevard St Michel, was the office of the Olympia Press in rue St Sverin, the nearest thing to a house publisher for Beat writing in Europe. It was at the Beat Hotel in 1959 that the dishevelled routines of William S Burroughs were shuffled into some kind of shape by Ginsberg, Sinclair Beiles and others a random shape, according to Burroughs himself before being brought to the proprietor of Olympia, Maurice Girodias. Four or five weeks later, Naked Lunch, with a now rare dust jacket designed by the author and many misprints committed by non-English-reading compositors (fortunately, given the content), was in the few shops willing to stock it. The cut-up technique, which Burroughs used to produce his next two novels, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded also published by Olympia was accidentally revealed to his regular collaborator Brion Gysin at the Beat Hotel. Gysins original cut-up weapon, a Stanley knife, is on display, as is Burroughss vintage Underwood typewriter and an adding machine of the kind refined by his grandfather, also William S Burroughs, which brought the family status and wealth at the end of the 19th century. It was in Paris that Ginsberg began writing Kaddish, his greatest poem, and it was from here that Gregory Corso sent the poems for his collection Gasoline to City Lights Books in San Francisco. Hes probably the greatest poet in America, Ginsberg wrote in a preface, and hes starving in Europe. Starving at the Beat Hotel, to be precise, where Corso lived in a room almost too small to stand up in, as we see from one of the many photographs by the English photographer Harold Chapman.