There is nothing that is not in some way or other ambiguous.
Alexander Trocchi, The Long Book
He was drowning in some deep mystery
Like a man who is sure what is true.
Leonard Cohen, Master Song
Being very much the cosmopolitan boulevardier, I was recently in Paris, and paid a visit to the famous bookshop, Shakespeare & Company. My main purchase was Jimmy Page’s wonderful photographic autobiography, a coffee-table book in that it is about the size and weight of a coffee-table. But my eye also fell on A Life in Pieces, a biography of and selection from Alexander Trocchi.
I vaguely knew the name. Something to do with the Beats? I deemed 6 euros a sufficiently paltry sum to merit investigation. The book is a compendium comprised of excerpts from Trocchi’s own work combined with commentary from other enticing counter-cultural names: Patti Smith, William Burroughs, Terry Southern, Allan Ginsberg, Greil Marcus, Leonard Cohen. But of Trocchi I knew nothing. A voyage, then, of discovery.
Trocchi was the archetypal Bohemian. Born in Glasgow of Italian heritage, he edited the short-lived but seminal magazine Merlin in Paris, publishing Genet and Beckett’s first novel, Watt. Relocating to America, he was forced to flee after arrest for supplying narcotics to a minor, earning a potential death penalty in New York State. He was smuggled across the border into Canada, where Leonard Cohen took him under his wing, Cohen almost dying for his pains. Trocchi cooked up such a large mess of opium for the two of them that Cohen collapsed, temporarily blind, at a busy Montreal intersection. Cohen wrote a poem for him.
As a writer, Trocchi is best remembered for two novels, Cain’s Book and Young Adam. He also wrote pornography for the Parisian publisher Maurice Girodias, and various snippets and essays. He sold antiquarian books in Kensington, was variously a pig farmer, a barge captain on the Hudson River, and a would-be revolutionary, at the centre of a shadowy world-wide cultural and intellectual insurgency he called Sigma. He fathered two sons, one of whom died young and the other of whom jumped to his death months after Trocchi himself died of pneumonia in London in 1984. He was acquainted with many of the post-war European and American demi-monde, not all of whom took to him. “The junkie?”, spat James Baldwin. “I hate him.”
For Trocchi was a junkie. Allan Campbell and Tim Niel, who edited the book, produced a documentary (on YouTube here) also called A Life in Pieces. It features extraordinary footage of Trocchi dispassionately shooting up, and he was once employed in London by a Harley Street clinician solely to take blood from patients with recalcitrant veins, such was Trocchi’s skill with the syringe. As always with heroin, the most seductive and yet deadly of mistresses, the price was often higher than a mere street tariff.
Trocchi’s second wife Lyn Hicks was a wide-eyed ingenue when they met, but Trocchi soon had her addicted, and would pimp her out in Vegas to pay for drugs. He attempted to drag all his acquaintances down the road to hell. William Burroughs was one of many who remarked on Trocchi’s total dedication to becoming what the Scot called ‘a cosmonaut of inner space.’
Heroin and related opiates weave a sinister tapestry through literature. Trocchi revered Coleridge, and Burroughs’ Junky lurks always in the background, with De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater another presence (although Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend, curiously, does not feature). But whatever effect heroin had on Trocchi’s often outlandish but rarely dull prose style, as the subject matter for a novel it left the inner cosmonaut fighting for publication.
For this was the time of the censor, a time we are now re-entering, though for different reasons and with different taboos. The 1960s were a time of trial: Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller, Oz, The Naked Lunch… Now, it is racial and gender pieties that are strictly policed by the Stasi of the Liberal-Left. Then, it was plain old sex and drugs and, to a certain extent, rock and roll. Trocchi was keenly aware of boundaries and transgression.
In the essay Censorship and Virtue, Trocchi compares the unwary writer who falls foul of society’s literary pieties to the hapless Josef K, arrested on no charge at the opening of Kafka’s The Trial. Trocchi continues;
“If… one releases a book in which the author has subjected to searching analysis those areas of human experience which are still considered by the ignorant to be taboo, one has no idea what consequences will follow. Fame, ignominy, even prison…”
Compare this with the reception given to those contemporary writers brave enough to release honest books on Islam, gender, racial genetics, and the other off-limits areas delimited by the new Puritans.
A curiously understated facet of Trocchi’s work was his grasp of philosophy, of which he was a graduate. One of his letters from Paris in the 1950s contains as good a potted explanation of the secession from surrealism to existentialism as I have come across, and he had a good understanding of the relationship between Sartre and Camus. Amidst all the porn and the junk, the beat poetry and the hustling, Alex Trocchi had a firm grasp of the philosophical themes of the twentieth century;
“Language is, from the point of view of meaning, a system of implicatory relations, an apparatus for thinking with. If the apparatus is faulty, if certain implications are stultifying – and twentieth century science has proven them to be so – then language itself can be the greatest obstruction to clear thinking.”
This is admirably clear and instructive, particularly when placed against the pabulum which passes for modern philosophy.
Socrates tells us that good and evil can exist in the same person, and he could have had Alexander Trocchi in mind. In his life and his fragmentary writing, the renegade Scottish junkie took no prisoners. As he wrote in Cain’s Book,
“This book is written to kill.”