“Remember That What We Call The Novel Is a Highly Artificial Form” — William Burroughs on the Picaresque Novel

Books, Literature, Writers

In a fantastic 1974 interview with noted translator Philippe Mikriammos, William Burroughs discusses the picaresque novel (and much, much more)—-

PM: Have you been influenced by Celine?

WB: Yes, very much so.

PM: Did you ever meet him?

WB: Yes, I did. Allen [Ginsberg] and I went out to meet him in Meudon shortly before his death. Well, it was not shortly before, but two or three years before.

PM: Would you agree to say that he was one of the very rare French novelists who wrote in association blocks?

WB: Only in part. I think that he is in a very old tradition, and I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents. And that tradition dates back to the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, and to one of the very early novels, The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe. And I think Celine belongs to this same tradition. But remember that what we call the “novel” is a highly artificial form, which came in the nineteenth century. It’s quite as arbitrary as the sonnet. And that form had a beginning, a middle, and an end; it has a plot, and it has this chapter structure where you have one chapter, and then you try to leave the person in a state of suspense, and on to the next chapter, and people are wondering what happened to this person, and so forth. That nineteenth-century construction has become stylized as the novel, and anyone who writes anything different from that is accused of being unintelligible. That form has imposed itself to the present time.

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