July 30, 2010
ALEXANDER TROCCHI (1925-84) was a great writer and a cautionary tale. Very young he wrote a tough, dark modernist novella (Young Adam), then edited one of the major postwar lit mags (Merlin), then turned out a stack of pseudonymous porn quickies that are a hundred times more stylish and durable than most such efforts (see Helen and Desire in particular), then undertook to foment revolution, first as a member of the Situationist International and then spearheading his own Sigma, which promised not coup d’état but coup du monde. Along the way, however, he found junk, or it found him. His last great work, Cain’s Book, conveyed the experience in a visceral way that even Burroughs couldn’t rival; the mimesis extended to the conditions of its writing: he was paid by the page, upon delivery, so that every ten pages or so he could go cop. Afterwards all was ruin. He never finished anything again; he caused misery to his loved ones — his wife supported their habits by prostituting herself; he shot up in front of the kids. He ended his days selling used books, a junkie to the last. Then his ashes vanished and his papers mysteriously burned. He was Ozymandias, one whose name was writ on water.
ALSO BORN THIS DATE: Thorstein Veblen.
Each day, HILOBROW pays tribute to one of our favorite high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes on that person’s birthday.
HILO HERO ITEMS by Luc Sante: Dashiell Hammett | Pancho Villa | James M. Cain | Georges Bataille | Félix Fénéon | Émile Henry | A.J. Liebling | Jim Thompson | Joe Hill | Nestor Makhno | Hans Magnus Enzensberger | Captain Beefheart | William Burroughs | Ring Lardner | Lee “Scratch” Perry | Serge Gainsbourg | Kathy Acker | Arthur Cravan | Weegee | Alexander Trocchi | Ronnie Biggs | George Ade | Georges Darien | Zo d’Axa | Petrus Borel | Blaise Cendrars | Alexandre Jacob | Constance Rourke | Damia | J-P Manchette | Jean-Paul Clebert | Pierre Mac Orlan | Comte De Lautreamont | André Breton | Robert Desnos | Arthur Rimbaud |
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What do you think?
Good one, Luc!
“Helen and Desire” is a terrific example of what might be termed (to paraphrase Soviet newspeak) actually arousing postmodernism. Though he’s an absurdist who doesn’t take metanarratives or narrative conventions seriously, Trocchi — unlike Vonnegut, Pynchon, and other better-known postmodernists — takes the pursuit of kicks very seriously indeed, no apologies or goofing around.
Also: like the high postmodernists, Trocchi is anti-authenticity, but when he satirizes the quest for authenticity, he does so without bile. Helen’s exotic picaresque sex adventures are a lot like Candy Christian’s in Terry Southern’s 1958 novel, only we aren’t encouraged to despise and scorn Helen. She’s not exactly a sympathetic character, but we empathize with her lustfulness; long before Kim Fowley encouraged Joan Jett and Cherie Currie to “think with your dicks,” Trocchi was encouraging his teenage female protagonist to do so.
Stewart Home’s introduction to the 2008 Oneworld Classics edition of Trocchi’s “Young Adam” is worth reading, because Home makes a case that “Young Adam” is anti-middlebrow and proto-postmodernist, a “burlesque of exhausted modernist literature.” But I’d hate to think of anyone reading a Trocchi novel bound between respectable, genteel covers — instead, in the name of erotic frisson, do what I did, and seek out Olympia Press originals or, even better, bootlegged knockoffs of same.
Thanks, Josh, well said! Don’t know if you know the story behind Young Adam, but essentially: he wrote it as a straight novella, couldn’t get it published, Maurice Girodias offered to publish it if Trocchi could introduce a certain percentage of nookie, book was published as Olympia smut, then Trocchi took it back, eliminated 99% of the snorching, and published it more or less as first written. A unique case, I think.
Girodias, despite his flaws — I’m inclined to sympathize with Donleavy in Donleavy v. Girodias, though probably with Girodias in Nabokov v. Girodias – is one of my great culture heroes! The HiLo cover art series we ran early on should have been dedicated to M.G. By all means, readers should seek out the smutty “Young Adam.”
I went to a party at Girodias’s SoHo loft when I was 18 or 19. It was for an utterly forgotten scare-jape called President Kissinger, and the invite had come to the Columbia Review, where I was a freshman pledge (or whatever the word is). I went by myself, naturally didn’t know a soul, and spent a couple of hours drifting around as if I were in a 3D movie. It comes back to me exactly like a decadent-party scene in some period movie–Beautiful People coupling, taking drugs, engaging in jaded repartee, etc. People in every sort of early-’70s regalia. Wish they’d had digital cameras back then!
Was it like the party scene in Midnight Cowboy? I’m envious.
I dunno–I’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy. I guess I remember it as one part Peter Sellers vehicle, one part Emmanuelle.
Ha — that was going to be my next question, whether or not it was like “The Party.”
Luc, one thing you didn’t mention was that Trocchi was Scottish, a fact that was very important to him and, still more, to young Scottish intellectuals and writers, at least circa the mid-80s when he enjoyed a big resuscitation. I was a very small part of that as an assistant editor at the revived 1980s ‘Edinburgh Review’, laying out columns of type on cardboard printer’s flats with liquid cement, in unheated rooms, and in exchange for large quantities of beer. No heroin. No great parties either, for that matter.
I forgot to mention the key detail, though maybe it was implied, that Edinburgh Review published a special issue on Trocchi in 1985. It was, in a small way, a big deal.
Mark, my apologies to the Scottish people. It’s tough getting everything into 200 words. But I do have the highest respect for Scotland, the Scottish rapport with language, and the Scottish rapport with beer.
Some time ago I sent emails to all three of Trocchi’s biographers – yes, there are that many books about him published in the UK – after Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, Sontag’s first female lover, told me he had been romantically involved with Teddy Roosevelt’s novelist granddaughter Theodora Keogh when they were both regulars at the Cafe de Tournon in the early ’50s.
None of them had heard of her and they all said her name didn’t come up in the research for their books – though I’m in touch with two Tournon regulars who do recall her rubbing elbows with the Merlin magazine crowd, though they’re unsure if she and Trocchi were an item. I remember one of these biographers, the only one who knew Trocchi personally, telling me that old Alex, capable as he was of spinning lurid and horrific stories about his junkiedom, was always the soul of discretion when it came to his love life and never reminisced about such involvements. Ah, they don’t make gentlemen like that anymore.
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