The Rembrandt Hotel: Enter Brion Gysin
He Looked Very Occidental
Although many accounts mention it, I’ve always wanted to know more about the first encounter between William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. In retrospect, this is the story of a failed connection, of a missed meeting of minds, and therefore of what didn’t happen in relation to the writing of Naked Lunch. But what exactly did happen between the two men? The standard version simply says that Burroughs went to an exhibition of Gysin’s paintings in January 1954, shortly after he had arrived in Tangier (from Rome via Gibraltar, on the 4th of the month). Gysin’s own retrospective account is memorable:
Hamri and I had first met him [Burroughs] in the hired gallery of the Rembrandt Hotel in Tangier in 1953, when he wheeled into our exhibition, arms and legs flailing, talking a mile a minute. We found he looked very Occidental, more Private Eye and Inspector Lee: he trailed long vines of Bannisteria Caapi from the Upper Amazon after him and old Mexican bullfight posters fluttered out from under his long trench coat instead of a shirt. An odd blue light often flashed around under the brim of his hat. (Brion Gysin Let the Mice In, p.8)
But the view in retrospect — especially via retrospective anecdotes that get the details wrong (the year, 1953) — is not enough to go on. I wanted to know more about the Rembrandt Hotel where Burroughs and Gysin met and about the paintings that were showing there.
A stylish, six-story building, the Rembrandt stands at the far end of Boulevard Pasteur, the main avenue that runs West to East through the nouvelle ville of Tanger (as the French spelled it). Pasteur itself is not an especially long or broad avenue — you can almost see the Rembrandt from the Place de France at the Western end of the Boulevard — but in the 1950s it was the smart and modern main drag of the European city, lined with expensive boutiques, banks, department stores including a branch of Galeries Lafayette, and cultural centres such as the American Bookshop, which is almost directly opposite the hotel. These few blocks don’t just look Western and modern, they feel it; this could easily be Paris or Madrid. Very Occidental indeed.
Postcard of Boulevard Pasteur in the 1950s, looking towards the Place de France.
While not the most fashionable hotel in town — it was no competition for the more famous Minzah, just down from the Place de France — the Rembrandt attracted top rank writers as well as mid-range tourists: Tennessee Williams was a regular guest, for example, staying in October 1953 and again in May 1954, while Jane Bowles also stayed there in early 1954. Since most of the streets radiating off the Boulevard at this point take their names from European painters — Rues Goya, Delacroix, and Velasquez — there’s a nice irony that the Hotel Rembrandt should stage the original encounter between Burroughs and Gysin, the man he would soon credit for applying the techniques of painting to the act of writing.
Gysin’s exhibition was a one-man show entitled Carnet de Voyage au Sahara, and featured small pictures from a trip to the desert made during the winter of 1951/52.
For more factual details, the best source of information I’ve been able to discover is the same source that would probably have attracted Burroughs’ attention in the first place: the local English-language weekly paper, the Tangier Gazette.
The Gazette previewed Gysin’s show on 22nd January 1954: “Mr Brion Gysin, American painter and writer, will present an exhibit of his paintings of the Sahara, at the Hotel Rembrandt, beginning Saturday, January 30th. Most of the paintings are of the distant Hoggar, an area which Mr Gysin knows particularly well.” A week later, the paper featured a full review that specified the number of works on show — 42 — and identified several of them by name — “Hammada,” “Vers Arak,” and “Moisson des pâturages.” The review also commented on Gysin’s technique, the way his pictures used gouache for large masses and ink for shadow or detail.
Although the paper noted that Gysin’s show was only due to run until Wednesday, February 3rd, in the next edition it reported that the show had been extended until Saturday the 6th — presumably in response to interest. On the 19th, the Gazette announced that Gysin’s show had moved on to Marrakech, where it ran at Librairie de la Koutoubia until the end of the month, and then, at the end of April, Gysin’s Saharan pictures returned to Tangier in an open-air show on the Rue de Statut just below the Minzah Hotel.
Masthead of Tangier Gazette
It’s doubtful Burroughs went back for a second look, at least if the lightly fictionalised account he gave almost two years later is anything to go by:
When I first came to Interzone he was exhibiting some of his paintings. Not distinguished work. Vistas of the Sahara, the best of them recalling the bare, haunted rock and desert of Dali’s dream landscapes. There is skill, he can draw but he has no real reason to do so. (Interzone 74).
Then again, this is “Interzone” not “Tangier” and it’s not the work of Gysin but “Algren” that Burroughs is describing — distinctions underscored by the fact that all this is mediated by the voice of his persona Lee, since the material appears within the “Lee’s Notes” section of the Interzone collection. In fact, the original manuscript, entitled “Extracts from Lee’s Journals and Letters,” is especially interesting in regard to both the voice and structure that Burroughs had been trying to work out since at least January 1955 (when he decided: “I will simply transcribe Lee’s impressions [...] I include the author in the novel” [Letters 251]). In retrospect, it might seem strange to think that Burroughs’ thinly disguised account of meeting Gysin might have appeared in Naked Lunch, but this material points up Burroughs’ commitment to recycling his own experience and so including the author. Each part of the autobiographical trilogy he had already written could be called, like Gysin’s show, a carnet de voyage, and Naked Lunch further developed the travel journal as a model for writing, while offering compelling evidence that Burroughs had a “real reason to do so.” The point is emphasized by a line omitted from this description for its publication in Interzone, immediately following the passage cited above: “There is nothing of Algren in these pictures.”
Finally, if Burroughs went to the Rembrandt Hotel on January 30th for the opening, and assuming he read the review in the Tangier Gazette, he would almost certainly have come across a piece later on in the paper written by Gysin about the friend he mentions, Mohammed Hamri (le peintre du maroc as he later styled himself). After a glowing comparison of Hamri’s work to that of Cezanne, Renoir, and Picasso, Gysin concluded his piece with a resonant phrase that Burroughs would have surely noticed: “Hamri has become a painter against such astronomic odds that, indeed; Mektoub, It Was Written.”
Even so, while Burroughs and Gysin failed to connect that night in the gallery of the Rembrandt Hotel, it could be said that their eventual rendezvous — in Paris, four years later, at the point when Naked Lunch was at last heading for publication — was also written…
(Text: Oliver Harris)