WSB sources

Possible or probable sources for various phrases, allusions, references, etc. occurring in the work of William S. Burroughs.

Compiled by Jeffrey B. Taylor


Originally published in 1953 ; page numbers are of the 1977 Penguin Books edition.

  • p. 5 : “….I noticed another man who was standing there looking at me. Waves of hostility and suspicion flowed out from his large brown eyes like some sort of television broadcast. The effect was almost like a physical impact.”

Cf. Denton Welch, In youth is pleasure (London: Vision, 1950): 17.
“A very old-fashioned waiter with flat feet, wispy remains of hair, and a greasy napkin on his arm, led them to a table. Orvil looked at him as at an interesting relic. He did not like to think of him as human, for this would have spoilt the meal. The vast unhappiness of the waiter came out to him in waves, and he beat them back, trying to concentrate on the menu.”

  • p. 92 : “As I lay there on the bench I felt like I was subsiding into a pile of bones.”

Cf. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (New York: Doubleday, 1924 [1900]): 166.
(About 3/4 of the way through chapter 14.)
“….the notorious Robinson, coughing at his side, clung more than ever to the handle of the umbrella, and seemed ready to subside passively into a heap of old bones.”

My Education (New York: Viking, 1995)

  • p. [vii] : “I haunted the city of your dreams, invisible and insistent as a fire of thorns in the wind.”

T.S. Eliot’s translation of St.-John Perse’s poem “Anabasis” (section 1) reads:
“….So I haunted the City of your dreams, and I established in the desolate markets the pure commerce of my soul, among you
invisible and insistent as a fire of thorns in the gale.”

  • p. 192 : “I remember a story by de Maupassant, “La Vie,” can’t quote exactly. Traveler stops in a deep gorge in the mountains of Corsica to ask directions at a farmhouse. A rushing stream, already dark in the late afternoon, the valley is so deep. And this woman who came from Paris, a good family, had married a Corsican and lived in this valley for forty years. ‘A feeling of desolation and horror swept through me at the thought of forty years in this remote dark valley. The frightful misery of the human condition, cradled in dreams until death.'”

The story he quotes here is not from Maupassant’s novel Une vie, but from the short story “Le bonheur” which for some reason seems to be included in few, if any, English-language anthologies or collections, though it is popular in French-language collections.
Burroughs mis-remembers a number of details: the traveller had stopped at the farmhouse for the night, not to ask directions; the woman was from Nancy, not Paris; and she had lived there fifty years, not forty. The quoted passage is also not quite correct, though it is a good re-write, as is typically the case with Burroughs.

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