9 rue Git-le-Coeur is an address that looms large in the literary landscape of the last half of the twentieth century. It was, until 1963, the site of an anonymous, low-rent flophouse on the traditionally bohemian Left Bank. It would be a wholly unremarkable place, indistinguishable from the many other similar hotels in Paris, except for the fact that it housed, with the exception of Kerouac, all of the major "Beat Generation" authors at one time or another from 1957 to 1963. Its tenants, while living in considerable squalor, produced some of the most enduring and influential works of literature of the period, and laid the groundwork for the then nascent counterculture.
In his book The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963, author and scholar Barry Miles recounts the history of what went on during the years when the Beats were abroad in Paris. Miles’ choice of material is excellent because it was at the Beat Hotel where Ginsberg wrote "Kaddish", which is often considered his best poem, where Corso developed the voice that he would give full expression in his book The Happy Birthday of Death, and where Burroughs completed Naked Lunch and learned the cut-up technique from Brion Gysin, which resulted in his next three major books, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.
The problem is that the material has all been used before. Anyone who has read a halfway decent biography of Ginsberg (such as Michael Schumacher’s Dharma Lion) or Burroughs (Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw) will not find much that they have not been exposed to. By focusing on a place in time instead of any particular individual Miles, while relating many interesting anecdotes, such as the time Ginsberg and Corso got drunk and made complete fools of themselves in front of Marcel Duchamp and Ray Man, fails to write about any of the major players in his book in any real depth. The title of the book promises to cover Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs, but, coming in at under three-hundred pages, one can tell just by looking at it that the book will barely scratch the surface of the minds of these three complex individuals.
In fact, Miles doesn’t even manage to stay strictly with the people named in his book’s title. He strays, most notably writing about Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville and the invention of the "Dream Machine," a device that uses flickering light patterns to induce hallucinations and their early experiments with early multimedia performance art. It is when he strays from the dull retread of well known literary history and focuses on some of the more overlooked figures who were also present in the Beat Hotel that Miles is at his most interesting.
The Beat Hotel, however, is, for the most part like looking through someone else’s vacation pictures. It gives the reader some sense of what it was like to be there, but one can’t help but feel that in between the snapshots of bohemian life in Paris that the real story took place in the spaces in between.