ALEXANDER TROCCHI FEATURE
lexander Trocchi was fleeing justice when he slipped out of the United States in 1961. The New York Police Department had an APB out on him and the FBI was wiring ldentikit likenesses of the fugitive — angular face. aquiline nose and narrow, ironic eyes — to all border checkpoints. lf caught. the Glasgow-
born writer faced the electric chair on charges of
supplying drugs to a minor. His wife was already injail.
In fact. Trocchi made his escape to the UK.just.
and lived to see his recently completed autobiographical novel become a bestseller. The novel was Cain is Book. which Trocchi had written while working as a barge captain in New York. It was to become — alongside William Burroughs Naked Lunch — one of the most important books of the 60s. probing the Beat Generation‘s drug-scarred underbelly. Since (’ainfs Book also dealt honestly with Trocchi’s own heroin habit. it was destined to be burnt. banned. prosecuted. turned down by publishers and. of course. elevated to cult status. lt will probably never be surpassed. to use Trocchi‘s own words. as ‘a textbook for dope- fiends and moles’.
But notoriety gives only a brief high — and in ’l‘rocchi’s case it seriously dissipated his reputation. which started fading long before his death in London in 1984 at the age of 59. His early achievements were obscured later in life by colourful tales of depravity.
After all. it was Trocchi who committed the ultimate act of Bohemian secdiness by sending his young wife onto the streets of Las Vegas as a prostitute to finance his heroin habit. and it was Trocchi who was famously denounced by Hugh MacDiarmid as ‘cosmopolitan scum’. But he was also called “the most brilliant man I have ever met’ by Allen Ginsberg; described as ‘a fascinating personality . . . a very fine writer’ by Norman Mailer. and hailed as a ‘unique and pivotal figure in the literary world of the 1950s and 6()s’ by Burroughs.
It's easy to see Trocchi as an unfulfilled talent. noting the decline of his creative powers as the junk ate him up. He can also be condemned on moral grounds. while some just pretend he didn‘t exist. as several anthologies and studies of Scottish literature have done. But anyone who reads ('ain is Book or Trocchi’s first novel.
Andrew Murray Scott, Alexander . Irocchi’s friend and biographer, S remembers the writer in his last years. 1 He first met him during an interview for Cencrastus magazine in 1980:
‘I was living in Kilburn when I received an urgent, very grandiloquent note in typical Trocchi style telling me to get in touch. It turned out that one of his friends, the Hon George Rodney, was looking for someone to share his flat in Kensington. Poor George was injecting himself with drugs and had hit a muscle, so he was walking with the aid of a stick. There always seemed to be a succession of famous people coming through, such as
‘l was working in a hospital psychiatric unit at the time, so this glamorous side of life was very
Young Adam. will ﬁnd it difficult to dismiss the power and significance of this subversive, reptilian writer.
Why is he so little known in his native Scotland? He not only ﬂouted the conventions of the literary establishment. but also crossed swords with the nationalist rebel cause. marshalled by firebrand and poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Trocchi worked outside Scotland for most of his life. and this was reflected in his writing which was influenced more by American and continental trends than anything Scottish. although many of his stories are set in Scotland. He had few friends there to champion his writing in his absence. and possibly even a few enemies.
Trocchi chose exile from an early age. and soon after leaving Glasgow University moved to Paris. Once there he set about establishing a reputation as one of the most promising writers of his generation. He edited the influential literary and political magazine Merlin. which published work by Samuel Beckett. Jean Genet and Eugene lonesco among others.
It was in Paris that Trocchi wrote Young Adam — a potent psychological murder thriller set on Scotland’s Forth and Clyde Canal — which bubbles with erotic undercurrent. and anticipated by a decade the existential European novels of Albert Camus.
He wrote White Thighs in Paris too. which was the first of his books to demonstrate, as the blurb says. ‘his gift for imaginative. intelligent erotica‘. In other words it contains some very colourful pornography. Of the several books he wrote for Olympia Press under various pseudonyms. this is one of the best. telling the story of a young boy’s sexual obsession with his nanny.
While it does display Trocchi’s gift for building sensual scenes of a more sophisticated kind. it is an enjoyable sex romp. Enjoyable, that is, for those readers not put off by sado-masochistic hanky-panky. as it deploys many a florid description of rampant lust.
All Trocchi’s books were well-crafted however. and his ‘blue material’. as it was called in those more innocent times, was published all over the world. Olympia Press’s chief Maurice Girodias played an important part in the struggle against literary censorship. publishing
Nabokov’s Lolita alongside other material. So
welcome. Alex was the patron of the crowd. He’d sit in the Elephant and Castle pub wearing his little steel-
| rimmed spectacles and huge leather
Trocchi’s writing had revolutionary credentials even when his ﬁgurative trousers were down.
But his body of serious work is relatively thin. He was an underachiever all right. even proud of it. As Greil Marcus says in a foreward to Cain '5 Book: ‘ln the matrix of the Bohemian legend, there is nothing so romantic as turning one’s back on the field the moment everyone believes the prize is yours; in that sense . . . Trocchi’s life was a cheap triumph.’
In a way it was unavoidable. Trocchi lived out his defiant nihilist beliefs to extremes. He left Paris for the United States in 1956. where the political climate of the time was rabidly hostile to anyone even faintly resembling a reefer- crazed beatnik commie. Regardless. Trocchi took to injecting heroin. and found himselfajob on a scow on the New York waterways. which gave him plenty of time to write his book in between scoring drugs and evading the cops.
William Mcllvanney called the Beat Generation ‘snake-oil salesmen of the word’. The description suggests something essential about Trocchi — he was a hustler, in both literature and lifestyle. But dressing tip his drug habit as a kind of philosophical commitment failed to convince even himself towards the end of his life, and it certainly impeded his writing. In the end. it wasn’t drugs that did for the old roue’. not directly anyway; he died of pneumonia after an operation for lung cancer.
The breadth — if not the amount — of Trocchi’s writing is testament to his powers. He was a poet and an acclaimed translator. His essays too — on Orwell for instance. whom he greatly admired — had widespread impact. And now. with the reissue of his novels and a chance that Young Adam will be turned into a feature film, Trocchi could be about to enjoy the revival he deserves. He is after all an important. fascinating figure in modern Scottish literature: Britain’s only real Beat writer. and rated by the eminent Scottish literary critic Edwin Morgan. among others, as having produced in Cain’s Book. one of Scotland’s best post-war novels.
Alexander Trocchi; The Making of the Monster bv Andrew Murray Scott (£14.95) and Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds: A Trocchi Reader edited by Andrew Murray Scott (£9.95) are both available front Polygon. White Thighs is re-published by Blast at £7. 99.
jacket, reading some book on medieval art, and people would congregate around him.
‘He was a cult man, but it was a recipe for inertia. I got frustrated because we’d end up in his flat talking about things, but nothing would ever get done. I think he resented the fact he hadn’t been accorded his place in Scottish writing as the lnstigator of more cosmopolitan and internationalist aims.
‘I still don’t believe he was a junkie. We smoked stuff and snorted together at the time, but I never saw him inject or take methadone. He would certainly be incapacitated sometimes, but whether that was due to more mundane things like Iumbago, I couldn’t tell you.’ (Peter Jinks)
The List 13—26 January 199511