A walk through the docks that line the murky waters of the River Clyde lays echo to the once thriving Glaswegian shipyards. An ethereal reminder of heavy industry’s decay, the former shipyards now serve as loose foundations for the business park of today. A speckling of twisted, unarmed cranes scrawl skeleton-like along the lengthy expanses of the North Bank as the barge canals of the Forth and Clyde—while still providing welcome punctuation to the endless grey-sandstone tenements of a Victorian past—slip silently by.
It was these very canals that provided the backdrop for Young Adam, perhaps the most famous novel (at least since the film version was released) by the beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. Of all the beat writers, Trocchi is perhaps the least recognised. Indeed, the man who was once described by William Burroughs as ‘A unique and pivotal figure in the literary world of the 1950s and 1960s’, was all but forgotten by the time of his death in 1984, even in his Scottish homeland.
Trocchi was, in his words, ‘Bloodily extracted from the womb’ of his Scottish mother in Glasgow, the year was 1925. His father, an Italian émigré, had made something of a success of himself as a bandleader and soon moved his young family to the Bank Street area of the docks, a few stone throws away from the looming Gothic towers of Glasgow University. It was here that Trocchi began his studies in 1942, although less than a year later he had abandoned them for a life at sea with the Royal Navy. However, it was perhaps no surprise that military life didn’t suit him and he returned to university in 1947 to study English and philosophy.
Having received a disappointing second (a comfortable first was expected), Trocchi relocated himself and his new wife, Betty, to the rural outskirts of Glasgow whence began his life as a writer. Among his first forays into fiction were the initial drafts of Young Adam, although the book was not published in its final form until 1961. The book revolves around the central character Joe, an outsider in the mould of Camus’s Estranger, who works the barges of the Clydebank canals.
Much like Joe had done some fifty years earlier, I walked along Argyle Street (the longest boulevard in Scotland), stopped for a coffee and cigarette and continued on my way. What would Trocchi make of the Argyle Street of today, dominated as it is by the glaring goliath of the St. Enoch Shopping center and peppered with pound shops and savers? In his proto-modernist way, he would probably well… make very little of it.
Philosophical in essence, Young Adam eschews all conventional plotting in favor of an examination into the nature of identity, morality and truth. Joe, much like Camus’s Gerhault, remains morally ambivalent, relating his story in a series of fragmented sense impressions that appear essentially detached from the social framework in which they occur. The ‘I’ of the narrator is incoherent, inconsistent and ultimately unreliable. Neither social nor religious justice prevails, an indication of the absence of a truth that can ably shore up the fragile stability of the self. The protagonist’s final act, which witnesses him allow another man take the rap for his crime, perhaps betrays Trocchi’s own cynical distaste for a punitive system that weighs retribution above truth.
While Trocchi was soon to leave Glasgow, the city was never really to leave him. Indeed, his homeland—while never again the setting for his fiction–was to forever remain the hue that tinted all his subsequent work, providing a subtext both literary and real.
Trocchi’s obvious leanings towards French Existentialism (man, unbound by God, is a free agent compelled to accept responsibility for his actions in a world that lacks ultimate meaning) is no doubt what, in the early 50s, led him to leave his homeland for the then cultural center of Europe – Paris. For the first year, home was a series of cheap hotels. The first was located in the Rue de la Huchette. Situated close to the Ile de la Cite, Trocchi’s Huchette was a fusty street lined with a melange of European émigrés and Algerian traders. Today it has been transformed into a vibrant thoroughfare dominated by Greek tavernas; the hotel is still there.
A short walk from the Rue de la Huchette leads to what soon became Trocchi’s ‘second home’, the infamous bookstore called ‘Shakespeare and Company’. It was here that Trocchi established the avant-garde literary journal known as Merlinand he was to remain its chief editor until its demise in 1954. (Trocchi claimed that the journal was forced into closure after the US Department of State canceled its many subscriptions in protest over an article by Jean-Paul Sartre). The St. Germain of the early 50s was a haven for expats looking to emulate the careers of heroes such as Hemingway and Joyce. Trocchi, however, was amongst the few who surely mattered. It was astonishing for a young and recent graduate from Glasgow to be responsible for publishing such genius as Ionesco, Becket and Sartre.
By this time Trocchi had fully embraced the literary, bohemian lifestyle and–having packed his young family off elsewhere–set up home with his girlfriend, Jane Lougee, the daughter of a wealthy banker. It was Lougee who was largely responsible for financing both Merlin and Trocchi himself and he, so convinced of his genius as he was, had little reservations for this arrangement. His subsequent publication of Becket’s Watt and Molloy was perhaps justification enough.
Trocchi’s own literary output during his Paris period was, however, arguably less laudable. Under the influence of both his publisher, Maurice Girodias, and his escalating reliance on opiates, he produced work that, although described as erotic, was more justifiably labeled as pornographic by most (much of his work here was banned in both France and Britain).
His descent into the heroin-fueled underworld was perhaps inevitable for a man who had little choice but to push himself to the very edge of all things. He had come to see himself as something of the ‘director general’ of a fresh though subversive global movement; one that aimed at overthrowing the old sensibility and establishing a newer one that was so much closer to the heart. His lifelong preoccupation for seeking out a vantage point somewhere on the circumference of both life and space, led him relentlessly towards a nihilistic obliteration of himself.
‘More and more I found it necessary…to exist simply in abeyance, to give up (if you will) and come naked to apprehension’.
It was these preoccupations that led him to abandon the bustling café society of St. Germain for a life on a scow moored on the outskirts of New York’s Manhattan (‘Alternatives: prison, madhouse, morgue’). It was here that Trocchi was to produce his most beautiful work (and for the current writer one of the most beautiful literary works ever) – Cain’s Book.
While many detractors complain that nothing actually happens in Cain’s Book, this is precisely where its strength lies. Much like Young Adam, Cain’s Book avoids any conventional narrative. Bereft of the usual ripples, furrows and climaxes that pepper the kind of generic fiction so pervasive today, Trocchi’s novel is content to explore the impasse of bleak repetition that every serious person can but accept.
‘Is there no character in the book large enough to doubt the validity of the book itself’.
Here he offers an annotation on literary processes that drive his unique understanding of literature’s essence. Few have articulated better both the possibility and impossibility of literature at one and the same time; he understands perfectly literature’s critical necessity both in what it can offer as well as in what it conceals.
For certain, Cain’s Book has been systematically vilified. Rejected, banned, even burnt, the novel remains condemned as a vile expose of a fiend; a monster under dangerous influence and projected towards little more than an examination of his own sexual perversities. Indeed, Hugh MacDiarmid – the man widely recognized as ‘The father of the Scottish Literary Renaissance’ – was unrelentingly scathing. Persistently dismissive of both Trocchi and his work he finally labeled him simply as ‘cosmopolitan scum’. Trocchi would simply reply that of all the Scottish literature that had been written in the 50s and 60s only his was of any real interest.
Indeed it was. Much like Joyce before him, Trocchi was primarily and indeed laudably concerned with the necessity of a writing that was wholly self-conscious — a factor that serves as an essential pre-requisite for literature’s ultimate authenticity. Cain’s Book achieves precisely that.
‘To look into oneself endlessly is to be aware of what is discontinuous and small…Identities… are shred, each as soon as it is contemplated’.
After Cain’s Book had been published, Trocchi spent the remainder of the sixties in London. Here he began work on his ‘Stigma’ project—its manifesto, a ‘linking of minds’. Having published an article in the New Satire entitled ‘The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’, Trocchi subsequently gained the support of an assortment of intellectuals and artists which included Dali, Picasso and R.D. Laing.
While the project certainly had parallels with Timothy Leary’s ‘consciousness revolution’, Trocchi’s cultural and essentially literary revolution left comparisons with the former to pale. For certain, Trocchi’s revolutionary rhetoric, much like Leary’s, envisioned a fissure within the margins of both moral authority and social order. However, as he was to note in ‘Million Minds’ revolt is understandably unpopular. As soon as it is defined, it has provoked the measures for its confinement. He would later claim that had he been able to experience the alternative states of mind that were induced through the use of drugs without them, he would have gladly done so. His position was nonetheless as an explorer of human emotions and he felt duty bound to such experimentation by whatever means necessary.
His London years were, however, marked by tragedy. His wife, Lynn, whom he had married in New York, was to die from hepatitis and his eldest son Markus was to follow soon after; dead at the age of eighteen from cancer. Trocchi, by now wholly dependent on opiates on a daily basis, was unable to write more and settled into a quieter life selling antique books. His younger son committed suicide soon after Trocchi’s own death in 1984 from pneumonia, the double tragedy compounded by a fire that reduced the writer’s remaining material to ash.