Alexander Trocchi

1925 - 1984

Biography

The biography of Alexander Trocchi suggests a life of many parts: writer, artist, husband, father, activist, heroin-addict, revolutionary. Trocchi was born in Glasgow in 1925 to an Italian father and a Scottish mother. He attended Glasgow University from 1942-43 before joining the Royal Navy from 1943-46. Perhaps unsurprisingly, military life didn’t suit him and he returned to University to study philosophy. In the late 1940s he moved to Paris, where he edited the avante-garde literary journal Merlin, which published, amongst others, the work of Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was in Paris that Trocchi began his own writing career under the auspices of Maurice Girodias’s infamous Olympia Press. His early fiction is concerned with the erotic, some might say pornographic, and much of this early work was banned in Britain, France and America.

In the late 1950s Trocchi left Paris for the U.S, finally settling in New York. It was at this time that Trocchi began his experimentations in drug culture as part of the ‘turn-on, tune-in, drop-out’ generation and was briefly imprisoned in New York for his associations with illegal drug taking. It was at this time too that Trocchi wrote Cain’s Book telling of his sexual misadventures and heroin highs during his time living on the Hudson River. French existentialism (a philosophy which asserts that Man is a free agent, unbound by God, and that he must accept responsibility for his actions in a seemingly meaningless universe) and the New York and San Francisco ‘beat scene’ (which stressed the values of non-conformity, freedom and experimentation), made a profound impact on Trocchi’s writing. His novels deal with human isolation in a society marked by moral ambivalence and alienation.

During the sixties Trocchi published an essay for the New Saltire entitled ‘The Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds’; its plea for the ‘linking of minds’ was to become the manifesto for Trocchi’s 'Sigma' project, which gained support from writers, artists and intellectuals as various as Picasso, R. D. Laing, Salvador Dali and Timothy Leary. Project Sigma was inspired by Leary’s ‘consciousness revolution’, a cultural call to arms which advocated the rejection of old and stale ways of seeing. Drug taking, and in Trocchi’s case, heroin addiction, was part of the pursuit of alternative realities. Revolutionary rhetoric was intended to breach the boundaries of social order and moral authority.

In 1962 Trocchi came to Scotland for the Edinburgh Writer’s Festival where he was famously attacked by Hugh MacDiarmid, the founding father of the ‘Scottish Literary Renaissance’ of the inter-war years, who dismissed Trocchi and his work as ‘cosmopolitan scum’ (though their private correspondence suggests a mutual respect and recognition of the values of the revolutionary and rebel across a changing cultural terrain). Simultaneously castigated and idealised, Trocchi remains an ambivalent character, one whose life demonstrates a truly visionary aspiration for mind and art and enacts the dystopia of an over-reaching idealism.

Works

At the outset of his writing career, Trocchi wrote several erotic novels such as Helen and Desire (1954), White Thighs (1955) and Thongs (1955) all published under Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press. Girodias had set up the Olympia Press in 1953, accumulating writers from Britain and America living in Paris who wrote erotic fiction published under the Olympia ‘Traveller’s Companion’ series. Cheaply produced, the books were targeted at the American serviceman and tourist market, who helped to distribute them around the world. Their reputation as cheap pornographic paperbacks, however, disguised a rich vein of underground literary talent. Under the auspices of the Olympia Press some of the most important literature in the post-war era found its way into print; works including Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Pauline Reage's Story of O, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch and works by Henry Miller, Jean Genet and Georges Bataille.

Robert Creeley was one critic to recognise the philosophical implications of Trocchi’s erotic fiction, noting that the writing was not a self-gratifying indulgence in private fantasy but rather that ‘Trocchi is an intense moralist... In Thongs he defies the isolation of persons in sexual rapport, and the facts of life as unrelieved in all possible senses.’ Neither is Trocchi’s erotic fiction without literary merit. Novels such as Helen and Desire and White Thighs mark the beginnings of Trocchi’s formal experimentations in language and narrative personae. Jack Hirshchman, writing on White Thighs, has described a novel ‘dominated by domination itself, it is a book whose style (language, perceptions) – the voice of a poet – commands the highest respect’.

Perhaps Trocchi’s most famous novel, certainly since its film production in 2003, is Young Adam, published in its final form in 1961. The novel echoes Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (The Outsider) with its emotionally detached and morally ambivalent central character. Joe lives on society’s outskirts, an assistant on the barges that endlessly circumnavigate the Clyde canals. The novel is written in the first person, with Joe as narrator of events, although very little actually happens in the novel; Joe finds the body of a dead woman in the canal and follows the events leading to the arrest and conviction of her suspected murderer while he begins an affair with his co-worker’s wife. Trocchi’s novel is not concerned with conventional plotting, however. Young Adam is as much a philosophical examination of the concepts of truth, identity and morality.

The novel demonstrates Trocchi’s interest in the deceptive nature of language: ‘It is the word ‘I’ which is arbitrary and which contains within it its own inadequacy and its own contradiction’, Joe asserts. The self in this novel is never a coherent or morally consistent thing – it is a series of disjointed impressions and feelings wholly detached from the social framework within which it operates. The instability of identity is reflected in the fact that there is no authoritative ‘truth’ in this novel; neither religious nor social justice is shown to prevail. Even narrative reliability is undermined as it becomes increasingly apparent that Joe has been withholding information about his former relationship with the dead woman and his presence at the time of her death. His unwillingness to claim personal responsibility for his participation in the woman’s death and his cynical allowance for the miscarriage of justice, which sees another man falsely condemned to death for her murder, reveals Joe’s antipathy towards a punitive social system that seeks retribution rather than truth. Meanwhile, the tangled sexual relations and multiple betrayals enacted in the novel suggest humanity tragically alienated, both from one another and from any source of ultimate communion.

Trocchi’s later novel, Cain’s Book (1961) is heavily autobiographical, describing the mental processes and non-happenings of its heroin-addicted central protagonist, Joe Necchi, who is also writing a novel entitled ‘Cain’s Book’. Again, the interest of the book is philosophical rather than plot-driven. It is, in fact, a novel about writing a novel, a mind reflecting on its own mental processes. It is highly self-conscious and formally experimental, playing with a kind of de-centred opiate diction and attempting to dramatise the fragmented persona.

In the ‘Introduction’ to the 1992 edition of Cain’s Book, Richard Seaver described it as ‘more than a novel … it’s way of life’, an assessment which acknowledges the book’s idealistic bias. In its acute observation of everyday events and intensely confessional style, the reader is invited into the existence of the anti-social drug–addict, writer, observer, outsider. The sexual antics of the book once more demonstrate Trocchi’s concern with man’s ultimate isolation. Exploring the relationship between father and son, Cain’s Book also symbolises the youthful and idealistic rejection of the patriarchal values of stability, conformity and coherence offering an existential study of social boundaries and the imaginative margins of a morally irreverent, drug-addled exile.

Reading Lists

Primary

Cain's Book (1960)

Helen and Desire (writing as Frances Lengel) (1954)

School for Wives (1955)

Thongs (1955)

White Thighs (1955)

Young Adam (1957)

I, Sappho of Lesbos (1960)

Man at Leisure (1972) (poetry anthology)

Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds,  ed. by Andrew Murray Scott (1991) (anthology)

Secondary

A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi, ed. by Allan Campbell and Tim Niel (1997)

Related Links

Writing Scotland themes