Paul Nizon, the unrecognized Swiss-Beat – by Peter Oehler

Gertrude Stein distinguishes strictly between English and American narrations in the first lecture of her book Narration. Four lectures by Gertrude Stein. English literature is relatively calm, with reduced excitement whereas American literature is in motion in full excitement even if they are using the same language. Paul Nizon from Switzerland writes in German. But if we were to classify his writings, which are full of motion and traveling, they might be considered American literature. Should he be added to the Lost Generation or to the Beat Generation? Considering his age – he was born in 1929 in Bern – he might be classified as a member of the Beat Generation. Paul Nizon an unrecognized Swiss- or Helvetian-Beat?

Often Nizon mentions as his roots or connections in writing or artistry Robert Walser (“Poet life“) and Vincent van Gogh (both European), and Henry Miller (American). But not the Beat Generation. As members of the German-speaking section of the Beat Generation, we identify normally Jürgen Ploog, Carl Weissner, Jörg Fauser, Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Wolf Wondratschek and Hadayatullah Hübsch. But never Paul Nizon! But in some little locations in his large oeuvre he asks himself if he is not a member of the Beat Generation.

There is only a minor geographical hint to that classification: In 1977 he finished his civic life – he left his wife, children (his well-paid position as an art critic in the editorial office of  Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Zurich he canceled already in 1961), and went to Paris to live in a small flat he inherited from his aunt on her death. Paris, the Beat city in Europe. He was (and still is) living there as a bohemian poet. But is he really a Beat-bohemian poet?

But what does it mean in any case, to be Beat? To be a Beat writer?

To liberate oneself from conventions and from bourgeois and square life is a basic attitude of the Beats. Nizon’s anti-bourgeois way of life is not only visible by his move to Paris but throughout his whole life. To unite life and writing/art is another important aspect of Beat living. Nizon is living a poetic existence. He creates his life by his own writing: to write the life. He even says that the only reality is the one created by writing. By his writing he wants to recognize that he is alive, that he could feel his vitality. Freedom and spontaneity are important aspects of this vitality. But his liveliness is always closely connected to his own writing. This is also visible by the way he writes: it’s in a spontaneous way. Therefore, Nizon calls his preferred way of working warm(-up) writing or blind writing. This is amazingly similar in principle to Kerouac’s spontaneous prose.

To be on the road is a main part of Beat philosophy, not only because of that book of Kerouac. The traveling motive is also very important for Nizon, for whom it is a metaphor for a living journey. Also to get really into cities like Rome, Paris or London. Nizon is a great flâneur – in Rome, in Paris. To be in motion is not only important to feel alive but in order to set the thoughts – for writing, for the next book – into motion. The feeling of this ongoing motion shows itself in jazz and tempo. One time Nizon sees as a similarity between him and the Beats the “jazz drunkenness.” The return journey from Italy at the end of Nizon’s book Canto has a rhythm and speed which is comparable to the country crossings in On the Road. Sexuality and especially the acting out of his/her own sexuality is part of the Beats and of Nizon. It is worth comparing Nizon’s book Untertauchen (meaning: to duck) which narrates his love story with a young woman who is working in a nightclub in Barcelona, Spain, with the “whorehouse scene” in Mexico in On the Road part four, chapter five. For Nizon the whores are important, not those on the street but those in establishments which he calls maisons de rendez-vous. To feel his vibrancy by getting closest and deepest contact to a girl. Several times he calls himself a whore shepherd. I don’t know if Kerouac was aware of the somewhat sexist and racist behavior of his alter ego Sal Paradise. But for Nizon his visits to the whores were not seen by him as sexist, but he worshiped them instead.

Nizon sees himself as a singularity, as an outsider (of society) – like Robert Walser and Vincent van Gogh. He even states that he only belongs to the “Nizon Republic,” to nobody else. But he also detects some similarities with others. In Paul Nizon’s own words: “I thought always that I would belong as a widely dispersed member to the beatniks, the Kerouac- and On-the-Road-intoxication-addicts (who are binding themselves onto the wheel of motion).” (Paul Nizon, Urkundenfälschung, page 248. Translation by P. Oehler).

— Peter Oehler

Paul Nizon 1969 in Zürich, Photographer: unknown, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0