Monday, May 08, 2017

The Unknown Kerouac (a review of sorts)

Recently, the Library of America began publishing the works of Jack Kerouac, providing them the sense of gravitas they deserve and making them available in solid (literally and figuratively) hardback editions replete with scholarly material and context.  The most recent such edition is The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings (2016), edited by Todd Tietchen, with translations of the French-language material by Jean-Christophe Cloutier.

This volume includes works thought to be lost, or which existed only as fragments, never previously published.  There are two novellas (La nuit est ma femme/The Night Is My Woman and Sur le chemin/Old Bull in the Bowery, both written in Kerouac’s native Québécois French), the existing portion of the abandoned novel project Memory Babe, and the opening to the late-period projected novel Beat Spotlight (which would have followed Kerouac’s final book, Vanity of Duluoz, had he lived to complete it).  In addition, The Unknown Kerouac includes a significant 1951 journal, an interview conducted by John Clellon Holmes in 1963, and the short but engaging sketch-like manuscript Tics, among other odds and ends.

The phrase “odds and ends” suggests that the book might be an insignificant hodge-podge that scrapes the bottom of the archival barrel.  However, this is not the case.  For anyone who is more than a casual reader, the works collected here not only round out our picture of Kerouac’s oeuvre in a significant way, in themselves they are absorbing examples of the author’s consummate and unparalleled prose style.

One of the works herein that I find particularly interesting is La nuit est ma femme (1951), written in French in New York City not long before Kerouac composed the famous scroll version of On the Road.  Like most of his work, it is autobiographical, focusing in this case on the time period after Maggie Cassidy, before he left Lowell for Horace Mann and Columbia University.  It begins, though, with the Kerouac-narrator (here named Michel Bretagne) reflecting on his current state of existence, almost in the mode of Dostoevsky (thinking of Notes from Underground): “I have not liked my life.  It’s nobody’s fault, just me.  I see only sadness everywhere.  Often when a lot of people laugh I don’t see anything funny.  It’s a lot funnier when they don’t trouble themselves with sadness” (65).

Here, we note that the style is not what we would expect from Kerouac; instead, it is composed in short, clipped sentence structures similar to those exhibited in the earlier, existential And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945).  The reason for this has to do with the difference in languages, Kerouac’s native French dialect versus his learned English style.  As the translator Cloutier observes, “Kerouac notably renders in written form a type of French that, at the time, only existed as speech” (xxiv).  He also goes on to note that, in his translation, he takes a cue from the approach that the author himself used in a few self-translated passages where he “often chose to foreground rather than bury his linguistic foreignness.  His hand-edits disclose moments when he deliberately worsens the spoken English of the characters” (xxxi).  Finally, we get a real glimpse of the double-consciousness that Kerouac lived with every day as a working-class Francophone “Canuck” in a majority English-speaking America.

In a different mode, the 1951 journal is of immeasurable importance in Kerouac’s development as an artist, as it documents, over a three-month period, the working out of his new literary approach, culminating in his discovery that he could write about the “real” events of his life with a focus on character, rather than worrying about plot — that he could essentially approach his writing in whatever way was necessary to render his own original vision of life and art.  It was this breakthrough that led to his “spontaneous” style, first realized the On the Road scroll (it is also interesting to notice that many of the tenets put forward in Kerouac’s “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” are pulled directly from this journal).

At the same time, it is worthwhile to be reminded here that Kerouac worked through many different iterations of his most famous book, and that his success as a novelist (and for that matter as a poet) is due not merely to some fortuitous burst(s) of energy, but also to many years of thought and the hard work of actually writing hundreds of thousands of words.  The 1951 journal shows him engaged in all the different aspects of this, committing himself to his vocation as a writer and elaborating exactly how he would go about fulfilling it.

Similarly, the 1963 interview initiated by John Clellon Holmes (“Doing Literary Work,” conducted in writing, by letter) further solidifies our image of Kerouac as a serious writer, in contrast to the popular misperception of him as the “King of the Beats.”  Holmes’s questions about his friend’s themes and techniques are insightful and usually designed to elicit sustained thought about the writing itself (not, say, the salacious details of a life; though, occasionally these are connected).  For example, Holmes asks,

In On the Road, you still see things in terms of superlatives, exuberance . . . after this book . . . you become more precise and yet sadder too.  Was this simply a stylistic honing?  A surer grip on your mind and meanings?  Or a disappointment, a reconciliation? (308)
To this, Kerouac answers,
A disappointment.  I was an imbecilically joyous healthy lad bent on thinking only “glad” thoughts but for deliberate philosophical reasons, in fact as a deliberate counterargument to Oswald Spengler and all his Late Civilization Skepsis.  Finally the world creeped up on me . . . and drove in the lesson. (308-09)
But, readers of his work can see a stylistic honing in this process as well, and The Unknown Kerouac registers his evolution, the breakthroughs, changes, and progression in the career of — let’s be honest — one of America’s greatest writers.  This is not to say that Kerouac can’t also be criticized (hints of reasons for that exist here too), but in the critical discussion(s) of twentieth-century literature he can no longer be dismissed.

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