Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Jack Kerouac”


BeatniksBeatniks by Toby Litt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe, at two removes from the real thing. There were the Beats, a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s, and then there were their groupies, their hangers on, nicknamed “beatniks” by a journalist, by analogy with sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, launched from the Soviet Union in 1957, the year in which Jack Kerouac‘s novel On the road was published. As sputnik orbited the earth, so did beatniks orbit the Beats.

The problem is that the characters in this book, Jack and Neal and Maggie and Mary are just about 40 years too late. Jack and Neal are not their real names, they have adopted the names of their heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Jack, especially, is obsessive about being “cool” and “hip”, and sees them as angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But in the rather middle-class surroundings of Bedford it is rather difficult to picture them as those who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, to quote Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl. Ginsberg read his poem at a now-legendary poetry reading in San Francisco, which sparked off a poetry renaissance. So in the book Jack organises a poetry reading in the Bedford Public library, reading his own poetry, which even his admirer Mary has to admit is excruciatingly bad.

As Jack Kerouac’s character Sal Paradise goes on the road, hitch-hiking across America, so Jack and Company go on the road… to Brighton, where they stay with a dead poet’s uncle, and try to live up to Jack’s impossible ideals of hipness and coolness, and will not acknowledge anything that has happened in the world after about 1966. But there is also a sense in which they get the time-frame wrong. Jack tries to follow the scenario of On the road, but though it was published in 1957, it was about the Beats of the 1940s, not the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s it was almost all over, though it had a kind of revival, in a form that Jack could not accept, in the hippie movement of the 1960s.

To say much more about the story would reveal too much of the plot, except that in the end even Jack comes to realise that he has been trying to live an impossible dream, and the shattering of his illusions has shattering consequences for them all.

The basic problem, of course, is that to be obsessed with the ideal of “coolness” is the antithesis of cool, and the harder they try to adhere to it, the farther away it recedes. So Jack becomes a kind of Great Gatsby of the 1990s, trying to relive an imagined past.

I don’t think you have to be familiar with Beat Generation literature to enjoy this book, but it wouldn’t hurt to have read a couple of books by Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg’s poem Howl. You can find some useful links here.

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So much for the “review” part of this, which I shared on Good Reads, but perhaps there is more to be said. I was turned on to Beat Generation literatrue by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, when he read a paper at a student conference. The paper was Pilgrims of the Absolute, and if you click on the link, you can read it too.

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

As I said, I could identify with the with the characters in the book to some extent, because I too was a wannabe beatnik. There we were, practising waiting for Godot in Linbro Park, which we drove to in a beat up old car with a half-jack of white Malmsey under the front seat. Godot never came, of course, and we didn’t wait all that long either — just till the wine was finished. That’s part of being a wannabe — when you get bored with it you can pack up and go home. Actually the place where the picture was taken is now all built up, and is called Far East Bank, but back then it was just empty veld between Alexandra and Linbro Park.

In the book beatniks Jack refuses to travel to Brighton on the motorway, because it wasn’t built in 1966. Well, we didn’t travel on the N3 highway back when the photo was taken, for the simple reason that it hadn’t been built yet. Now runs across the hilside a couple of hundred metres past my right elbow in the picture. And, like Jack, I still don’t drive on the N3 even though it is there now, but for a somewhat different reason — they’ve started charging tolls on it, but that’s another story.

I suppose the difference between us and the characters in the book is that we were closer in time, if not in distance, to the people we sought to emulate, perhaps 3-5 years after, rather than 35 years later. And we were not quite so obsessive as the people in the book about living other people’s lives. We thought some of their ideas were good, and some not so good, some things we would like to emulate, and others not. Most of it needed to to be adapted to other times, other places, other circumstances.

The hippies, who followed the Beats about 10 years later, adapted their movement, so that it was not mere imitation They coined a phrase for it, “Do your own thing”. But the characters in the book were trying very hard to do someone else’s thing, and that, as I’ve already said, is the antithesis of “cool”.

There is a saying attributed to Dostoevsky, “Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense. It is better to go wrong in your own way than to go right in somebody else’s.”


Jack Kerouac’s American journey (book review)

Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the RoadJack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road by Paul Maher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the road is not my favourite book by Jack Kerouac so I might not have bought this book if it had not been going cheap on a sale. I’m glad I did buy it, though, because I found it more interesting than On the road, and it explains how that book was written.

I recently read Neal Cassady: the fast life of a beat hero (review here), and found several details in this book that threw more light on Cassady’s character and behaviour than his biography did. Perhaps Paul Maher had access to more sources. After reading the biography, I was at a loss to know why people like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were attracted to Cassady, though in Ginsberg’s case the initial attraction was sexual. Maher manages to explain it better, though he still does not portray Cassady as a particularly attractive character.

That still doesn’t explain why I liked this book better than On the road itself. Perhaps it is because the real life of authors is often more interesting than the characters they write about. My favourite among Kerouac’s books is still The Dharma bums, and perhaps that is because it is more about the influence of Gary Snyder than that of Neal Cassady, and Snyder is a more sympathetic character.

One thing that almost put me off reading the book was odd errors in language. I suppose having been an editor makes me rather intolerant of slip-ups (even though I make plenty of my own). One of the more egregious ones was on page 133, “Carolyn Cassady received a letter from her husband, postmarked January 11. In it he promised her regular installments of cash from working two jobs in New York, neither of which he had yet to procure.” I presume the author intended to say either “both of which he had yet to procure” or “neither of which he had yet procured”, but as it stands it is a strange piece of nonsense. There are other similar errors, writing “principal” where “principle” was meant and so on. But I’m glad that these didn’t put me off, because the book is worth reading, at least to anyone who has enjoyed reading any of Kerouac’s books.

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Beats, Inklings, Christian literature and paganism

When I first started making my own web pages ten years ago, these were some of the themes that interested me, and that I hoped I’d be able to discuss with other people. Now, for the first time, it really does seem to be happening.

For the last few days I’ve been having a very interesting discussion with Luthienofold on LiveJournal, which echoes some of the thoughts I wrote in an unfinished article on Christianity, paganism and literature.

We were discussing what it was that made good fantasy literature, and what was so attractive about Beat generation authors, and I think we agreed that it was that the heroes were on a human scale. I had a vague recollection of Chesterton having said that fairy tales were appealing not because they were about extraordinary people, but because they were about ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. I have since looked it up, and here it is:

… oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

And in another post in this blog, Notes from underground: Jack Kerouac I noted that the Beats usually write not only about ordinary people, but even their adventures are quite ordinary — a mountain-climbing expedition where they fail to reach the top of the mountain, boozy parties, a hiking expedition — but they manage to see them as imbued with extraordinary significance. They help use to see the ordinary things with new eyes.

So I’m posting this mainly to try to draw some of the threads together, and to invite people to perhaps continue the discussion (if you want to) in the NeoInklings forum, which you will find more about on most of my Christianity and literature pages, where comments are less ephemeral and easily lost than on blog pages.

See also:

escapist entryway: Interesting facts by association

It’s nice to see that someone else likes The Dharma bums, though I must say that the bobblehead doll looks more like Thunderbirds than Jack Kerouac.

escapist entryway: Interesting facts by association — sorry, link broken

But I found it interesting that I too read The Dharma bums through in one sitting, almost, in the Durban public library. Not quite one sitting — I was about three-quarters of the way through when the library closed, and they kicked me out. I didn’t live in Durban then, so I couldn’t borrow the book. And soon after that it was banned, and so I couldn’t buy my own copy, or get it in any library.

Jack Kerouac

Well, someone remembered Jack Kerouac’s birthday.

I didn’t, but it was nice to read about how he had influenced someone else.
Erik’s Choice
One of the interesting things about Kerouac is that the attractions of his writing are not all that obvious. He writes about quite ordinary things: driving or hitchhiking from place to place, meeting people, conversations, hiking, reading, going to parties. All these things seem to be quite ordinary, banal even. Why write a book about them?

What makes Kerouac’s books different is that he sees different things in the ordinary things of life, and so helps others to see their own lives differently. It is as if, as Allen Ginsberg said, one drives 72 hours across country to see if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out eternity.

I was introducted to Kerouac’s books by Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, and he had, in himself, that kind of character. He could talk about ordinary things and make them seem extraordinary. I think that if anyone else had introduced me to Kerouac’s books, I would not have enjoyed them so much. Towards the end of his life Jack Kerouac seemed to become more lost and alcoholic and disillusioned. But for Brother Roger it remained fresh and exciting. “Everything that happens is adorable”, as he quoted a character in another novel as saying, in his paper Pilgrims of the absolute, in which he first introduced me to Kerouac and other such characters.

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