Archive

Archive for the ‘Kerouac, Jack’ Category

Hollow Highways Revisited

September 14, 2011 28 comments

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. 2009. 202 pages.

The curse of our generation is that everything’s been tried before. Drink, drugs, God, sex, meditation, masturbation, crystals, mushrooms, peyote, shamanism, communism, consumerism, tai chi, feng shui, kung fu, flower power and TV shopping. It’s obvious to anyone that out little road trip here is nothing more than a tired repetition of an age-old formula. But have you got any better ideas, Jack? Have you thought of something that nobody else in the world before you has thought of?

As regular readers might have noticed, I’m in a “classics revisited” mood these days. After the excellent 1280 âmes, the awful Madman Bovary and before the fantastic Wide Sargasso Sea, I read Andrew Blackman’s debut novel, On the Holloway Road. It’s an assumed adaptation of the mythic On the Road by Jack Kerouac in modern Britain. I was curious to discover what he had done with such a pitch, a slippery slope, in my opinion. As I had re-read On the Road last year and reviewed here, it was recent enough for me to see the links between the books.

Jack lives in London with his mother after his father died. He’s in his twenties or maybe early thirties and has decided to become a writer. While he struggles with his first novel, he meets Neil Black during one of his errands on the Holloway Road. They embark in his Figaro for a road trip to the extreme North of Great Britain. They have with them the audio book of On the Road, read by Matt Dillon. It’s a first person narrative, we only have Jack’s version of the events, he might be an unreliable narrator.

I’ve noticed that road trips in Britain consist in driving in the wild North. (cf The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim) Jack muses: “It’s a landscape of possibilities, where for a while you feel as if you can breathe air that hasn’t recently passed through someone else’s lungs”. Does going beyond the Wall of Hadrian still symbolize something? Incidentally, I wondered what it would be in France and I couldn’t figure it out. Such road trips would be more on foot, on the way to Santiago de Compostella or in the Massif Central, with a donkey on Stevenson’s footsteps. But back to the book.

In French we say “coup de foudre” (literally “flash of lightening”) for “love at first sight”. I prefer the French expression because it can be used for many situations, including friendship and doesn’t have necessarily a romantic meaning. Jack has a “coup de foudre” for the buoyant Neil. They are like fire and ice. Neil is weird, unpredictable, prone to verbal logorrhea and incoherent theories about life and freedom. Jack is quieter, respectful of rules and principles, desperately reasonable. Jack is fascinated by Neil, their relationship is based on rather blind adoration and even if Jack is aware that it is toxic for him, he can’t walk away from Neal. He’s like a drug to him.

I got a sensation that was strange to me at the time but would soon become familiar: that Neil was doing enough living for the two of us, and there was nothing left for me to do but watch.

I wasn’t fond of Neil (I wasn’t fond of Dean either btw) but I sure felt sorry for Jack. Being myself rather shy and quiet, I understand perfectly why he’s so attracted by the extroverted Neil. Still, I wonder if there isn’t a hint of homosexuality between the two.

All along their trip, we realize that their dream of American wilderness and of carefree behaviors such as Sal and Dean’s cannot happen in today’s Britain. The environment makes it hard to break the rules. Attempts at driving wild are cut short by traffic cameras and automatic flashes. Soon Jack is afraid to lose all his points on his driving license. When Neil throws away some trash on the highway, they are quickly arrested by the police and get a fine: someone had reported it. When they want to be hired on a drill platform, they learn you need qualifications and a special security training and that two good arms and a will to work aren’t enough.

For those who haven’t read On the Road or don’t remember it, the characters of the book are Sal and Dean, respectively Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy in real life. When I thought about the two sets of characters, I saw butterflies. Sal and Dean are day butterflies, the colorful ones who fly playfully from one flower to another under a sunny sky. They have a vivid and joyful way to fly, as if they were enjoying their short time on Earth and trying to make the best out of it. They’re jazz, light, fun, sad, full of life. On the contrary, I saw Jack and Neil as night butterflies. They’re grey, hollow, and live in a dark world and their pool of light is made of electric bulbs. When they fly, it’s only to bump into that artificial light they take for the sun and burn their fragile wings. Their freedom is sad and limited. It’s limited by their time and by their country, the cops, the camera, the rules and the absence of vast wilderness. They’re electronic music, mechanic, repetitive and inhuman. Their goal in itself draws the difference between them. While Sal and Dean drive to the sunny California, Jack and Neil drive to the windy and cold island of Barra.

On the Holloway Road left me singing Send A Picture of Mother by Johnny Cash. It’s a sad song about a man whose friend just got liberated from prison and who knows he’s himself  in jail for life. It stayed with me as a bridge between today’s Britain and 1950s America. After all, isn’t it what this book is all about?

 

On the Road : some news

May 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Since I published my post about On the Road, I read an article in a magazine about it. In 2007, a new version of the novel was published in the United States. This version corresponds to the first written by Jack Kerouac in 1951 on a 50m-long paper roll and was refused by publishers. Apparently, it includes pages that were eliminated and there aren’t anymore alias for the persons (Neal Cassady is no longer named Dean Moriarty and Jack Kerouac appears under his real name). The text isn’t split into chapters.

This new version has just been published in French, so it might be better to read that translation instead of the 1960 one.

On the Road (Jack Kerouac)

May 29, 2010 7 comments

That famous bible of the beat generation was written in 1957 and I read it in French, in a translation by Jacques Houbart, that dates back to 1960. I’m surprised it has been translated in French so soon after it was first published.

I had already read that book when I was a teenager. I didn’t remember anything about it, not even the names of the characters, which is a bad sign. I decided to read it again thinking I may appreciate it more now that I’m older and hoping to read about California. To no avail.

I’m disappointed because I would have loved to read descriptions of cities like San Francisco. I like the style ;  there’s poetry in the way he transcribes into words the images he sees but I got tired of binge drinking and driving experiences. I see how this book was something new when it was published and I understand why it has become a reference book for young people. There’s so much freedom in it. Though I don’t know exactly why, it makes me think of Rimbaud & Baudelaire, and Gérard de Nerval. All French poets of the 19th Century. My mind analyzes it as a good book, from the style, the story but it doesn’t “speak” to me.

Actually, observing the translation was more entertaining than reading the book, as it has not been updated since 1960. In that time, the USA were an exotic country for Frenchmen, seen as a dream country of rich and well fed people. A way of life that the whole generation of the 1960’s will envy and try to imitate. Very few families had a TV and American culture was not as widespread as it is now. It came through soldiers and music. France was backward compared to the USA as WWII had cost a lost to the economy and the country was underdeveloped. The 1950s in France were the years of the colonial wars and accelerated economic development. It was the end of the 4th Republic, a time when a married woman could not work or open a bank account without her husband’s approval.

Jacques Houbart, fulfilling a pedagogical purpose, added foot notes to explain some words or realities unknown to the French reader of 1960. Some of them are still useful : I didn’t know what an “Okie” was and I was grateful to have the foot note to enlighten me. But some of them are funny or puzzling for a 2010 reader like a two lines explanation to describe what a “motel” is or a sentence to point out that “grass” meant marijuana, just in case you would think there were actually smoking lawn or something. It tells a lot about the French society at that time, before mass media and globalization. It sounds so obvious now.

Some words are not translated as they had no equivalent in the French dictionary. For example, the words “supermarket” and “cafeteria” are in English. Whereas supermarkets were created in the USA in the 1930s, the first one opened in France in 1958 near Paris. In 1960, the average Frenchman did not shop in a supermarket. Now, we have powerful retail companies in France and the whole food seems to be sold in supermarkets. We have the word “supermarché” which is commonly used. As long as “cafeteria” is concerned, it is now a French word too.

There is more. The vocabulary is sometimes outdated. The verb “corner” for “hoot” is very old fashioned. I would never have thought to use that word to say “honk”, and I understood what it meant only thanks to the context of the sentence.

The word “motorway” is translated by “autostrade”, which I never heard in French as we use “autoroute”. Indeed, the first major motorway was opened in 1970, linking Lille to Marseille via Paris and Lyon. Again, the French reader of 1960 had no experience of what a motorway could be nor Jacques Houbart, by the way.

I wonder why that translation sounds so outdated. It’s not the first time I read books which were translated a long time ago. Is is because society changed so much or because it makes me realize how the American way of life imposed itself in my country ? It seems to have been written at the end of an era, before our way of life really changed and just before the freedom the 1960s brought.

It reminds me how much freedom I owe to the fights for women rights and to students uprisings of the 1960s and how mass media and globalization affected our everyday lives. Now Western countries are not so different from one another. In North America, everything is bigger than in France (cars, buildings, malls, servings in restaurants…) but you still are in an environment easy to understand. So On the Road had me thinking about that, which has nothing to do with the story of the book! …

%d bloggers like this: