Swans Commentary » swans.com October 23, 2006  



Jack Kerouac In The Heel Of Italy


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Astremo, Rossano: Jack Kerouac il violentatore della prose (Jack Kerouac Ravisher of Prose), Icaro, Lecce, Italy, 2006, 96 pages.


(Swans - October 23, 2006)  A Bulgarian boy walks along a muddy road in the Rhodope Mountains. He has his baseball cap on backwards. He bought the cap at the village market, and it was made in Turkey. Without leaving his dream or turning, he gets nonchalantly out of the way of the car that's come up behind him. Had he known it, he has just been as close to America as he would ever get, even though as early as the evening he would be back home watching cops in Miami on the TV screen.

The driver who has been knocking around odd corners of Europe for years doesn't waste much thought on the position of that baseball cap. He cracks a brief smile and wonders only for a moment if the fashion tic already passé in the U.S. will become permanent in Bulgarian youth culture. He hasn't been astonished at Europeans aping what they thought was American for a long time.

After all, the practice had been going on since North American made it on to the maps. The news from America has always been about the never seen or never heard before, in a word, about the sensational. There had been those garish color plates of Red Men decked out like Christmas trees. But nothing beat the scenes of do-it-yourself justice that would curl the moustache of a village constable on the Danube. Anything suggesting vastness there for the grabbing could bring fever to imaginations back in cramped Europe. Ten thousand buffalo chewing their cud and pleading to be cut up into steak would do fine. As for unsensational news, the Americans could keep it. Europeans were bored to death with their own.

Our American driver hadn't been on the road quite yet in the Parisian 1920s. So he missed the idolization of Josephine Baker and the rage for "Negro" orchestras playing Dixieland. He also missed the launching of the American illusion back then that France knew no color prejudice. It lacked credibility with him since he knew people from Mali struggling to survive in the rue Saint-Denis and had spent long laconic evenings drinking tea with Berbers under the métro at Barbès, listening to how they weathered the Algerian War in Paris. They hadn't read the Sartre-de Beauvoir team's special number on American lynch law. Nor did they want to hear from him about the tough life African students were having in Moscow. Students? People with books didn't suffer.

Post-WWII Europe furnished a haven for some US jazzmen. Once jazz was taken beyond music you could dance to by Parker, Gillespie, Monk and their peers it was no longer, strictly speaking, popular in America. Europeans put jazz on a pedestal, passed around halos, and listened in a hush till the music became something else. The Blues crossed the Atlantic more dramatically. Big Bill Broonzy came to London in 1950 and nothing ever sounded the same again. British public (that is, private) schoolboys with posh accents got hold of records from GIs carousing in London's Soho. Muddy Waters and Otis Redding arrived like creatures from outer space. Those upper-class accents soon modulated to Mississippi-delta-on-the-train-to-Chicago speak. British blues men like Clapton and Jagger actually came into being in the better suburbs. Soon the Brit provincial working class got into the act. Nothing could have been more incongruous than those four foxy innocents from Liverpool spouting down-by-the-levee talk mixed in with the phony hobo lingo of Bob Dylan, né Robert Zimmerman.

Reaction to the Beats was different. The Brits generally took a pass. That was because they read people like Corso and Ferlinghetti in English, and stood them up against writers like Auden and Orwell. The rest of Europe fell victim to the Horace McCoy effect. McCoy was a 1930s heavy who sold stories to Black Mask. He began as a hack pulp writer and rose with hard work to finish as a Hollywood hack, sitting at a table patching up scripts with three or four similarly doomed alcoholics.

But it so happened that the post-war French literary establishment felt a dire need for new departures. Somebody translated McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Sartre and de Beauvoir declared it the mother of all existentialist novels. Malraux added his imprimatur. Even fastidious old André Gide chimed in. In France, McCoy, who had jumped on a train to Hollywood, was classed with Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. A New York wag got it right, "Sure they think he's a genius. They don't have to read him in English." The Horace McCoy effect.

The struggle of students, in Europe and elsewhere, to throw off their suits and neckties in 1968 could too easily in retrospect be tied up to the Beat generation. In fact, the 1950s movement was resolutely not political, everyone for himself and mouthing ideas so big they didn't mean much off the page of poetry. US life was awful, even sinister, but in the last resort there was no place like home. The forty-eight states were yours to tear through; then, burnt out, you sat down for good and stroked your beard, telling tales of the wild past. Umberto Eco got the picture as early as 1959 when he pointed out in Opera aperta that Beat Zen was simply a self-indulgent mix of disaffiliation and Benzedrine overload.

The Beats eventually moved, dragging their feet, with the times. They joined the protests against the war in Vietnam. At the notorious police riot during the Democratic convention in Chicago in '68, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs stood shoulder to shoulder with the New Left, the Hippies, and their militant wing, the Yippies. Ginsberg had his voice rasped out with tear gas administered by Chicago's Finest, the Men in Blue.

Almost a half-century later, it's fascinating to look at what Europe has made of the Beats. As usual, the age-old sea change operated. Hazy American facts have been reworked and fantasized into a U.S.A. that never was except afloat in the hot air above Paris, Frankfurt, and Rome. The Horace McCoy effect has mightily worked its magic. The evidence would fill a library, but let's take a very fresh example that tickles the fancy because originating in one of Europe's remote and sleepy corners. Jack Kerouac il violentatore della prose (The Ravisher of Prose) by Rossano Astremo was published earlier this year by Icaro, in Lecce, Apulia, Italy.

For Astremo, news from America isn't of the vulgar tabloid sort. He obviously worked up his subject in university precincts though his writing is neither stiff nor pretentious. His personal fantasy consists in casting Kerouac in the role of a genuine literary experimenter. In other words, he's piously gathered up the hints thrown out by Kerouac in moments of overexcitement at the typewriter and built them, in remote Apulia, using translations, into a Kerouac system meant to revolutionize literature.

Astremo's orderly little book begins with a thirty-page account of the writer's life. There follows another thirty pages explaining Kerouac's literary theories. Thirty more discuss his books in general terms. An appendix presents various material of special interest to Italian students of the writer. The large space devoted to theory shows the Horace McCoy effect at work. No mainstream British or American critic would give more than a glance at Kerouac's tussle with theory. After all, the writer himself didn't appear to take it very seriously.

Continental European men of letters have a soft spot for writers who furnish weighty rationales for what they write. The genre has known its ups and downs, with peaks such as Emile Zola's statement on naturalism, Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto or Robbe-Grillet's plea for a fresh start for the novel. More recent and trivial examples have come from groups in Italy like the "Cannibali" and the "Italian Pulp" writers, both inspired by that Never-Never Land they call America.

Astremo's literary culture, therefore, made him a sucker for Kerouac's theoretical riffs. These center on the idea of spontaneous prose. To simplify, the writer has a general subject he wants to put across and lets his instinct direct his writing in circles closing in on his prey. In doing so he forsakes any thought-out construction. He ignores all rules including those of grammar and syntax, and he never stoops to selection of any sort. He doesn't cut or replace a single word. In fact he doesn't review what he's written, for that would risk falsifying the pristine first flow.

Now any reader of Kerouac knows he never tried to apply this method for more than very short stretches. He may have been temperamentally disinclined to tamper with his first gush or convinced by experience that he couldn't improve a first draft by correcting or reworking it. Changing words may have got on his drug-shattered nerves, but his grammar and syntax generally remain within the norms. If he actually did disobey all the rules, we couldn't read him. There would be no communication. While his hit-or-miss approach to writing often makes for tedious imprecision and repetition, the fact of trying again and again can also on occasion turn up a memorable phrase. However, this isn't thanks to any theory.

There is something embarrassingly naïve in the contention that a writer's first jet of words is "pure" -- pure what? -- and can only have its freshness and truth preserved by not being revised or altered. Why couldn't those first typed out words be given more impact, clarified or made more expressive by editing?

Astremo, like Kerouac, labors under an overarching illusion. They both believe that painting and music have more than a metaphorical relationship to prose and poetry. Prose is words in a temporal continuum. A Jackson Pollock painting consists of space and color; the viewer grasps it all at once, not over a span of time. Poetry gives more attention to sound, but the sound comes from words, not Charley Parker's sax. Words can of course describe and even mimic painting and music, but the art forms can never fuse in any real way. Talk of Kerouac doing bebop or action painting in his writing belongs on the back cover of his books with the other blurbs.

To establish Kerouac as an experimental writer of the first water, Astremo respectfully places him in the same class as James Joyce and W. B. Yeats (in his last period when he sometimes wrote in a trance). However, the differences are telling. Molly Bloom's long unpunctuated monologue at the end of Ulysses is anything but unselective. Joyce deliberated over each word. The repetitions are all calculated. The absence of punctuation is part of a very thought-out project to recreate the impression of inner musing. Joyce actually corrected and amended his novel for a decade. In the case of Yeats's late writing, it took place after a lifetime of careful and very selective composition. In a trance or not, Yeats couldn't shake off his métier. Grammarians even dream in faultless grammar. Astremo and Kerouac oppose spontaneity to rational intention as an either-or choice. In reality the two are always mixed. Kerouac's admonition to write "without consciousness" is to ask the impossible.

The anecdote concerning the huge roll of teletype paper that Kerouac fed through his typewriter sums up the hollowness of his claims to be an historic experimenter. He was simply too impatient, excited, or strung out to keep feeding single sheets into the carriage. If he could have arranged to have a deft assistant standing there to put the sheets in for him expeditiously, this particular avant-garde breakthrough would have evaporated.


* * * * *


I would propose a quite different scenario from Astremo's. For all his Route-66, All-American-Boy allure and his toying with Buddhism, Kerouac sprang from one of North America's rare, native, Roman Catholic communities. The French Canadians radiate in all directions from their heartland in Quebec Province and have long been implanted in New England. Kerouac would never throw off entirely the religious imagery, piety, and guilt of his childhood. It's amusing that in his letter to an Italian judge defending The Subterraneans from censorship, Kerouac explains his spontaneous prose not by reference to Joyce, Pollock or Parker, but by his experience of going to confession as a boy. (The letter appears in Astremo's appendix.)

Anyone who knew pre-1960 Quebec will understand that Kerouac wasn't exaggerating the harsh rigor of the nuns' schools. Afterwards, following a taste of the Jesuits -- more of the same with ideas added -- Kerouac attended a public high school. There his creativity blossomed. But the die had been cast, as it were.

The years that followed were a struggle between Lowell, Mass. and the larger world. It's interesting that Kerouac stabilized his Oedipal malaise in a very American way. He didn't stay home or obsess about returning there, but would actually drag his mother along with him to the four corners of the States. Astremo's Italian eye doesn't miss the truth that his mother was the only woman the much-married Kerouac ever truly loved.

The young writer in New York instinctively set out as a "traditional" novelist. The Town and the City, composed in 1946-48 and published in 1950, may be a derivative apprentice work but it showed that Kerouac's natural bent was for long prose narrative. Astremo notes that Kerouac even tried to theorize the superiority of the long narrative form (the novel) over the short "emotive" one (the poem).

But narrative writing, no matter how one updates it, can't escape certain principles of development, recurrence, and continuity that one finds in genuine innovators from Laurence Sterne to Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett. What passes for Kerouac's experimenting often proves foreign to the long prose form that was natural to him. This is true, for example, of the way he sets up a theme as if for target practice and then takes desultory potshots at it, when the spirit moves him, over two hundred pages.

Kerouac knew Ginsberg and Burroughs since 1944. Both of them took early to justifying and validating their work as innovative and experimental. This was almost inevitable in the New York of the late 1940s and the 1950s where several of the arts had experienced a rebirth. Bebop transformed jazz, and abstract expressionism did the same to painting. "Action painting" especially dominated the cultural scene, imposing its vocabulary and rationalizations. These also proved congenial to avant-garde jazzmen. Each performance was an excursion into the performer's deepest emotions and aimed to come back with something completely new for the art, a step forward in its evolution. It was no surprise that the tension generated by these expectations called for the support of drugs and booze. Action painters and jazzmen both tended to have careers that blazed awhile and then went up in smoke. A blank canvas demanding something new every morning was daunting. So was the audience in a jazz joint demanding night after night to hear something they had never heard before.

As always when certain arts make a rapid bound forward, the other art forms in the milieu that are only marking time suffer a superficial contamination. Poetry and narrative fiction had not been fundamentally renewed in these years. But the reverberations of the new music and the new painting staggered writers like Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac.

Ginsberg's novelty was in his subject matter and his tone, not in an essentially new way of making poems. The new fashion for poetry readings gave him a considerable leg up. Burroughs was a parallel case in prose. Who can honestly say they read him for his cut-ups and fold-in mumbo jumbo that in any case was only a small part of his work? We read Burroughs for his paranoid fantasies and farfetched conspiracy theories that were tailor made for the America of his day and that in their nightmarish caricatures are genuinely funny. But as a prose writer he operated within the structures of traditional story telling. The science fiction of the period was plowing the same patch, minus the drug talk and bitter humor. Burroughs' novelty was, again, in his subject matter and tone.

Kerouac, with only his decidedly old-fashioned The Town and the City to his credit, threw himself into writing On the Road in 1948. We don't need the book chat and literary folklore that have come to surround the book to see that he had clearly tapped a rich creative vein. It was not unlike Saul Bellow's change of direction in 1953 when he published The Adventures of Augie March. Like Bellow in that book, Kerouac became a writer who left nothing out. The practice that Bellow would later have second thoughts about, Kerouac, when he got around to it in 1957, would glorify as spontaneous prose.

But no one had much patience for the bulging, ragged manuscript of On the Road when in 1951 he completed it for the most part. While trying to place it, Kerouac produced other work in his new young-man-in-a-hurry style: Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassady, The Subterraneans, Visions of Cody, and more. It was Malcom Cowley of Viking Press who finally took On the Road in hand. He cut and rearranged the manuscript drastically without consulting the author. Knowing Cowley, one can assume that of the spontaneous prose, only the prose was left. Astremo feels that this was a considerable loss to posterity. But since he hasn't gone back to the original manuscript -- admittedly well nigh impossible -- and made a comparative study, we have to be content with the Viking Press product. Kerouac, after initial dismay at the new shape of his book, was certainly content. The public and critical success of On the Road in the Cowley version meant Kerouac could publish his subsequent work, so to speak, as it fell from his lips.

Paradoxically it's the Kerouac plus Cowley book that is the only unquestionable literary gem in Kerouac's production. Whatever Cowley's role as midwife or Kerouac's part in its editing, On the Road as issued by Viking stands as a masterpiece. The fact that it still sells over one hundred thousand copies yearly does honor to the world's book buyers. On the Road's unassailable reality as a work of art makes Kerouac's 1957 texts on theory, or our quibbling over them, mere side issues. (Except when a dreamy mood slows down or draws out his sentences, they follow, forceful and rapid. No traces of "experimental" procedures appear.) On the Road, with its sense of wonder in the face of life, redeems in advance the decline in Kerouac's work, and his life, after the mid-1950s.

The book works because the author never fails to win our attention with an endless number of tiny dramatic situations that are recounted with an unfailing verve. Nothing is more interesting than two people meeting, and the encounters here are legion. Action -- doing and, of course, movement -- never gives way to long static description though there are some brilliant vignettes of places and in Part III several striking portrayals, without recourse to bebop prose, of jazzmen in performance.

The apparently mindless driving for its own sake shouldn't deceive us. The American scene comes through to us more effectively in hurried glances than it would in any leisurely travelogue. So do its inhabitants who are precisely the random lot out there that novelists have for some reason so much trouble getting close to.

If to begin with we feel surfeited by Sal Paradise's eternal adolescence, Kerouac soon gets us involved with and accepting of him. He does this by showing Sal's vulnerability. We soon find ourselves in the state of mind of the young man's aunt, worrying about the boy. The various other characters that start paper-thin gradually take on substance. Dean Moriarty's growth is typical. There's something Dickensian in his depiction that puts us off initially -- a limited repertoire of verbal tags. But in the somber Part III where Dean is brought low and Sal finally commits himself to a protective love, both men attain a serious density.

This hint of personal doom in lives of apparent limitless freedom gives On the Road its unique flavor. Everybody's going to hell in a hand basket, but they do so because of their own illusion-driven choices. Freedom means fun and eventual collapse. It's the American way.

The Beat myth is alive and well in Apulia and Jack Kerouac has his place in the blue sky there like one of the region's many saints. But that doesn't mean that the inhabitants have taken to the road with anything like enthusiasm. Giuseppe the Flying Monk of Copertino (1603-1663) regularly levitated into that same sky. But he never strayed, horizontally, far from his convent. (See Old Calabria by Norman Douglas.) Italy can't forget Kerouac. L'Espresso, a news magazine imitative of Newsweek and Time, announces a new poetry book series. Ten international poets have been chosen and Kerouac represents the English-speaking world. However, the most poignant Italy-and-Kerouac anecdote concerns the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. In 1963 he was planning what would be his magnificent The Gospel According to St. Matthew. His practice was to sprinkle his cast with non-professional actors. He spotted a photograph of Kerouac on the back of one of his books and decided he'd found the perfect handsome rugged young Jesus. People in the know soon put him right. The bloated figure slumped over his typewriter in Florida -- prefiguring late-period Elvis -- wouldn't make a convincing Savior. He'd even have trouble putting across the savoir-faire of Judas.

The Apulia-America connection rests on a radical contrast. The locals, like a good deal of humanity, find their identity in the earth beneath their feet. Americans find theirs in their head, in the idea of America. It's much easier to be a footloose traveler if you can bring home sweet home with you in your backpack. The Apulians feel like foreigners in their nation's capital in Rome. Residence in exotic Milan is always forced, a necessity of work or study. Their ideal is to stay at home while local conditions improve thanks to handouts from the national government and the European Union. But serious improvements are a long time coming. Jobs remain scarce, industry thin on the ground, commerce sluggish. Projects to modernize the tourist industry are nifty rhetoric that melts in the August sirocco from North Africa.

Larger cities like Bari have all the woes of a metropolis but none of the redeeming features. There's petty crime in the streets and the organized sort behind impregnable doors; civic disorganization and nullifying political infighting; institutions, such as universities, that have lost credibility. Absent is the occasional effective reform, change of direction, or sweeping new broom that arrives with a burst of energy. The roots of stagnation go deep and even the suffering man in the street thinks twice about pulling them up and perturbing the ground he stands on.

So the dream of American youth of the 1950s thrives like other idealisms here at the warm end of the Adriatic. Buried in America under half a century of tumultuous history -- a civil rights movement, miscellaneous assassinations of the powerful, several wars and, all told, change in a very big way, Jack Kerouac still has a place in the Apulian firmament. He's up there frolicking with Giuseppe the Flying Monk of Copertino.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Published October 23, 2006