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Kerouac in French

By David Varno

kerouac_antceil_1.jpg This past Monday night, the Americas Society featured a discussion of Jack Kerouac as a Franco-American writer. This aspect of Kerouac is well known to readers who have ventured beyond On The Road. His books were intended to make up a Balzacian cohesion (he also referred to Proust), which he called the Dulouz Legend. Four of his novels, especially Dr. Sax, are infused with many lines of his unique strain of Québécois joual, which jumps off the page with the same energy of his better-known Beat writings but is richer somehow, more closely distilled from his memory. Kerouac didn't learn English until he was six or seven, and as biographer Joyce Johnson put it on Monday, his process involved using English to translate French images. íI am writing directly from the French in my head,ë he wrote in a letter to Ginsberg.

The presentation focused on the discovery of two novellas that Kerouac wrote in French, found in his personal archives in 2006 and written in the particularly rich period between 1951 – 53. Montreal journalist Gabriel Anctil, who published a series of articles on the texts for Le Devoir, noted that there has been interest from Canadian and French publishers. The works are titled La Nuit est ma femme (The Night is My Woman), and Sur le chemin (On the Road), and the latter evidently has substantial differences from the famous American novel. Most significantly, the character that represents Neal Cassady is nine years old (the age of his brother Gerard when he died).

I asked Anctil what he thought about the value of these two works in English translation, considering the fact that these books were written at a time when Kerouac produced a series of well-known, complete novels, and he said that they are probably most interesting to see in French for the sake of the unique language he used, but that Kerouac did translate Sur le chemin into English himself, which would make for a nice bilingual edition. Panel moderator Regina Weinreich noted in her introduction that Canada and America have each fought for Kerouac as their own, and that biographer Ann Charters had noted that if Keroauc had published in Canada, he might have seen the artistic recognition that he longed for. But as Weinreich also noted, Keroauc's dream was to continue the American tradition of Whitman and Melville.

John Tytell, author of Naked Angels (1976), noted that the bilingualism of Kerouac's Visions of Cody, published posthumously in 1973, was íunparalleled in American publishing,ë and cited James Joyce as the trigger for Kerouac's made-up words, in addition to the joual vernacular. He also mentioned that Kerouac would endlessly re-read John Clellon Holmes' volumes of Balzac's Comédie humaine, and Johnson added that at 22, Kerouac entered into a self-described neo-Rimbaudian period, during which he explored language by writing a series of word definitions in his notebooks, and also that he had an affinity for francophone writer Louis Hémon. But whether or not this all added up to what Anctil claims was Kerouac's desire to become a French-Canadian writer remains unclear, because he never made any attempt to publish the writing he did in French.

Still, it was very interesting to hear Kerouac's linguistic origins discussed completely outside the commonly mentioned influences of jazz, dharma, or the poetry of fellow beat writers. The discussion was in line with New York Times writer John Leland's revisionist portrayal of Kerouac as a literary author uninterested in 60s counter-culture, and highlighted his original influences of Proust, Céline and Dostoyevsky, who were widely read in New York while Kerouac was at Columbia in the 1940s. Hopefully the two novellas, La Nuit est ma femme and Sur le chemin, will be published—bilingually!

photo credit: David Varno

Published Mar 26, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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