Sunday, 9 April 2017

Book Report, Part 2: How I climbed a literary peak and criss-crossed America with Dean Moriarty

(This is the second instalment of a post to be found here.)

...Then it was on to Everest - i.e. The Wretched, our friend Christine Donougher's prize-winning Penguin translation of Victor Hugo's 1300-page monster, Les Misérables. I was putting off reading it until my health had shown signs of recovery - but, as that might be never, and as our friend spent over three years labouring over it, I made tackling this big beast of a book my one and only New Year resolution (we regularly attend a New Year's Eve party where the hostess extracts one resolution from every guest, and holds us to account 12 months later). Gosh. It is so vast, so multi-faceted, so damned epic, I haven't even begun to get my thoughts about it in order. If you haven't read it, or seen a film or television adaptation, or read the Classics Illustrated version, or even seen the musical, it's the story...

...of an ex-con, Jean Valjean, who - his life transformed by a chance encounter with a saintly bishop - assumes a new identity, becomes a successful businessman and a mayor, but, finding himself hounded by an implacable copper - Javert - and his own conscience, ends up back in the prison hulks, escapes, rescues the orphaned daughter of a single mum (who died in terrible poverty after being fired - unbeknownst to him - from Valjean's factory) from the vile clutches of a criminal innkeeper, takes refuge with the girl in a convent after a nail-biting night-time pursuit by Javert across Paris... and we're not even half-way through. Phew! 

The narrative is interrupted at regular intervals by hefty essays on a variety of disparate topics (these were added by Hugo after he'd finished the rest of the book). I was tempted to skip these, but I'm so glad I didn't: the lengthy account of the Battle of Waterloo (which, magically, ends up sounding like a sort of French victory) and a detailed history of Paris's sewer system (I kid you not) are both absolutely riveting. Hugo's politics are all over the place (he started life as an ultra-conservative and ended up a hero of the Left), and his belief that France passed on the beacon of Liberty to the rest of the world (when, as any fule kno, that was Britain's role) and his tendency to gloss over the deranged violence unleashed by the French Revolution now come across as slightly desperate propaganda. But, by God it's one hell of a story, and one hell of a book! It's also, I'm relieved to say, one hell of a translation - and my opinion has nothing to do with being a friend of the translator. It simply doesn't read like a translation - you feel, throughout, as if this is Hugo speaking, rather than another writer's interpretation of his words, and you forget instantly that you're not reading this in the original French (which would, in any case, be an impossibility for a monoglot such as myself). Not only that, but the translator's extensive notes at the end of the book are well worth reading for their own sake (although they're so illuminating, I now wish I'd read them as I went along). As you can probably tell, I'm still a bit stunned by the whole experience.

Executing a screaming, high-speed, 360 degree handbrake-turn, I raced away from the turmoil and passion of 19th Century Paris to 1940s New Jersey by the simple expedient of picking up Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  Now, I don't tend to cotton to feckless people, especially if they spend their time talking jive, bumming money off everyone they meet, littering the world with children they have no intention of providing for and marrying women they have no intention of staying with, listening to the discordant horror that is bebop jazz, committing petty larceny and regularly crashing cars while bombed off their tits on booze and drugs. So I didn't readily warm to the cast of On the Road. About half-way through, I even told my wife I was really hoping that everyone in the book wound up dying in some truly terrifying cataclysm, preferably of their own making. But then I noticed something strange - I had begun looking forward to going to bed so I could get back to the book (and not just because I was hoping that someone would eventually beat Dean Moriarty to death). And I noticed that, instead of speeding up as I do when I'm reading something boring, I was reading very, very slowly, as if afraid of missing something.

It wasn't that I had started to care about the characters - I still heartily despised every one of them. But Kerouac - despite a wearying tendency to use the same buzzwords over and over again (e.g. sad, beat, pure, holy, crazy, mad) - was, in a way I can't put my finger on, a terrific writer. Some of the passages in which he describes the sad, beat, pure, holy, crazy, mad America he travels through are as impressive as Twain's descriptions of the Mississippi in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He brings alive both the forgotten, dusty, forlorn byways of the country and the restless, rootless, confused, lost transients who - somehow yearning and affectless at the same time - drift through it. The account of the last journey, down to Mexico City, is almost overpoweringly vivid - the description of Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego narrator) lying naked in the steam heat of the jungle night on the roof of a dilapidated Ford, his body covered in sweat and the blood of squashed bugs while thousands of minute insects feather down onto his upturned face, is astonishingly evocative. At the end of the book, as Dean Moriarty, seemingly now unable to speak coherently, wanders off, rejected, into the night, it seems to poignantly confirm the danger of living life in a chaotic, romantic, substance-fuelled frenzy. The book was first published in 1959, and it struck me that a sizeable portion of American youth spent much of the decade 1965-1975 stuck in Dean Moriarty's wildly disordered dream-frenzy. An influential book - to a fault. And one I wish I'd read while travelling across America and back via Greyhound in the late '70s.

Last night I started, once more, to try to read Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. I don't know - one night you're as high as a kite at an orgy in some remote Mexican brothel in 1949, the next you're strolling in Kensington Gardens in 1902, listening to two impossibly decorous young lovers who haven't even touched each other yet speaking in utterly impenetrable riddles about the possibility of getting married. At least, I think that's what they were talking about - for all I know they might have been discussing an orgy in Mexico they both recently attended. I'd better get back to it and see whether my culture shock has worn off sufficiently for Mr. James's endless, convoluted sentences to start making any kind of sense.


  1. when you say you wished you had read Kerouac during your US trip, presumably you mean for the cognitive evocations of American peoples and places it would generate rather than being strung out on whatever took those boys fancy.
    A six pack of Coors watching baseball on TV in a down town hotel is one thing...
    On The Road has its moments of magic.Huckleberry Finn even more so.The Mississippi becomes a symbol of life and transition or I think that's what it said on the jacket cover.
    In a way it's a pity there are no great works of art to accompany the narrative.The thing about even older classics is turning each page and 'seeing' flashes of The great Spanish or French Masters-Daumier principally comes to mind in a classic that you have shamed me in to revisiting in the nicest possible way.Twenty-five books is beyond me but I may give Don Quixote another read;it was mind-blowing the first time.
    Dickens too will get a look in.A bit of a shame on the Leavis school of thought here-perhaps he was too much the populist for the Great Man.
    Thanks for a great post-look forward to periodic updates.

    1. To be fair to Leavis, he and his wife did eventually change their minds. In "Dickens the Novelist", published in 1970, they stated "Our purpose is to enforce as unanswerably as possible the conviction that Dickens was one of the greatest of creative writers . . ." Phew!

      As for wishing I'd read "On the Road" while travelling across America, it's just that the book i had with me - Henry Miller's "Air-Conditioned Nightmare" - was utterly dismissive of rural America and snootily pro-European, while "On the Road" presents an entirely more sympathetic view of flyover country.

      I may have to add "Don Quixote" to the list on your recommendation - I've studiously avoided it until now, but I heard part of an old Radio 4 adaptation of it recently and rather enjoyed it.