Book Review: Satori in Paris (Jack Kerouac)

Once, when I knew no better, Kerouac shone because I had discovered him and I was pleased with myself for doing so. After a time away, Kerouac leaves me somewhat disillusioned. Satori in Paris is, in short, a garbled concoction not becoming of its publisher’s billing of ‘modern classic’. This is a shame because Kerouac is still the writer of one of the most beautiful descriptions my reading memory holds (that of dusk and tangerine groves and ‘fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries’ in On the Road). Sadly, there’s scant reproduction of this example of writing in Satori in Paris (written in, or soon after 1965, following a trip to France, and some fourteen years after the original writing of his most infamous work).

Satori in Paris (Flamingo, 2001; originally published by André Deutsch Ltd, Great Britain, 1967; Grafton Books, 1982; Paladin, 1991) is a short 109 pages in length but plenty of this is also white space, so the actual text covers something in the region of 75 pages. The instigation of the satori (enlightenment) in question is attributed to a taxi driver, named as Raymond Baillet, who takes Kerouac to Orly airport en route back to Florida following his genealogical search in Paris and Brittany. However, Kerouac also attempts to obfuscate the moment by at first claiming that he doesn’t know for sure when his epiphany comes. This is both a ruse to get us to read the entirety of the book, one feels, but also, in fairness, does serve to reward the reader for the bloody-minded journey in trudging through the whole in order to get to the final line.

To clarify: Kerouac paints himself as a graceless, crashing bore of a drunkard; he’s a know-it-all in French dialect (by dint, he says, of his French-Canadian upbringing), but he’s also fixated on his name, as writer, on his ego as part thereof, and on his sometimes obscure references, some more easily comprehensible than others: Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, Nabokov, perhaps, but he asks of one character he meets late on in the book ‘did he read Nicholas Breton of England, John Skelton of Cambridge, or the ever-grand Henry Vaughan not to mention George Herbert — and you could add, or John Taylor the Water-Poet of the Thames?’

The final line of Satori in Paris alludes to this gracelessness; the entirety of Kerouac’s self-decanonisation as proffered in his tales of endless cognacs for the road, or at unbecoming early hours, or just waiting for his train to come in, and as shown in his grossly stereotypical American-abroad persona (perhaps a send-up, but perhaps not), and so on, all therefore goes some way to setting up the satori ‘a-ha’ moment he aims to show us. It isn’t such a kick in the backside, a shaking of the aura, as he might have wanted us to believe, in print; in fact, it’s a blessing to get to the end at all. The end justifies the means, Kerouac may well have been aiming at here, but it’s not a pretty means by any stretch.

Early on Kerouac is at pains to point out that he wishes to be known, in this book, by his real ‘full name in this case, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac’. Names form a central motif to the book and Kerouac studies the etymological links of his name to the Breton French, Cornish, Celtic and any other romantic whim that passes him in the ‘moment’ that is his, admittedly, planned trip to France (which transpires to last ten days). In the stereotypical perception of the American abroad, there is the relentless belief woven into the whole that Kerouac is Breton, or at least Breton enough, underpinned by the equally relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including French language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).

Identity is key to the piece and this is appreciated. Kerouac explores names and connections to places (Lebris, we’re told has links to the people of Brest in Brittany, Le bris, where Kerouac travels to in search of genealogical information); however, the gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read. In retrospect, Kerouac does allude to self-awareness of the grating character of himself he offers up to us, and he repeats this refrain:

‘Why do people change their name? Have they done anything bad, are they criminals, are they ashamed of their real names? Are they afraid of something? Is there any law in America against using your own real name?’

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac and Jack Kerouac, writer, ‘King of the Beats’, ego post-On the Road (as tackled head-on in Big Sur, 1962) also meet here head-on.

A reader’s retrospective realisation, however, is not enough to fill the void left by Kerouac-as-caricature. The man-myth is a frustration in the short reading. Kerouac writes, for example:

‘This cowardly Breton (me) watered down by two centuries in Canada and America . . .’

‘I knew that . . . I had an additive name ‘Le Bris’ and here I was in ‘Brest’ and did this make me a Cimbric spy from the stone monuments of Riestedt in Germany? Rietstap also the name of the German who painstakingly compiled names of families and their scocheons and had my family included in ‘Rivista Araldica’?’

In the first and second instances, no Kerouac, you are an American, born in Massachusetts, admittedly of French-Canadian parentage and speaking English after French, but an American by early cultural inheritance, perhaps; at the very least, not watered down at all because what does it matter what several generations of our families were when it doesn’t change who we are now? In the second instance, also, Kerouac’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.

Indeed, this style is not the lauded fresh new Beat-extravagance once tolerated in his earlier works. Satori in Paris is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging. Swift and succinct editing could have cut this already short offering down by maybe half as much again without losing the impact with which the author may well have wished it be imbued.

A red pen can easily extract such obfuscations, for example, as Kerouac’s intellectual amusements on the mutual conversations of himself and a newly met other Lebris, one of many we’re told, in Brest:

‘But I’m home, there’s no doubt about it, except if I were to want a strawberry, or loosen Alice’s shoetongue, old Herrick in his grave and Ulysse Lebris would both yell at me to leave things alone, and that’s when I raw my wide pony and roll.’

It is this rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of Kerouac’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating. Undoubtedly there are some literary scholars who will attest to the artistic twisted in-joke unseen by the great unwashed (as seen in works, perhaps, of Dada-ism, or Tracey Emin, or the like). It is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes: Kerouac, drunk on cognac and his own writer-ego, not far short of his death in 1969, seeks to continue the man-myth whilst simultaneously trying to debunk the same. He fails unfortunately. The first lines of Satori in Paris read:

‘Somewhere during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany) I received an illumination of some kind that seems to’ve [sic] changed me again, towards what I suppose’ll be my pattern for another seven years or more . . .’

Kerouac had four years to live. The illumination that can be read into the book as a whole is that a state of grace should prevail, gracelessness should be rejected, but Kerouac failed, and the illumination is, it transpires, only a satori moment for the reader, this reader, on a man who was mythical but got drunk on alcohol and himself.
 
 

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