No, I haven’t been rereading Kerouac’s most famous novel, On the Road, but I just couldn’t resist using that subheading to introduce the fact that when on travelogue kick over the summer I picked up an ancient copy of Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris. And before you ask, no, I wasn’t in a Paris bookshop (though Shakespeare and Company is on my bucket list). Instead, I was visiting a tiny charity bookshop in Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland.
Having arrived there on the Harry Potter steam train, I was ready for any kind of adventure, including one written by an author that I couldn’t stand when I first read On the Road at school. Coming back to Jack with 40 more years of life experience as my context for understanding his work, I prepared to be converted.
Let me say now I was prepared to like this book, and I did try hard. In that spirit, I will start by picking out some things I did find to like about it.
What I Liked About This Book
Firstly, some interesting backstory about the man himself.
So, Jack Kerouac couldn’t speak English before the age of five – who knew? This slim idiosyncratic travelogue shares his quest to explore his Breton roots, handed down via his Québecois parents in Canada. His full name is Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, echoing also the connections between Brittany and Col (modern day Cornwall).
Viewed through an alcohol-induced mist, missing planes and losing his luggage along the way, he steers an unsteady course, but also hugely enjoys a chance to engage with French speakers that cross his path, from Parisian ladies of the night to the Breton police.
Though the journey often sounds half-hearted and inept, with Kerouac ready to leave Brittany within 24 hours of arrival, (get a grip, Jack!) the total experience clearly has an enormous impact on him. Satori in the title is Japanese for a sudden awakening , though his is not so sudden that he can pin down exactly when that light-bulb moment occurs.
Self-Indulgent in Paris
I found myself torn, wanting to slap him for his self-indulgence and dissipation. I would in any case feel compelled to slap anyone who thinks’ it’s acceptable to write the word “wouldna” instead of “would not” on the basis that Robert Burns uses it, (and then say in aside that is why he is using it – pretentious or what?) He also uses apostrophes only sporadically when he can be bothered. What was his editor thinking?! If an unknown writer published a book in that state now, there’d be a flurry of one-star reviews on Amazon about the apparent lack of proofreading, and deservedly so. Call me old-fashioned, or a pedant, or whatever you like, but to me this feels like a writer who doesn’t respect the audience that is effectively paying for his travels.
A Product of His Time
Yet there is also an urgency and a passion about his prose that perhaps comes from being one of the generation who had their illusions shattered by serving in the Second World War, and who subsequently felt an urgent need to live for the moment, not believing in futures – which was sadly prescient, as Kerouac died at the age of just 47, not under enemy fire, but from internal bleeding due to long-term alcohol abuse. I don’t know enough about him to know whether his lax attitude can be put down to some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, in which case I would be more forgiving.
But despite being occasionally charmed by his sincerity and frankness, like the Breton waiter who serves him breakfast, reluctant to bring him the beer he orders and tries to press on him local butter, bread and coffee instead, I found his book irritatingly self-indulgent and self-destructive. I couldn’t help but wonder what greater work he might have achieved without his fatal flaws, and if he’d tried a bit harder to make the best use of his undoubted powers.