50th anniversary of On the Road - Kerouac wanted to write in French

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50th anniversary of On the Road - Kerouac wanted to write in French
in Le Devoir on September 5, 2007

This is a translation of Les 50 ans d'On the Road - Kerouac voulait écrire en français, an article published by Gabriel Anctil in Le Devoir on September 5, 2007

Jack Kerouac, American writer

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, Le Devoir's discovery of unpublished manuscripts in New York shows that the writer wished to write in French and had started his most famous novel in his mother tongue!

50 years ago, on September 5, 1957, Jack Kerouac published his famous novel On the Road and became, overnight, the icon writer of his generation. With this sole book, he accomplished the impossible: to create a new literature, spontaneous and dynamic, that would lead to a true social revolution.

Following his example, thousands of Americans hit the roads in a quest for great spaces, freedom and experiences. His characters of Sal Paradise and especially Dean Moriarty announced the sexual liberation and the hippie movement of the Sixties. Kerouac has the gift, rare, to incarnate a generation, to seize it, to speak to it and to push it to put everything in question, to put aside the American model of the post-war period in order to redo everything on new foundations: those of the Beat Generation, of Kerouac the rebel. Here is the adventurous Kerouac that history remembered and that people read. The rebellious Kerouac, beat, and American.

The other Kerouac, the one who had the most value to his eyes, was Ti-Jean. Ti-Jean the Franco-American who always had Proust, Céline and Balzac as models. It is this Kerouac who today emerges in a dazzling way thanks to the extraordinary discovery of new writings in New York. These texts, up to now practically unknown, reveal us another writer, a Kerouac who wrote against all expectation in French, in his mother tongue.

Word after word, on nearly two hundred pages sleeping in his personal archives since his death in 1969, expresses himself the one who affectionately called his mother Mémère and who was deeply attached to his Quebec and Breton origins.

Among the French writings of Kerouac, one finds letters addressed to his mother, some prayers, of which the Our Father, which he recited thousands of times in his childhood and that he took time to recopy, and especially many short stories more or less finished, as well as an unfinished novel of 59 pages entitled "Old Bull in the Bowery", written in French in Mexico City in 1952, to which some pages are missing.

Kerouac moreover laid down a first version of ten pages of his masterpiece One the Road in French on January 19, 1951, several months before writing the first version of the English novel.

The central piece of this archive funds is without a doubt the complete manuscript of 56 pages entitled La nuit est ma femme (The Night is My Lady). This novel, made up of short stories of five or six pages, is entirely written in French and proves for the first time that Jack Kerouac has had very serious ambitions to become, as he said it himself, a true French Canadian writer.

This exceptional manuscript, written by the assured hand of the writer, was deposited at the public library of New York. Written in detached letters, it makes us discover a French Canadian Kerouac who is funny, touching and imaginative.

Expressing himself very well through the oral French of his childhood, Kerouac reveals himself more than he ever did in his English work. He begins this manuscript, subtitled Les travaux de Michel Bretagne (the erased subtitle is Les confidences de Michel Bretagne), with six pages of confidences, where he sums up his career as a writer and tries to define himself: "I am French Canadian, brought to the world in New England. When I am angry I often swear in French. When I dream I often dream in French. When I cry I always cry in French."

He continues by describing his difficult linguistic evolution, which also translates his malaise identitaire (identity discomfort): "I never had a language to myself. French patois up to six, and after that the English of the neighbourhood boys. And after that, the grand forms, the great expressions of the poet, the philosopher, the prophet. With all that today I am all mixed up in my gum [head]."

Ti-Jean writes this manuscript between February and March 1951, at the age of 29, while in the middle of his own stylistic research. He had published his first novel, The Town and the City, the previous year, in a traditional style which was no longer appropriate to him already. Immediately after having finished La nuit est ma femme, Kerouac plunges frantically, in April 1951, in the writing of his masterpiece, One the Road, which he writes in three weeks on an enormous roller which enabled him to type without stopping the typewriter without changing paper sheet. This literary process which he then develops, the spontaneous writing, based on the promptness of the language and the rhythm of be-bop jazz, will later revolutionize the world of literature and will make of him one of the most influential writers of his generation.

A "mixed-up" being

The unpublished French novel of Kerouac continues with the account of various small jobs that he occupied in the course of his life. He started by folding sheets in the printing shop of his beloved father in Lowell, Massachusetts: "When I was a little child, and my father called me Ti-Michel, Ti-Pousse, Tourlipi, Ti-Pette, and my mother called me Ti-Choux, I think that I was always afraid that my father and my mother would die."

Here and there, Kerouac also inserts comments which refer to Quebec: "There are families in Quebec who take one of their sons and place him in a seminar to become priest, so that the family may all go to Heaven. I could not have acquired that. I would have always climbed up the fence at night to go check out the girls. I would have been a mixed up priest."

Like he does with English, Kerouac molds the French language to his hand, by inserting English and Franco-American expressions in it. He in fact shows a greater command of his mother tongue than the few French phrases that he inserted in his English novels would have let us predict. His short stories have a good rhythm and a humour that is typically French-Canadian. Like when he tells the first time he got drunk: "Me and my friends, 2 Canadians Roland and Henri, and a Greek our famous G.J., we drank a good dozen glasses each. It was though we had discovered the Good God. We were grabbing all the old drunks by the neck and were telling them they were the Good God. We sang it in the toilets and in the streets. 'All men are the Good God.'" Thus, several years before joual emerged in Quebec literature, Kerouac, instinctively, used the beauty and the authenticity of the oral language of the people to describe the colourful daily life of the Franco-Americans in his native Lowell.

A French-Canadian writer

La nuit est ma femme continues with a short story telling the voyages that Kerouac made with his parents in Quebec and later in Vermont. In the following stories, he describes with promptness and humour various jobs which he occupied between 1941 and 1942, after he had left Columbia University in New York. Among those, his passing in a biscuit factory and a circus, jobs which he occupied for only 50 minutes, make us foresee the wandering and pleasure-seeking Kerouac of his most famous beat novels.

This period which he describes in this French novel is practically missing in the remainder of his work. But the most touching part of La nuit est ma femme is perhaps that in which he tells the moving of his parents to New Haven, near New York, in a house giving on the Atlantic. His father, Léo, sees it as a sign from his Breton ancestors: "Ti-Jean, I have returned to the sea", my father said to me with tears in his eyes. I always knew that one fine day I would live on the side of the sea of my ancestors from Brittany. It is in my blood, as in yours, it is for that reason that you were swimming as you did in a storm. All turned out well in the end. Sometimes, it is worth living, my Ti-Choux."

All these French documents throw a completely new light on the work of Kerouac. A light which let us glimpse at a writer who was more attached to his mother tongue, his Franco-American milieu, and his Quebec roots than it was possible to suspect up until now. Kerouac even becomes to some extent a true French-Canadian writer, who laid down on paper a portrait of his time, not so far behind, when French was spoken and living on a large scale a little everywhere in New England, in the Quebec of down below.

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