Saturday, August 18, 2007

The living version

Luc Sante at the NYTBR on the new edition of Jack Kerouac's original manuscript version of On The Road, the first draft of which was typed in three weeks onto a single long scroll of paper (taped-together sheets of tracing paper--I love that stuff, haven't seen it since I was a kid, must get some and see what literary uses it might be put to--what I really wish I had, though, is a roll of the very old-fashioned stiff shiny toilet paper that my English grandfather insisted on having, it was a real curiosity!).

Some interesting reflections here on style:
Besides changing all the names (arguably necessary for legal reasons) and cutting or veiling the depictions of sex (very necessary in 1957), Kerouac altered the scroll to make it a novel mostly by garnishing it with sprigs and drizzles of literature. One of the most famous passages in the novel appears here — the ellipses are Kerouac’s — as “the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing ... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” In the novel he inserts “mad to be saved,” while the roman candles become “fabulous” and they are “exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ” Concerned that he might not have sufficiently overegged the pudding, Kerouac then adds, “What did they call such young people in Goethe’s Germany?” None of this sort of eager-beaver poeticizing litters the scroll, which just keeps its head down and runs, and is all the more authentically literary thereby.
It's interesting, this question of whether material and/or style pull a writer in the direction of fiction or non-fiction. Certainly there is writing that only magically comes alive when it enters the fully fictional terrain. And yet I feel I more often read fiction that would perhaps better have been cast as memoir, with all its enabling particularities--"honesty" and "vividness" are of course literary effects, when we talk of a novel's truthfulness we are really speaking more of its style than of any necessary correspondence between what it asserts and what really happened in the world...

(Robert Polito said of Mary Karr's The Liars' Club--an amazingly well-written book, by the way, the language is quite magical--that she initially drafted much of the material as fiction, but that the voice and language only came alive once she reconceived the book as memoir. I am sure there are instances of the opposite, also, though I do not have any immediately to hand--but something like Rebecca West's recasting of heavily autobiographical material into The Fountain Overflows--my favorite novel of all time--would probably count, or the way someone like Dickens might sound excessively self-pitying or self-indulgent when writing about his actual childhood in a letter but transforms the material into something magical in David Copperfield.)


  1. I love your blog. I'd like you to like mine, and this is me telling you about it. I hope you are well, etc. (Incidentally, Milly's an old persona I developed for writing features for the Sunday Times Style magazine when I really needed some money. She's the public face on this blog because the idea was conceived for her voice, and so she's a better first face for anyone coming to the story randomly. I am not furtive, oh no, and my name's Robbie Hudson, like a minor character in The Wonder Years.)

  2. I used to write letters on tracing paper - my dad also uses it for his surgical diagrams. It's great fun to write on...