Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Early Kerouac in French

[This post is based upon Mathilde Gérard's interview of the Canadian
journalist Gabriel Anctil in Le Monde, 8 September 2008.]

One has the impression that On the Road, typed in three weeks by Beat Generation guru Jack Kerouac [1922-1969] and published in 1957, is such an iconic piece of American literature that its natural language was necessarily the slangy US English of hobos such as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty.

Well, in fact, a primordial precursor of the epic was penned (literally) by Kerouac, five years before the publication of On the Road, in a quaint variety of Quebec French... which a reader from metropolitan France would not necessarily understand fully. The French title of this short unpublished novel was Sur le chemin, which might be translated into English as On the Trail.

Over the last year and a half, it has been possible for scholars to consult Kerouac's personal archives in New York. A year ago, the Canadian journalist Gabriel Anctil, from Le Devoir in Montréal, discovered a first unpublished novel by Kerouac in French, entitled La nuit est ma femme [Night is My Woman]. And recently, this same journalist came upon the handwritten manuscript of Sur le chemin. Although it is not simply an early French-language version of Kerouac's future masterpiece, Sur le chemin exploits similar themes (such as the basic preoccupation with traveling), and reveals a similar "feeling". Kerouac is present in the form of a 13-year-old boy named Ti-Jean [roughly, Little Johnny in family slang]. Likewise, the real-life individual Neal Cassady, who gave rise to Dean Moriaty in On the Road, is named Dean Pomeray in the French novel.

And why would Jack Kerouac have decided to try his hand at writing this early novel in French? Well, we must not forget that Kerouac always spoke a French patois with his parents, and only got around to learning English when he started school, at the age of 6. The most amazing aspect of Kerouac's approach to writing is revealed in a letter he sent to a Franco-American literary critic in 1950.The future author of On the Road affirmed that creative ideas occurred to him first in French, and that he then translated them into English.

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