You Don’t Know Jack (Kerouac)
Every Jack Kerouac fan knows the feeling: opening On the Road and sensing an almost personal connection with the writer, as though the iconic Beat Generation novelist were a friend speaking directly to them. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Jean-Christophe Cloutier has had it twice, in two languages.
As a child growing up in Quebec, Cloutier, now an assistant professor of English at Penn, bounced back and forth between French and English worlds. He was raised in a suburb of Quebec City called Beauport. When his family moved to Gatineau, several hundred miles closer to Ontario, “the English was a shock.” Suddenly all the “cool kids” were speaking English at recess. To fit in, Cloutier realized, he’d need to do the same.
One English-speaking cool kid he gravitated toward was Jack Kerouac. Cloutier took to his books immediately. Attending school in English for the first time, as an undergraduate at Concordia University in Montreal, Cloutier modeled his own writing after Kerouac’s. The results were mixed. “My papers were kind of existential rants,” he confesses with a laugh.
Yet for all the energy of Kerouac’s English, French frequently popped up in Kerouac’s prose—whole glorious nuggets of it—and it was the same kind of French Cloutier had grown up with. “It was almost like an inside joke,” he says. “Like you have a buddy who knows about secret truths.”
When Cloutier enrolled at Columbia University in 2007 to pursue a doctoral degree, he discovered that those little flecks of French ran deeper and richer in Kerouac’s work. “The summer I arrived, there was this exhibit on Kerouac’s papers” at the New York Public Library, he recalls. “He had written in French—complete manuscripts. I went back seven or eight times. I couldn’t believe it.”
Almost a decade after encountering Kerouac’s French manuscripts, Cloutier has rendered them in lively English translation. The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings (forthcoming from the Library of America this September) includes two novellas. One is called La nuit est ma femme (The Night Is My Woman). The other title has a familiar ring: Sur le chemin (On the Road). But it is not to be mistaken as a French translation of the author’s best-known English work. Kerouac had a habit of naming whatever he was working on On the Road, Cloutier says. “He liked the title very much.” Nevertheless, the French book bears some relationship to the English one. Kerouac excitedly described it in a letter to Neal Cassady as “the solution to the On the Road plots all of em.”
Kerouac may be remembered as a quintessential American, but his childhood was not so different from Cloutier’s own. Kerouac, born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac in 1922, grew up in a French Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts. His education began in French-speaking schools, where pledging allegiance to the flag meant facing both the American flag and an early version of what would later become the flag of Quebec. The community was a closely knit “Little Canada.”
By the age of six, after his family moved to a new district, Kerouac was attending an English-speaking school, where French, and French Canadians, were seen through decidedly different eyes. Kerouac’s family was part of a large, and largely forgotten, mass migration of French Canadians to the United States. Between 1840 and 1930, nearly 900,000 people crossed the border. Quebec lost half of its French-speaking population. They were pushed out by poverty, pulled in by New England manufacturing—“[t]he whole troop coming down from the barren farm to the factories of the U.S.A,” as Kerouac wrote in the 1963 novel Visions of Gerard. French Canadian immigrants, regarded as illegal aliens, were accused of stealing jobs and driving down wages. In an 1881 report, one Massachusetts government official dubbed them “the Chinese of the eastern states.” Henry James, in a contemporary essay, described the “brownfaced” people of Quebec, remarking on their “ignorance and naiveté” and “bovine stare.” Bosses ordered their French-speaking workers to “speak white.”
“Kerouac was born in an environment where he felt that it was good to be proud of his French heritage,” Cloutier says, “and then, as he grew up, felt that he should be ashamed of it.” As Kerouac wrote (in French) in a 1951 notebook, “You have to live in English, it’s impossible to live in French.”
There is no denying that Kerouac became a masterful English speaker. But there’s also no denying that there is much more to Kerouac than exists in his English works. As Kerouac himself observes in The Night Is My Woman, “When I spoke in English, I was a completely different man.”
“When you read the earlier stuff,” Cloutier says, “you see that man.”
Cloutier’s translation effort was partly a challenge of assembly. “When I was hired to be the translator,” Cloutier explains, “I had not yet been successful in finding all the different parts of Sur le chemin.” He had effectively agreed to translate a book that did not yet exist. He calls it “a text from the future.”
Just compiling the materials ended up taking three years. Cloutier looked “desperately” at every scrap of paper that the famously prolific writer had turned out in 1951 and 1952. That involved looking through hundreds of pages—though pages does not quite capture the length and density of the manuscript. Cloutier folds a cafeteria napkin to demonstrate how Kerouac would fold and flip and cover every centimeter of paper, writing in every direction as quickly as possible, in the smallest script he could manage. To make matters more difficult, Kerouac wrote in a phonetic, invented French, based on the sounds of real speech, which he referred to as “sound-spelling.” (There is also a healthy sprinkling of invented words, like “wrissiler,” a combination of the French and English words meaning wrinkle.)
Kerouac’s method was part of what made him Kerouac: a storytelling everyman, who wrote the way people spoke and was notoriously averse to editing. As he once explained to an interviewer, “Did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself … ?”
Of course, all of these qualities—the sound-spelling, the rushing sprawl of his prose over margins—also made the project “maddening,” Cloutier says. “The writing is tiny. You have to read out loud to figure out what the hell the word is. It’s like being in a cave and somebody’s snuffing out a torch and you have to make your way out in the dark.”
Once Kerouac’s writing was decoded and assembled in the proper order, the actual work of translation lay ahead. At times, Cloutier confesses, “I almost want[ed] to throw the book, knowing there’s no way to exactly translate the thing.”
But if there is no perfect translation, Cloutier’s background as a French Canadian made him well-equipped to render Kerouac in English, “especially the curse words.” (The folksy “Héh Batêge!” Cloutier translates marvelously as “Well, shee-it!”) Asked how he got into Kerouac’s mindset for the translation, Cloutier affects a druggy voice—“I took some Benzedrine, man”—before resuming his scholarly mantle: “Naw, I’m just kidding. I re-read all of the letters that he wrote that year.”
An integral part of Sur le chemin is its four English sections. And for a French-language edition of Kerouac’s French writings, published in April as La vie est d’hommage, Cloutier found himself, in an ineffable twist, asked to translate Kerouac into French as well as the other way around. “It made me understand why he’s so beloved in France, and in European countries,” Cloutier says. “Whole different levels of beauty emerged from that process. That was kind of the final epiphany in my understanding of him.”
In a sense, Cloutier adds, “I was asked to bring him home.”
If you ask Cloutier how he came to Penn, he’s likely to reply, “By Bolt Bus.” It’s a smart, sidewaysanswer, very On the Road -minded, which tells you a little about the brain he’s been living inside for the past nine years. What’s a Bolt Bus if not thebig, friendly, wifi-equipped descendent of Dean Moriarty’s Greyhound?
The straight answer is that Cloutier arrived four years ago, by way of his specialty in post-1945 literature. His classes include the archly titled “Recommended by James Franco (Mostly),” which Cloutier characterizes as an investigation of what “Contemporary American Literature” means in the current day and age. “Who gets to talk about contemporary American literature?” he asks. “Who gets a say in American life?”
Franco—an actor who has adapted Faulkner for the screen, starred as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and written a biopic of Charles Bukowski—takes literature seriously, and Cloutier doesn’t mean to single the actor out for criticism. But as underscored recently by #OscarsSoWhite, Cloutier says, “The stories Hollywood chooses to tell are often white male stories.”
“To be clear,” the course description sternly warns, “this course does not blindly endorse Mr. Franco’s recommendations but rather uses them as a means of assessing and critiquing the contemporary literary and cinematic scene.” A liberal arts education is never so simple as listing recommendations, Cloutier points out. It’s about having a conversation, one that he sees his students taking seriously. “Who gets to have their story told?” Cloutier encourages his class to consider. “Not only that, but who gets to have those stories celebrated?”
When Cloutier calls Kerouac’s French writings a “text from the future,” he’s referring to more than the difficulty of assembling the notebooks into a coherent whole.Cloutier suggests that On the Road contains layers of meaning that resonate differently in our time than when it was written. The Kerouac of the 1950s—the muscular strong-jawed football player, with a whip of greaser hair—is not the Kerouac that Cloutier is helping new readers see today. In the 1950s, youth culture was very focused on Beat culture and rebellion; today, youth culture is increasingly multicultural and multilingual, concerned with issues of diversity and representation. In that way, today’s America may be more ready for a multicultural Kerouac than it was 50 years ago.
“I think it’s been a long time coming,” Cloutier says. Kerouac was never the WASPy, blissed-out jock he was understood to be, but “a racially complicated individual.” He was poor, Catholic—mistaken for what was then called “Latin”—and anxious to prove himself as an American. The fact that he is, for many, an emblematic symbol of late-1950s America suggests the degree to which he succeeded. But America in 2016 has room for the sides of Kerouac he was afraid to present.
“Today, he wouldn’t have to change his name to Jack,” Cloutier remarks. “He could be Jean-Louis. There wouldn’t be that shame. In one of his novels, he asks, ‘Why does someone change his name if he’s not ashamed of something?’”
Even the original format of On the Road—the legendary scroll, shoved directly into the typewriter—seems built for modern times, the tablet reader pushing down a long column of text. The destination is not the point so much as the progression.
Although often translated in Francophone countries as Sur la route, Kerouac preferred the title Sur le chemin. The distinction is crucial.“The word chemin is the way most Quebecois would say road,” Cloutier explains, “but it literally meanspath. And we also know that Kerouac was very interested in Buddhism and Daoism, where dao is path. There’s a phrase cheminement, meaning life-path, kind of related to pilgrimage. The verb cheminer can mean to walk, to tramp, to advance, to progress toward a destination. You can’t escape that there’s kind of an attempt to attain a spiritual communion with the natural world.” The termis less about following a series of dots on a map than an endless process of self-invention, continual becoming.
In a sense, On the Road, and its author, have always been on the road, making their way toward us since 1952. For Kerouac, actually arriving at a destination was beside the point. But Cloutier’s new translations certainly bring him much closer.