Tuesday, 24 July 2001

On the Road

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 7 in C sharp minor, op. 131. This very accessible work (and Prokofiev’s last) won the Lenin Prize in 1957, four years after Prokofiev’s death. It was the first time that the prize had been given to a piece of music.

Just read:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

I can’t claim to think that this is a great novel, for all its fame. In particular, there is precious little in terms of plot. Instead, there is lots of disconnected and fairly unmotivated road journeying on the part of the characters. The characters are also difficult to appreciate. One’s basic impression is of people that are mad, bad and dangerous to know. They are forever doing crazy things, with little regard for those around them, and with little to suggest why they are doing these things either.

This novel’s strength is in its poetic description of travel: criss-crossing the US, even venturing into Mexico, whether in clapped out cars, or by hitching, or by sharing cars to save petrol. Poetic doesn’t necessarily mean positive; dealing with suspicious cops, picking up hitch-hikers to get an extra dollar for more petrol, and petty thieving for food all feature alongside the lyrical descriptions of mountains and deserts. On the road also includes intense and appealing descriptions of jazz performances (particularly in San Francisco), but these are less affecting because they don’t (can’t) convey what the music is like, just the nature of its impact on its listeners. I can see high desert plateaus in my mind’s eye after reading the novel, despite never having been to the South West of the US, nor to Mexico. I have no idea what the jazz was that the characters heard, despite having listened to a fair bit of jazz myself, and despite being able to make educated guesses as to what it might have been.

After finishing the novel this morning, I read the accompanying introduction (you should always read these after the book; there’s really no reason for them to precede the main text). This made it clear that the novel is very autobiographical. The characters are based on real people that Kerouac knew, and much of the incident in the novel happened to him as he toured the country with Neal Cassady (named Dean Moriarty in the book). I think this goes some way towards explaining the characters’ lack of definition: Kerouac didn’t describe them as much as he might have done because they existed as real people in his head already.

This introduction also makes it clear that drugs (including the alcohol that eventually killed him) were quite an important part of Kerouac’s life; I can’t help but think that they contributed to the shifting, and disconnected tone of the book. This may have been a deliberate decision on his part; you don’t have to be addled to write a book about being addled. The US in the 1950s almost certainly needed anti-establishment art of this form then, but it feels a bit dated now.

Kerouac and others in his crowd made up the so-called Beat Generation; there’s a short but interesting description of his life and attitudes here from the Atlantic magazine.

To read next:

Joseph Conrad, Victory. First of a couple of Conrads next up on the list.


I’m coxing in the Cambridge Town Bumps this evening. This is a weird Cambridge rowing tradition run over four nights. The basic idea is that all the boats in a division (about 18 of them) go off at once, with distances of 150m between them. The idea is to bump a boat ahead of you before the end of the course. Likewise a boat behind you will be attempting to do that same to you. If you manage this, then you swap places with them for the next night. It’s like a great big ladder competition with multiple contests happening simultaneously. Further, if boat 3 bumps boat 2, then boat 4 is still free to bump boat 1 (known as an over-bump).

It’s all very exciting. As cox you get to look in the direction of travel too, and that definitely helps. As I put it to someone recently, coxing in the Bumps is like a live action video game.