JACK KER­OUAC, FRAN­CO­PHONE

Geist - - Endnotes - —Michael Hay­ward

The suc­cess of Jack Ker­ouac’s 1957 novel On the Road marked the start of the Beat era, his “spon­ta­neous prose” style a strik­ing de­par­ture from the for­mal­i­ties of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can writ­ers. But not many peo­ple re­al­ize that Ker­ouac, that pro­to­typ­i­cally “all-amer­i­can” writer, was born to Québé­cois par­ents, raised in the midst of an ex­pa­tri­ate French­cana­dian com­mu­nity in the mill town of Low­ell, Mas­sachusetts, and spoke only French un­til the age of six, when he first be­gan to learn English at school. Two new books fo­cus on Ker­ouac’s fran­co­phone roots. The first, La vie est d’hom­mage [Life is a Trib­ute], from the Que­bec pub­lisher Les Édi­tions du Boréal, col­lects some of Ker­ouac’s first writ­ing at­tempts in his na­tive lan­guage. Th­ese in­clude an early draft of On the Road, ti­tled “Sur le chemin,” writ­ten in 1952 in joual, a slangy, col­lo­quial form of French, while Ker­ouac was liv­ing in Mex­ico City in the apart­ment of Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs. An English trans­la­tion of “Sur le chemin” is in­cluded in The Un­known Ker­ouac: Rare, Un­pub­lished & Newly Trans­lated Writ­ings (Li­brary of Amer­ica), along with “The Night is My Woman,” a trans­la­tion (by Jeanchristophe Cloutier) of “La nuit est ma femme,” which dates from 1951. Cloutier’s in­tro­duc­tory note in The Un­known Ker­ouac makes fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing, shed­ding light on Ker­ouac’s am­biva­lence about English and his at­tach­ment to the oral­ity of his first lan­guage. As Ker­ouac him­self put it in a let­ter in 1950, “All of my knowl­edge rests in my ‘French-cana­di­an­ness’ and nowhere else.”

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