Jack Kerouac’s book Satori in Paris is a tangled mess of ideas, references and internalized in-jokes, which is to say, in-jokes he shares with himself, rather than with a drinking buddy or cabal of cronies.
This is, by the way, a compliment.
Written in 1967, this semi-autobiographical novel charts his journey through France as he attempts to track down his ancestors. Thwarted at every turn by jobsworth librarians, literal misdirections, and missed transport, he seeks comfort in sensorial pursuits, drinking and – most importantly – conversation.
It’s billed by the publisher and the blurb on the back cover as a hymn to ‘philosophy, identity and the strangeness of travel’.
While the title refers to the philosophical component – satori is the Buddhist sensation of a sudden awakening – and the rest of the story and basic plot covers the thread of identity, it is the weirdness and coincidences of travel that truly make this book.
‘The Little Prince is Going to Little Britain’
The prose, rooted as it is in the Beat Generation, is a stream of consciousness that, while beautiful, can be confusing. As shown by the quote below, I might be alone in feeling it to be a tad impenetrable at times, with most commentators focusing on the poetic river that is his narrative.
Kerouac shows a remarkable ear for the cadences of a phrase or sentece, a sense of how to register in words the sheer sweet flow of things.
While references to Baudelaire and bawdy jokes abound, it’s the disorganized patchwork of ideas that grab me. They remind me of Joyce’s Ulysses and the more humble experiences of the solo traveller. This lone itinerant is the protagonist in his or her own tale, with the inner monologue that parps up between sightseeing stops not being a world away from what is in the book.
In a more prosaic way, we often share more with the restless Kerouac. As a shameless self-promoter and self-mythologiser, he often bluffed that On the Road took three weeks to write. Looking back on our own travels, most of us would be familiar with that awkward swipe at eking out some bigger meaning from the trip, or by making it sound more impressive.
He gets lost. He kills time in bars. Kerouac is an everyman, the kind of guy who drags a taxi driver in for a quick beer. And in between the watchas and gees, and the French swear words, there is a perceptive observer.
Kerouac tells us about the American sisters that fumble over their breakfast order, all the time speaking Anglais. Then there’s the other American sitting down – alone – in a cafe, visibly peeved off. Our narrator imagines that he is having a miserable time of it, having to endure a holiday made terrible by language barriers and a culture a little too foreign.
There’s the delight at striking up chats with patrons of a bar, with any speaker of a second language recognizing the glee Kerouac takes from doing it all in French. And there’s the loneliness as bar owners eventually tire of talking to him.
The spiritual awakening of the title comes as he travels by train to northern France. In the first class carriage, a soldier, two old women, an Irish looking man with a taste for drink, and a Catholic priest make up the posse. Kerouac – naturally – goes drinking with the Irish looking man, who had been giving conspiratorial looks and pleas prior to their joint adventure among the beer bottles of the dining car.
After the binge, their drunken conversation – back in the carriage with the priest et al – took in Life, God and the meaning of it all.
His awakening is underwhelming for the reader. It’s barely explained and reads like the ramblings of an inebriated soul. That’s why the incidentals of his trip ring truer than the philosophy. But then again, travelling is subjective, and hearing about it isn’t the same as doing it.
‘I had nothing to offer anyone except my own confusion’
In Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the ever-earnest Jesse pitches his idea for a reality TV show that captured the ‘poetry of everyday life’. His soon-to-be-lover Celine laughed it off as pretentious.
But there’s something in that idea.
Marivi Ibarrola’s book De Lavapiés a la Cabeza – a photo essay of a Madrid neighbourhood – captures this poetry. From the cinema owners that allowed kids to sneak into movies to the goats that walked up ladders for money, the rhythm of everyday life makes the book.
So, what has Jack Kerouac taught me about travelling?
That it’s those tricky in-between moments – and not the tourist sites – that teach us about ourselves and the people around us, with our foibles and expectations coming with us as we go. That the journey is made through our capacity for conversation that is profound, ridiculous and very often both at the same time.
You can check out our podcast on RadioPublic, and in the latest episode, we discuss Jack Kerouac and his book set in Paris. We discuss more literature in this blog post, while you can also go to our main website elarpamedia.com and see our other activities there.
Thank you for reading!