On The Road: Kerouac Roundup

September marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, notorious for being written on a single roll of paper (sort of true) without revising (not true). Among the avalanche of commentary on Kerouac to have appeared in the last week or so a few pieces stood out for me. David W. Hall, Director of the Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Program wrote a fascinating piece about how he attempted to introduce typewriters and scrolls to a workshop on The Beats. Sadly they had to resort to writing longhand in notebooks.

Hall claims Kerouac as one of his heroes. I’m afraid I don’t. So I was gratified to find (via Ready Steady Book) a review by Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, of John Leland’s book Why Kerouac Matters, published to coincide with the anniversary. Daniels is very unkind about Kerouac, though he admits a writer can be important without being any good and this point is spot on:

I mentioned the banality of the book to a young man who told me that he had thought it wonderful when he had read it a few years previously. I devised a test. He would open it and point to a passage at random, and I would read the passage out loud. He would then tell me whether he thought it was banal. Here is the passage:

The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing. I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on. I had a cold. I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind. I went to the little two-by-four Post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard. We went back to the gray road. There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the watertank. The Rock Island balled by. We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur. The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires. It started to rain harder.

A passage such as this, appearing in an alleged literary classic, must encourage and delude many an adolescent keeper of a diary that his entries will one day find the appreciative audience that their immanent genius deserves. The popularity of On the Road is a manifestation of the propensity in a demotic age of mediocrity to worship itself.

Finally David Pescovitz on the blog Boing Boing highlighted a tribute in Smithsonian magazine by Joyce Johnson, a friend of Kerouac’s. Johnson writes:

Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day?

Who indeed?

Featured Article: The Shakespeared Brain

I have just added an article by Philip Davis on the neurological effects of reading Shakespeare to the Features page. This piece appeared in The Reader 23 and is a fascinating summary of research into the way Shakespeare’s linguistic innovations affect us at a physical level. Philip Davis has recently taken over as editor of The Reader magazine. His biography of Bernard Malamud, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, is published on September 13th. Here’s a link to the article.

Links we liked for August 23

I’ve been away on a Scottish island odyssey for the last couple of weeks, but The Reader’s flock of Internet starlings has been hard at work. Here are some of the juiciest worms they found:

Recommendation. Vintage’s much-publicised series of literary pairings received a stylish boost with A.S. Byatt’s recommendation of Middlemarch in The Guardian newspaper. Eliot’s novel is paired with Byatt’s Possession in the Vintage Classic Twins series. Both novels are of course “books for grown-up people”.

Books for children seem to have been in the news a lot this summer. But however successful the Children’s Book That Cannot Be Named may be, helping children to read is an ongoing challenge for many parents. One innovative service that might help is Tumblebooks, described as “an online collection of read-along titles for elementary, middle school, and high school students which features adjustable online text and complete audio narration. Sentences are highlited as they are being read and the pages turn automatically … ” The Reader Online has no connection with Tumblebooks, but it sounds like an interesting idea for a digital native generation.

On Literary Festivals. The Times carried an interesting piece about the growth of book festivals and quotes Armando Iannucci pitching for an intern job at The Reader: “People are hungry for substance and unafraid of ideas and big themes.” We concur.

How To Write a Book. And for those budding (and otherwise) writers among you, here’s a bombastic blog article by technology writer and consultant Scott Berkun in which he argues that anyone can write a book. It may suck, but …

Walk of Shame Award. And talking of Scottish islands, Scotland on Sunday reported on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival on a conversation between Will Self and Philip Gourevitch, who recently held a month-long residency on the island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984. His shocking admission when faced with the prospect of walking: “I haven’t been to Barnhill. I drove up to the end of the road in a downpour and the guy who controls the gate wasn’t around. I couldn’t find anybody to open it so I could drive up there.”

Posted by Chris

Romanian Summer Diary 6

Saturday 4th August ­ ­– Things I have seen in Romania ­

A cow grazing by a brand new glass-plate office suite
A drunk old man falling into the gate to his house while trying to open it
A 1970s Romanian-built Renault with BMW badges
A funeral parlour blaring out rap music
A taxi firm called Trans Prod
A 17th century church glazed with UPVC windows
A crazily leaning shack proclaiming itself the Hotel Lido
A pig on a balcony on the block of flats opposite
A gyspy woman walking along a smart shopping street while breast-feeding
In time-forgotten villages, gleaming cars with Italian plates outside the houses
A hearse with “FUN” on its number plate
A tree in a beauty spot with beer cans stuck up its branches – Christmas come early?
A company called Semi-Daniel – a case of split personality?
A herd of sheep on a train
A horse and cart in a supermarket car park
A beggar with an Armani T-shirt
A seller of Dolce & Banana watches
In the market Crowds of old women weeping at the death of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch

All of these would be ample opportunity for any photographer or journalist. They would send back a report peppered with “local colour”, confident that they have got to the heart of the place. Some, more enlightened, might skirt away from the really obvious ones – the cow, for example, reflected in the plate-glass window – dismissing them as clichés. And certainly the list is full of such clichés, almost all of them boiling down to contrast: between old and new, communist and capitalist, Orient and Occident.

Romania as a country is not afraid of clichés. We get on with it, the typical shrug of the shoulders and benevolent nod of the head accompanying us. Perhaps in this crazed sunshine, there are some Western niceties which just don’t apply.

The budding teachers at the English school are learning…

Tuesday 15th August The Brits have left and another year will run its course of change before the next summer school. Each year we take the volunteers to the Black sea coast for a few days, and then to Bucharest, before the tearful journey to the airport. We ask ourselves, and so do they, whether what they have seen is the true face of Romania. Among this year’s highlights there have been desperate phonecalls for a comfort stop on the way to Constantza, trunks lost whilst skinny dipping and midnight rowing on Herastrau lake in Bucharest. Occasionally we get returning volunteers: I remember this, is so and so still there, is that still going, the kid I taught then has gone to university. I, too, am like that now – in my native country a visitor, with a bagful of memories and apprehensive of new experiences every year, relieved to go back home and eager to return the next summer. Invariably.

I am yet to find how much of the attraction in all this lies in the security of the past and how much in the challenge of the new. All in a summer’s teaching job.

Philip Roth Discusses Everyman

Philip Roth is one of my favourite writers; he is one of the few writers whose prose seems like it couldn’t be any other way. So I was delighted to find this interview with him in which he discusses Everyman, his 2005 novel about life, death, and growing old. The work Roth has produced in the last decade–in his 60s and 70s–is generally acknowledged to be his best; he must be sick of reading about his “late flowering.” In this interview he also talks about his desire for work and his love of writing as well as discussing his career, his books, and the state of American writing.

Here’s the link to the download page (mp3 courtesy of RadioOpenSource).

Posted by Chris

Romanian Summer Diary 5

Saturday 28th July–Busy days. The first British contingent taught their lessons, forged friendships, played their quick cricket in bewildered partnership with the Romanians, staged the customary talent show to the self-acclaim of beaming participants, said their goodbyes with swimming eyes and departed – some to the mountains, some to the seacoast for a deserved short holiday before returning to our rainy kingdom. The unusual this year was manifest in the confirmation of theft of handbag by bear for insurance purposes; the chosen (by the bear!) protagonist was Wirral Grammar Emma.

New forces arrived on Thursday – seventeen students and sixth formers for the school in town and eleven for the children’s home. The twenty-eight-strong group of volunteers going out in the evening is anything but inconspicuous. Welcome shouts of ‘hey, English!’, although a little irritating to our Welsh and Irish nationals, are received as such: warm welcome.

The volunteer ‘profesori’ have far more ideas than there is time to put into practice. They will learn much about the ideal and the practical by the end of the summer school. Some will find out that keeping it simple is the best policy. A few will realize that teaching others is the best way of learning. The only uncertain thing so far is the declamations favourite; ‘Brutus was an honourable man’ goes head to head with the girlie taking of tea chez Ernest’s Gwendolin.

Wednesday 1st August–I know from past experience that nothing draws the Brits and Romanians closer than twenty-four hours of supervisorial absence. Not reckoning that such extreme teambuilding efforts should be required, I decide to abscond for just a couple of hours and drive to the countryside.

Romanian Dream II

Locals only were allowed
To leave the tarmac road,
Cross the rickety bridge
And sink into the dust track
Around the lake.

Strategic route, we used to be told,
Secret in case of Western invasion.
Throughout my teenage years I had wished
To sit on the grassy banks and watch
The sun in the water.

Path at the bottom of orchards, gardens, cornfields,
Thinning under the feet of my teenage son:
Same hair, some of my dreams,
His gain, my lost lake, his to return to,
Mine now, only once.

Cristina Pascu-Tulbure.

British-Romanian Connections has been operating in Romania since 1991, and each year Cristina organizes the summer schools staffed with young British volunteers. She says the fascination lies in watching British and Romanians alike teaching and learning, as well as seeing the yearly changes in attitudes, the vernacular, and the home-grown notion of what it is to have achieved the Romanian Dream. It’s a heady mix of old culture, second-hand Western ideals, slight embarrassment about one’s history, and variations on a theme of European unity. Cristina is in Romania with a party of girls from Wirral Grammar School.

Links we liked for July 28, 2007

Here are a few links you might have missed in the last couple of weeks:

Sue Bursztynski’s review of HP7 for January Magazine was one of the most balanced I came across in a week when J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel broke sales records around the world and for a while even competed with the weather for the attention of British news journalists. That’s how big it was. John Crace provides a digested read: “Harry knew he was up against it this time. A favourite character from an earlier book had been killed off within the first 80 pages. That Rowling woman meant business.”

On a not unrelated subject, as anyone who waded through HP5 will testify, Salon had an excellent article on the unsung heroines and heroes of the literary world: ‘Let us now praise editors’.

The BBC covered the problem of literacy with a rather sad piece about parents who struggle with reading to their children. Here’s the shocking statistic:

More than 10% of the 1,000 parents asked had struggled to understand some words in the stories they had read to their five to 10-year-old children.

Looking at it more positively, at least they are reading. Here’s the link to the BBC article.

Would Jane Austen get published by Penguin as a new author in 2007? Here’s the answer.

And finally, from Language Log, intellectual cereal packets. I insist cereal packets taught me to read. I’m not sure how that might have worked if Martin Amis and Immanuel Kant had featured. Here’s the link.

Posted by Chris, Powered by Qumana

Romanian Summer Diary 4

Sunday 22nd July–The summer school runs for two stretches of nine days and this weekend is a working one. Some children’s attitude to conversational English on a Sunday verges on the cavalier, but those who turn up do want to talk; airing opinions in British company is an opportunity not to be missed.

One of the older boys had witnessed an accident: woman munching burger hit by boy-racer on zebra crossing, he described it, in near-perfect British journalese. Doctors had her down as sixty; she turned out to be seventy-six; the driver was twenty-one. More than anything it was the shock of seeing the little everyday items – a shoe, her shopping, the chips – scattered along the street. Bringing this all up was not about displaying proficiency in English, but sheer shock.

We know of thousands of deaths: why should this one so affect us, our Sunday student wanted to know. Was it the banality of the woman’s shopping bag? The randomness of the choice of victim? Whose choice? Would anything change had it been a tramp? Or a model run over by an old dear on the way to church? Would watching violent films have prepared us for it? Or Titus Andronicus? Or Aeschylus, for that matter?

Monday is another day.

Cristina Pascu-Tulbure.

British-Romanian Connections has been operating in Romania since 1991, and each year Cristina organizes the summer schools staffed with young British volunteers. She says the fascination lies in watching British and Romanians alike teaching and learning, as well as seeing the yearly changes in attitudes, the vernacular, and the home-grown notion of what it is to have achieved the Romanian Dream. It’s a heady mix of old culture, second-hand Western ideals, slight embarrassment about one’s history, and variations on a theme of European unity. Cristina is in Romania with a party of girls from Wirral Grammar School.

Romanian Summer Diary 3

Wednesday 18th July, The Anglo-Romanian Dream I.

The summer school is in full swing and truth is in the mouths of children, I’m told. The ten-year olds are pouring their hearts out to their British ‘Miss’. Crisps have been banned in school from September next and the cosmopolitan crisp connoisseurs are ready to take on the world and the offending school vending machines.

One of the older boys witnessed an accident. It’s almost a British journalist’s account: woman munching burger and speeding boy-racer collide on zebra crossing. ‘You call it roadkill?’ Someone had covered her face with a napkin. I remembered teaching Mid-Term Break, and the open box, and thinking this is how we too say our goodbyes, not sealing off our departed, simply treading carefully.

Cristina Pascu-Tulbure.

British-Romanian Connections has been operating in Romania since 1991, and each year Cristina organizes the summer schools staffed with young British volunteers. She says the fascination lies in watching British and Romanians alike teaching and learning, as well as seeing the yearly changes in attitudes, the vernacular, and the home-grown notion of what it is to have achieved the Romanian Dream. It’s a heady mix of old culture, second-hand Western ideals, slight embarrassment about one’s history, and variations on a theme of European unity. Cristina is in Romania with a party of girls from Wirral Grammar School.