Jack Kerouac… Movie Star?

Ok, yes, I’ve been on a bit of a Beat kick lately, and serendipitously enough, I came across this a few night’s ago while catching up on the day’s news. According to a letter that was auctioned off last week at Christie’s, Jack Kerouac had written to Marlon Brando in 1957, in an attempt to convince him to purchase the rights to Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and turn it into a film.

The letter begins,

I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don’t worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I’ll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.

Brando declined to pick up the project, and as all Kerouac fans know, after 1961 the author became  somewhat reclusive, and died unfortunately young in 1969. He was only 47. Thankfully, even through these darker years he continued writing, laying bare his experiences and anxieties. It was during this time that he wrote the incredibly moving Big Sur, one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

It is only this year that a film based on On The Road is being released, starring  Sam Riley as Sal Paradise and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, along with Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst. I have to admit that I’m dreading this a bit. I tend to have a pretty terrible relationship with movies made from the books that I love, and with Kerouac, so much of what I love comes not merely from the narrative (which is inevitably altered to adapt it to film), but from the words themselves, the rhythm of the words, and the very structure of the novel… none of which can be translated to the film. This is a book that demands that you to spend time with it, slowly finding yourself in sync with its rhythm, and allowing that rhythm to move you through the pages as whatever pace it decides. I cannot see that happening in the film version. Even Kerouac in his letter to Brando acknowledges the changes that would need to be made and I don’t think I like them. Perhaps I’m being far too cynical, but I’ve read On the Road so many times that no casting agent, director, or actor can recreate what I (and countless other readers) have already seen in our minds eyes. That being said, I’m sure I’ll watch it once it’s released, and hey, it gives me an excuse to pull my dusty copy off the shelf and reread it.

You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

A few weeks ago, in response to my post about book covers, a fellow blogger linked me to this fantastic cover of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Every decade or so this book tends to find its way back into my mind and back into my hands, and linking me this image did just that, and a couple of weeks ago I reread the book.

I first read this book in college in a  class titled “Science and Literature, a joint effort of the English, Physics, and Biology departments, taught by multiple professors. I was a physics major with a Literature minor, and this class seemed to merge my interests seamlessly. We had finished a series of lectures on thermodynamics, and of course, my favorite, Maxwell’s Demon (that little imaginary guy that can stop a closed system from become entropic), then were assigned Pynchon’s novel.  I read it in day, then reread it again the next day, since I wasn’t sure about what I had just read at all. After I closed the book for a second time, I remember thinking that for such a small book, it sure packed one hell of a punch.

At the time it was a book that spoke to both my love of science and words. It was playful yet insightful, it included my guilty pleasure (lots of conspiracy theories… did the Tristero actually exist?), and it spoke to some universal truths about trying to stop our lives from becoming entropic, and about our constant struggle to separate real information from all the “noise” around us. In short, it was the right book at the right time.

So a couple of weeks ago I contentedly reread the words that had elicited such a powerful reaction from me so many years ago, yet, when I put the book down, I felt, I don’t know, different. It was not as powerful as I had remembered, and the story now seemed thinner, with far less substance. Then Ken borrowed and read the book, and upon returning it to me he asked what it was about the book that I liked so much. I found myself answering with one word, nostalgia. The book was a signpost in my life, it represented some aspect of who I was at 19. But I’m clearly not 19 anymore, I’ve experienced 20 years of life between then and now, and I began to realize, that the book had changed. Not the text, but what I brought to the text, and that, as Eco would undoubtedly agree, fundamentally changed my reading of the book.

Then last week I wrote about Byron. Here a similar but reverse thing had happened. When I first encountered Byron in high school, I thought he was trite, superficial, and clichéd. But it wasn’t Byron that was lacking, it was my lack of experience. I had nothing to reference. I had not loved nor lost love yet. How could I possible “feel” Byron without a life full of experience to bring to the reading? In the case of the poetry of Lord Byron, it was the wrong text at the wrong time, and it took a lot of living on my part to make it the right text for me. Once again, what I brought to the reading changed my experience of it.

Now just a few days ago, I read this article announcing that Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first novel, The Sea is My Brother, was about to be released. The next day, another blogger posted this, where he said that he probably won’t read it, that Kerouac exists in the past for him, and I thought, is he right?

There was a time when I lived and breathed the Beats.  from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, to Corso, McClure, and Burroughs… all of them. I immersed myself in them and their lifestyle to such an extent, that I even began to write a book about them (an excuse to lose myself in their more intimate, personal material… letters, diaries, drawings). I got nearly 200 pages into the book before I stopped. I suppose that at the time I was using their lives more as an example then a cautionary tale (that would come later), and I just never finished it. Be that as it may, the Beats occupy a very important place in my personal history with books, and I’m afraid of attempting to step into that river twice. I share Chaz’s hesitation to read this new (well, old) novel, in the fear that it will change what he and the rest of them signify to me, I almost rather leave them untouched, frozen in time, where they are.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,

This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text book. Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.

and he’s absolutely correct. Books are experienced in light of what we bring to them, and our experiences of our texts are constantly reformed… as we change, so do they. Sometime for the better, as with Byron, and sometimes I suppose it’s better to leave the books where we first experienced them, our memory of them unmarred by the passage of time. This, however, should never stop us from enjoying all that books have to offer.  As Eco writes,

The “reader” is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires. The canvas itself invites him not to avoid causal connection and the temptations of univocality, and to commit himself to an exchange rich in unforeseeable discoveries.