Memory Babes: The Legends of Proust and Kerouac

Memory Babes: The Legends of Proust and Kerouac   Mersiha Bruncevic

It was recently announced that Peter Greenaway’s upcoming art installation would be a fully functioning racetrack with real cars inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The iconic British artist and filmmaker is known for avant-garde works that revisit classical art by resituating it in a contemporary setting. Greenaway’s art is one informed by the excellent skill and craft, the rigorous rules and precision of the canonical masters of Western art from the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Dutch Masters and others belonging to the great pantheon of painting. In that context Kerouac stands out. While Kerouac did paint, his paintings are not widely known. Also, he is not always given due canonical recognition in literature, unlike Greenaway’s favoured painters. After all, the literary scholar Morris Dickstein said of On the Road “it is more important as a myth or a cultural marker than as a novel”.

Reading about the installation I had the initial impression, from my nonprofessional familiarity with Greenaway’s work, that this could be seen as a departure from his established method. If he had proposed a project on, say, Proust it would have more readily made sense, considering his prior subjects were Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Veronese, Velazquez, Rembrandt, and so on. Or maybe not. Maybe this is precisely within Greenway’s method because he sees in Kerouac what many underestimate when focusing on the perpetual Beat counterculture imprint on the latter’s writing. After all, the gap between Kerouac and someone like Proust is not an insurmountable abyss. Mostly because Kerouac himself had his sights set on being a sort of Proust, and it is not uncommon in academic studies to come across a study that proposes bringing the work of Proust and Kerouac closer together on the literary spectrum. And, much like Dickstein saw more cultural legacy than literary value in Kerouac’s writing, let us remember that Proust was not always a canonised saint of elite literature. Not terribly long ago, historically speaking, the French writer Céline famously referred to Proust’s writing as “convoluted Franco-Yiddish”.

Behind many widely read writers there is a widely accepted legend. Proust and Kerouac are particularly legendary in that sense. Reading their work often comes with baggage. Their names alone conjure up very easily recognised stock scenery of Decadent Paris and Beat America. When picking up their Business Relationships, it seems another book comes along with it — an invisible one. Made from a collection of inherited remembrances, it was written by those who read Proust and Kerouac before us, those who wrote about Proust and Kerouac before us, those who did neither but pass on the common knowledge like treasured folklore. The invisible book gives us the Legend of Proust, the Legend of Kerouac.

Last time I thought about the Proust-Kerouac connection was a few months back. I was at the Singer-Polignac mansion in the chic and wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris for a series of talks and lectures on “Proust and his friends.” The topic was not exceedingly relevant to my own Proust research and PhD thesis on him, but nonetheless — I rarely miss a good Proustian gettogether. I had spent the day listening to writers, scholars and acclaimed thinkers discussing the most important and the most marginal people in Proust’s life and how they had influenced him and who might be their veiled counterpart in his novel. I found my mind drifting in the opposite direction. I was thinking of those that Proust had influenced and how he had affected their lives, their work. And by way of a stray memory of someone once calling me Jack a whole evening (referring to Kerouac), I thought of Proust’s impact on Kerouac. During a break, I took the opportunity to explore the surroundings. As I wandered through the absurdly lavish rooms and corridors of the mansion, I thought of ascetic Kerouac.

In literary history there is a link, albeit not an indisputable link, between the two that never quite made perfect sense to me. Kerouac wrote a series of thirteen novels over two decades of which the first is Visions of Gerard; the most widely read is On the Road; and the final one in the series is Satori in Paris. The thirteen novels form The Dulouz Legend, a narrative memoir modelled on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, of which Kerouac said in 1956: “everything from now on belongs to The Duluoz Legend […] When I’m done, in about 10, 15 years, it will cover all the years of my life, like Proust, but done on the run, a Running Proust.” In the end, he put Proust’s novel in the hands of Dean Moriarty, the one character that is the embodiment of perpetual motion.

One room led to another and I ended up in the surprisingly small and unimpressive garden of the sprawling Singer-Polignac house, imagining Proust among the silk brocade and velvet chairs, the crystal chandeliers, the malachite coloured walls decorated with gold and black stucco. These rooms with their marble and silk and frescos and double glass doors that unfold like angel wings from one wonderful room to the next – these rooms formed Proust and irrevocably shaped his work. How on earth do these gold and malachite crystal rooms align with a rickety jalopy chugging along a dusty road across America, carrying sweaty men in flannel shirts oozing cheap alcohol and benzedrine from every pore. The homoerotic sexual tension notwithstanding I could not link the two scenes, but there it was in my mind – I had read it in books – Kerouac’s ambition had been to capture the essence of Proust, but on the run.

I had been to the Singer-Polignac mansion many times before, most times for other Proust conferences similar to this one, but never had Kerouac entered my mind on previous occasions. The very surroundings seem antithetical to Kerouac. Today the mansion is the Singer-Polignac Foundation, a cultural centre preserving the vast cultural heritage left behind by the French prince Edmond Polignac and his American heiress wife Winaretta Singer. In Proust’s day this impressive manor had been their home. Early in the 20th century this place was a cultural hub of modern art, modern music and modern mores. Edmond was openly into men, Winaretta was openly into women and their friends were what we all imagine illustrious Paris gathered in a chic Salon to be. Proust was a close friend of theirs and visited often. He came for the musical soirées but stayed for the drama, to paraphrase a popular phrase these days. It would have been an atmosphere buzzing with artistic creativity, wealth and socio-sexual dynamite. All of it recording ceaselessly in Proust’s incredible mind that left no detail behind.

Many years later, long after those nights at the Singer-Polignac house (he eventually fell out with the family over a loan request) another wealthy patron of his, the Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre invited him to an exclusive night at the Opera Garnier in Paris where she had secured a box so that the now reclusive Proust could once more enjoy a splendid night on the town. Proust was late, had his back turned to the performance for its entirety and spent the evening chatting to others in the box. The next day the Duchess chastised him for his seeming indifference to her generous gift, upon which he proceeded to recount in astonishing detail everything that happened, not just on stage and in their box but everywhere else in the Opera that evening. Proust’s memory was more than eidetic or otherwise powerfully marvellous. His niece Suzy Mante-Proust said that as a child she believed that her uncle Marcel was a sorcerer, and that astonishing capacity for remembering is nothing short of otherworldly.

In his childhood, young Kerouac manifested a similar power and his nickname became “Memory Babe” for his unparalleled and detailed memory. Later in life Allen Ginsberg would refer to him as the Great Rememberer. This, at least, was something that Proust and Kerouac seemed to have overtly in common. Despite the fact that the scenes as they set them – Decadent Paris and Beat America – could not be further from one another. I wrote down “Memory Babes” in my notes as I waited for the conference to resume.

I am doing it too. Reproducing the legends of Decadent Paris, of Beat America. We know Proust and Kerouac did these things (went to chandelier-lit soirées, rode along in old cars) but does it matter? Not to them. Proust wrote a whole manifesto against the canonical French literary historian Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve opposing his views, which stated that to understand a work of literature one must understand the life of the person who wrote it. Proust maintained that a writer’s historical context and biography should play no part in the reading of a literary work. The work must stand on its own because it has its own voice, its own body – wholly separate from the voice and the body that held the pen at one time, that person traditionally considered the author.

Kerouac wrote no such manifesto, but it doesn’t take many video views of interviews online to see him squirm and shift and quietly rage against the notion of the Beat and the heavy shadow it cast over a man who only wanted to write novels without being the howl of some disenfranchised generation. I found myself sitting down in one of those greenish chairs at the Singer-Polignac, with its smooth ivory coloured armrests, actually feeling beat – it seemed impossible to read Proust or Kerouac without invoking the legends that haunt their work. And if you accept the legends as they stand, there is little chance of seeing the similarity between the two.

I thought of squirming Kerouac again who in those TV interviews and in another very famous one for Playboy magazine maintained that when he says beat, he wants it also to carry the meaning of the Latin word beata, meaning blessed, glorious, celestially sumptuous. Beata makes him think of an inscription of that word as he once saw it in a church, inscribed on a statue of Joan of Arc. He thinks of beat in the same way that Joan of Arc is beata. Beat is that which is blessed and celestial – even though it might be considered heretic in its own time. Kerouac was thinking of beatitude, of Joan of Arc, of Proust, when he wrote his novels. He was not thinking of the rickety jalopy or his sweaty flannels. So why am I thinking about it? The Singer-Polignac mansion is sumptuous for sure but not in that Joan of Arc, celestial heretic way. Of course, on that day a few months ago I wouldn’t have been considering Greenaway at the Singer-Polignac. But maybe that’s what Greenaway sees in Kerouac – a heretic that he wants to canonize by placing him alongside the other greats he has drawn on previously in his work. Every time I wrote the word beata in my notes it autocorrected to beat, which made me feel like a Ouija board and that Kerouac was correcting me from elsewhere.

The conference resumed after the break and I got lost again in the invisible book, the legend of Proust. Actresses, dandies, ambassadors, industry magnates and countesses were the characters at hand. I was shown pictures, letters and receipts proving someone’s presence at a salon, at a wedding, documents indicating another one’s presence at a hotel, a theatre, a seaside town – all proving that Proust knew them and that it mattered. A lot of this I knew already, some of it I was hearing for the first time. While fascinating, I found myself instead looking about. The walls of the room, which would have been the main room of those parties Proust attended, are covered with mirrors. There is a strange effect where you can stand in one part of the room and observe unnoticed a far corner on the other end of it through the strange play of reflections created by the many mirrors. This must have been a wonderful experience for a Memory Babe like Proust. He could see the same moment from infinite angles at the same time and create simultaneous memories of one, single moment – which is precisely the way his writing reads, at least to me. And there seems to be a lot of that in Kerouac’s writing too: an infinite multiplying of images, of memories told again and again from the refracted perception of a single viewpoint. With Proust this process happens in honeylike slow-motion, with Kerouac it travels at breakneck speeds. Kerouac is no Running Proust, he is Supersonic Proust.

What Proust and Kerouac write about is not in the décor – the house it’s set in, the characters that stir us, the clothes that tell us something about their lives or the plots that set our minds imagining weird and wonderful things. Contrary to wider tendencies, I don’t think that either of their works is some sort of memoir of times past or a chronicle of a generation. It is far more fundamental and atemporal than that. Like my professor in a film studies class said long ago when discussing Robert De Niro driving a taxi in preparation for Taxi Driver “Somebody should have told him, the movie is not about driving a taxi”. And here I feel almost tempted to tell Greenaway, “On the Road is not about riding in a car”. To get closer to what honey-slow Proust and supersonic Kerouac have in common it seems necessary to look beyond their respective, symbolic taxis (the invisible book, their legends). What they both gave us is two truly mind-expanding quest stories that push the limits of our perception of individual human experience: the incessant details in Proust’s writing (one party scene goes on for hundreds of pages), the breathless narration of Kerouac that leaves us dizzy (he wrote the whole thing on a scroll in some cases, fuelled by amphetamine). Despite their awesomeness, these stories have a collective relevance. They seem to ask: What are you looking for?

For all the commonality of the quest story, these two writers have the power to make that universal quest seem unique and incomparable. I think Kerouac understood this creative contradiction when he thought of Proust and that was the energy he wanted to harness. He wanted to capture this idea of taking something ordinary (love, life, memories, disillusions – we all have them, no shame in that) and making it extraordinary. Kerouac saw beyond the patina and read beyond the legend of Proust, seeing it instead for what it was: The Amazing Quest Story of a Great Rememberer, a possible label applicable to both In Search of Lost Time and The Dulouz Legend.

As I released myself from the legendary differences between Kerouac and Proust, I started seeing beyond the patent incompatibility of Decadent Paris and Beat America, I became aware of the shared human experience in their work, which remains the same no matter the window dressing. The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño wrote of Kerouac: “The soul of the dead author is present in the novel, along with other ghosts.” This seems a rather apt understanding of the Kerouac legend and how we read it along with his actual books. Also, Bolaño might as well have been talking about Proust there. Bolaño further said: “Kerouac developed the discourse of emptiness in order to fill in the spaces shattered by love.” Once more, it is fully possible to substitute Kerouac’s name for Proust in that sentence. And therein lies the heart of the matter, for me at least, that’s the point where the two incompatible legends converge.

About Mersiha Bruncevic

Mersiha Bruncevic is a literary scholar and writer based in Paris. After working in book publishing and the film industry in London she packed her bags and crossed the channel to Paris where she wrote a PhD thesis on the representation of sleep and dreams in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Catch her on twitter @mbproust or in a café in the Marais with her Kindle in hand.

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