The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l’Opéra) by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera has all the ingredients that appeal to the imagination: an enormous Parisian opera house, a mysterious apparition that lives in its cellars, the pretty and talented subject of the apparition’s obsession and her childhood sweetheart, a young viscount. When you add to all those visuals the music that plays a role in the story, you can imagine why it would be an excellent book to make a film or stage adaption of. Since its publication, as a serial in 1909 and in book form in 1910, there have been made dozens of stage and film adaptations. However, if you’re like me, you’ll be curious about the original story and I am here to tell you that it is well worth reading.

For most of the story, we follow Raoul, Viscount de Chagny. He is a twenty-one-year-old nobleman who lives with his older brother, the Count, who takes care of him after their parents died. He falls madly in love with Christine Daaë, a Swedish girl whom he has known since childhood and who has now become an opera singer in the great Paris Opera. But Christine goes inexplicably hot and cold on him. One day she asks him to come to her dressing room, the next she swears she can’t ever marry and he should leave her alone. Raoul is frustrated, jealous and increasingly desperate to discover what or who is on Christine’s mind.

Meanwhile, all the people working in the opera, but especially its new managers, are baffled by the mystery of a presence in the opera, who leaves notes demanding money and a private box to watch the operas in. If these requests are not fulfilled, the ‘Opera Ghost’, as he signs his letters, threatens that bad things will happen in the opera house. While the managers laugh off the notes as an elaborate joke at first, soon accidents start to happen to people that are somehow in the way of the Ghost. Sometimes, the accidents are fatal. The story of the Opera Ghost leads its own life among the opera employees. Some say he’s an invisible ghost, others say he has a ‘death-head’ that is terrible to behold, and someone even maintains that he has seen it with a head of fire. In the superstitious theatre world, you can never be sure what is true and what is merely a tall story. Raoul is gradually strengthened in his conviction that the Opera Ghost is real and wants Christine to himself. The second half of the story is almost like one thrilling action scene where characters chase each other through the depths of the opera vaults, while everybody wonders who is dangerous, who is real, who is a monster and who is lying.

The story is exciting and surprising: a book you want to read in a day. The main reason for this is the wonderful décor: the enormous opera house with its attics, cellars, trapdoors, secret pathways and scene pieces. And the best thing about it is that the place is real! Leroux based his opera house on the Palais Garnier, both as it is (and still stands) and on the rumours surrounding it, such as the story that the building was built over an underground lake. The opera house is so big that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if strange creatures were living in its corridors, nooks and cellars. A phantom is the least you would expect, which is exactly how the rumours that Leroux used arose in the first place. Leroux makes clever use of his knowledge of the place to build tension, playing on myths and superstitions that already were in the Parisians’ minds. His horror story only consolidated these whispers with its tone of historical research – like a report done by a thorough investigator. Who knows, maybe Gaston Leroux actually did find the evidence he claimed to possess. Maybe, long ago, there lived a Phantom in the Paris Opera house. The scariest horror stories are those you are willing to believe.

To us, modern readers, the notion of a ghost or monsters living in the cellars might not seem as plausible as it did to readers a century ago. In that case, the sceptic in you might be pleasantly surprised at how realistic the protagonists of the story are. Especially if you come to the story with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in mind, like I did. Raoul and Christine go back and forth between being brave and being scared, stubborn denial and pragmatism, jealousy and trust. Surprisingly, Christine is less of a damsel-in-distress in the 1909 book than she is in the 1986 musical! Sure, she’s an opera diva and she’s in distress several times throughout the book, but so are a lot of men and Christine holds up better than most of them. She makes her own decisions, for example when she shuts down Raoul for acting jealous and possessive. She has made it clear that, although she loves him, she can’t have a relationship with him and he will have to accept that without demanding that she tells him what she has been doing:
“I am mistress of my own actions, M[onsieur] de Chagny: you have no right to control them; and I will beg you to desist henceforth. As to what I have done during the last fortnight, there is only one man in the world who has the right to demand an account of me: my husband! Well, I have no husband and I never mean to marry!”

I don’t mean to say that it seems like the characters were written with a twenty-first century audience in mind. Many aspects look outdated to us – because they are. Christine, for instance, faints several times throughout The Phantom of the Opera. I have always wondered if women in history really passed out from emotion as much as they do in some books. I can imagine that you would faint easily when you were wearing a corset and permanently out of breath. On the other hand, many female protagonists in the older books are portrayed as somewhat fragile and delicate, so that the fainting might serve as a confirmation of those qualities. The question is: is it possible that women really fainted more because they saw it as a valid option? I’m sure I read somewhere that people’s behaviour is strongly dependent on their culture and what they believe their options are. This is even true for unconscious reactions that we think happen naturally and without our control, like fainting. If you think fainting is a normal thing to do when you’re emotional, you’re more likely to faint. Too us, women who faint in moderation – from low blood sugar or psychological distress – it seems a little excessive. These kinds of details make the book a bit outdated, which combined with the drama and theatricality can distract from the story: it tends towards the ridiculous.

Thinking about the fainting in particular, it does unintentionally point us to the central theme of the book: the power of suggestion. The Opera Ghost is a master of illusions, the opera staff create their own myths based on the smallest rumours and Raoul’s jealous mind convinces him of all kinds of nonsense. However beautiful and spectacular the visuals in the film and stage versions might be, the nuances of the power of suggestion come out better in the written medium of a book. Continue to love the films if you know them, but read Leroux’s classic as well!

Hunchback Award for posing the great question of horror stories: ‘Who is the monster and who is the man?’

Gaston Leroux, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (Paris, 1910)

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Jo Robin

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Magical realism: a genre some love and others absolutely hate. The same can be said for Alice Hoffman, but I personally adore her books, as I do the genre. I love how she is always able to mix some sort of fairy tale setting with magic and romance. Her books are often sweet, lovely and magical, and not at all the kind of books I usually read, but I guess Hoffman is like my guilty pleasure. ‘Nightbird’ was written for Middle School readers and even though I know very little about the American school system, I’m guessing it’s for kids a lot younger than me. But, it’s Alice Hoffman, so I read it and loved it (guiltily).

Sidwell is a small town in Massachusetts, where the people believe in magic. Or more specifically, they believe in a monster that lives amongst them: half man, half myth. Twig is a twelve-year-old girl, who lives with her mother and her mother practises a different kind of magic altogether. Because her mother has an orchard with the oldest apples in the county called Pink apple trees. And even though her mother lives an extremely isolated life, hardly speaking to anyone, the town buys her pies and cakes and apple juices religiously.

Twig lives a lonely life, because of her mother’s recluse ways and because her mother expects the same from her. She is not allowed to make friends, to invite anyone over to their house or to go into someone else’s house. She has gotten used to this, but that doesn’t mean she likes it. She still remembers with sadness the one friend she had when she was only five years old. But the family has a secret to hide, which has everything to do with a tale connected to Sidwell and the empty house next to their orchard. Over 200 years ago, this house was rumoured to belong to a witch, who had her heart broken. The town believes in this story, sort of, which means the kids perform a play every year about the witch. Twig’s mother, however, knows the stories are real and teaches Twig to never make fun of the witch or go near that empty house.

Then a new family moves into that little house and Twig can’t contain her curiosity, so she climbs a tree to spy on them. They have two young daughters, and while Twig dreams of being friends with them, she falls out of the tree. That’s when her secret friendship with the neighbour’s girl Julia starts, which she is forced to hide from her mother. Together they decide to find out what happened with the witch and why it scares her mother so much. Apparently she cursed Twig’s family over 200 years ago, which is the cause of the great secret her family keeps. Meanwhile, the town’s paranoia over the monster grows and tensions are rising everywhere. So the girls decide to break the curse, now that history seems to repeat itself, the next time the full moon in August rises…

Alice Hoffman has a way with words, and I think that’s what draws me to her books the most. When you read her books it’s like anything is possible, because of the genre of magical realism, but also because she writes about the unlikeliest of loves. ‘Nightbird’ really is a children’s book, and this means that the sentences are often a lot shorter, some plot developments are a little quick and rushed even and she doesn’t go into great depth on the emotions of the characters. However, the elements of an unlikely romance, magic and a great surreal atmosphere at night time are all there. Coincidentally, this is also one of the things I really love about fantasy children’s books: many things are not explained and they don’t have to be explained: they simply are that way.

This brings me to the second thing I love about Hoffman’s books, and that is how her characters are often a little wacky. The protagonist is often a very withdrawn or introverted character, which usually has something to do with something that has happened in their past. They carry a secret with them that weighs on their soul, and on top of that, they’re often just different from other people. But they deserve love nonetheless, or so Hoffman shows us in her books. Twig dreams of having a friend and in the end, she gets one. Loneliness is one of the hardest things to deal with in life, maybe especially when you’re a child, but Hoffman’s books often carry a conclusion in them that it is okay to be different and that everyone has the right to be whatever they truly are. Her characters learn to embrace their uniqueness, with their flaws and strengths. Her books have taught me a lot about self-acceptance and seeing the magic in the strangest and darkest of people, including myself.

Lastly, this book delves into the importance of friends and family, but also the importance of standing up for yourself as well. It really is a coming-of-age story in the sense that Twig starts to stand up for herself and goes against her mother’s rules to do so. She takes it upon herself to save her family and to stop a forest from getting demolished by some project developer; she starts finding friends and building on those friendships, because she’s sick of being alone and she decides she wants to find her father. When the story comes to an end, she confesses to her mother all the things she has done behind her back and how she broke her rules. And then one my favourite parts of the books follow, where her mother tells her that she knew what she was doing all along. Twig wonders why she isn’t mad about it and exclaims: ‘But I broke the rules!’ And then her mother says to her that she understands, that she only broke the rules because the rules were unfair. This is the kind of mother I aspire to be someday.

All in all, this is not a complex book, with a bit of a quick ending without much drama in its delivery: a children’s book, but I it loved in all the same. As always, this book has Hoffman’s characteristic ethereal tone, and it’s like the town of Sidwell just sucks you in. Just reading the story made me crave for apple pie, and that’s probably the best way to read this book: sitting outside on a porch, while eating some apple pie, on a hot summer evening. It’ll be magical.

Firefly award: for being magical and real at the same time

Alice Hoffman, Nightbird (London, 2015)

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Thura Nightingale 

Magical Readathon Update

August the first: the day we started traveling home after our honeymoon. As my husband was driving home, I started reading for our August Reading Challenge: the Magical Readathon. You can find the particulars of this challenge here.

As it is now the sixteenth and we’re halfway through the month, Jo and I thought it would be fun to let you all know how we are doing so far. We have both been very much committed to this challenge, I have been reading so much, whenever I have time off from writing people thank-you-notes and other post-wedding activities. I think I’ve done pretty well so far.

Below you can find the books we’ve chosen for this challenge and I’ll just mark the books we’ve finished so far in green.

 

Jo’s list:

For History of Magic, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book that you think would fit right in at the Hogwarts’ Library. In de houten broek by D. van der Stoep and H.H. Felderhof
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book published at least 5 years ago. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that’s at least 400 pages long. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

For Ancient Runes, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book set in the past. The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: one of the most ancient books left on your shelves that you haven’t yet read. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book translated from another language. For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

For Herbology, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book with a green cover. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book with illustrations. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book with either one of these words in the title: light/air/sun/water. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Jo still has quite a bit to read, but she is halfway through In the houten broek already. I’m full of confidence she’ll get through her NEWT’s, but remember you must have at least one Acceptable and one Outstanding to pass your NEWT’s. So far, she has only passed Ancient Runes and Herbology with an Exceeding Expectations and an Acceptable, but, again, she’ll make it! And don’t forget: all this she combines with a 9 to 5 job! What a woman!!

My list:
For History of Magic, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book that you think would fit right in at the Hogwarts’ Library. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book published at least 5 years ago. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that’s at least 400 pages long. Paula by Isabel Allende

For Defence Against the Dark Arts, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a last book in a series. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a foiled book. The Marvels by Brian Selznick
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book with the word ‘dark’ in the title or series name. His Dark Materials: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

For Transfiguration, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book with a grey cover. Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book from an author you haven’t read anything of before. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that’s set in a kingdom / has royals. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

For Care of Magical Creatures, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book with an animal on the cover. Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book under 160 pages long. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book that includes dragons in any way. Dragonology: the Complete Book of Dragons by Dugald Steer

For Potions, you must read:
– to pass with an Acceptable: a book that has a name of a colour in the title. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
– to pass with an Exceeding Expectations: a book with a male lead character. Stoner by John Williams
– to pass with an Outstanding: a book over 350 pages long. Zorro by Isabel Allende

I do admit now that I might have been a little optimistic when I chose no less than five subjects. I’m confident I’ll pas my NEWT’s though, as I have passed four out of the five subjects already and therefore have read 7 of the 15 books already. However, I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my studies, so I’d really like to do well. I had decided beforehand that I wanted to do especially well in Defence Against the Dark Arts and Potions: so far I’ve gotten an Exceeding Expectations in both, so I’m quite pleased with that. However, Transfiguration still requires a bit of work and as a former History student, my final grade for History of Magic should really be above an Acceptable. And do I really want to let Hagrid down? Back to the books!

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Thura Nightingale 

The day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I like sci-fi: the stranger the better. So, when I heard about ‘the day of the Triffids’, where a mysterious green comet makes everybody who looked at it blind and plants start walking and eating humans on the same day, I was immediately interested. Being well aware that makes the book sound ridiculous I will tell you there’s more to the story. Although there is nothing wrong with reading a strange book from time to time.

This is a dystopian novel first published in 1951. Like many other science-fiction novels from that time, the Cold War plays a big role in it. There is the threat of war, suspicion of foreign powers and also the fear of warfare with new technologies. This cold war paranoia is combined with other worries of food shortages and the good and bad of messing around with plants to create new sources of food. The last point is where the green plants called Triffids come in. They are bred by the USSR as a cheap alternative for natural oil, much in the same way palm oil is grown now in large quantities to replace traditional oil sources. Triffids are some kind of creepy plant that can walk and have a sting which kills people. Strangely, after some mistrust, the presence of this plant in almost every park, garden and farm, does not worry the people in the book. Everybody assumes they are easy to control and can’t be that dangerous, them being plants. So, they are bred by the millions all over the world. In my opinion, you should worry when killing and walking plants are grown, but who am I to question the decisions of global powers in a book.

The book starts the morning after the mysterious green comet has passed the earth. Everyone who could find a way watched it and it turns out that everybody who did so is now blind. So, at the start of the book, we are introduced to a world facing apocalypse in two ways: plants that walk and kill and an almost entirely blind population. This makes this book a combination of a cool adventure story of how people survive after a disaster and an exploration of the different ways how people react to disaster.

The protagonist and narrator of the book is Bill Masen. Bill is a Triffid scientist and was recovering from a Triffid sting attack to his eye the day of the comet. Therefore, he still has his sight, because his eyes were wrapped up in bandages when the comet passed. Bill is a solitary man, used to go about his own life. This serves him well when he travels through the collapsing society to find out what happened and to plan a way to survive in the years to come. Pretty soon he meets Josella Playton, our second protagonist. She has also kept her sight because she was recovering from a party the night of the comet and therefore was asleep when the comet passed. She wrote a book infamous because it mentioned ‘sex’ in the title and is quite happy she can escape her reputation in the new life she plans to live with Bill. Of course, she also struggles to adapt to society in ruin, but she seems to take it all more or less in her stride and has most of the practical good ideas. Bill is the practical side of the couple and Jocella the thinking side. Of course, the two fall madly in love.

The last character I want to introduce to you was my favourite: Wilfred Coker. He is a self-made man and quick to adapt to any situation necessary to survive without becoming cruel. He has also kept his sight. He only loses his patience when nobody sees reason in his urge to build a sustainable future or to save the blind people. Nobody knows where he comes from because sometimes he has a posh accent, and sometimes a Cockney accent. First Bill and Coker are enemies, but soon Bill sees Coker’s survival skills and they become companions.

In the way this book is written there is a certain distance between characters and events or emotions. Things are not happening to them as you read it, but the reader is told what happens and felt by the characters. In this way, you don’t experience what happens to the characters with them, but the book tells you what happens to them with some distance. This is often how older books are written and can make them feel a bit dull and devoid of reality because it is more difficult to connect with the characters. However, that does not mean a book should be dismissed. That style can also give a book a level of rationality which is often missing in books focused on the emotions of the characters. This rationality gives the writer the opportunity to explore the multiple reasons people have for actions and how many different paths there are to follow post-apocalypse. In this book, for example, there are desperate people who kill themselves, people who help others, a militant group trying to re-take control, religious groups and groups like Bill’s and Jocella’s who create a new family after having lost their old ones. Extreme things happen to the people in this new world, but the author doesn’t give them much opportunity for an emotional breakdown. Even the characters realize at a certain moment it won’t do them much good, so they make the conscious effort to be as little affected as possible by everything that happens around them. Diminishing the drama gives room to explore all the possibilities within the story and to tell the story. Cutting out some of the emotions paradoxically creates space for a multitude of emotions to explore for the reader. I like this style of down-tuned emotions. It’s not like we as readers can’t imagine for ourselves how emotionally distressed the characters are if we wanted to.

Another thing I liked about this book is the time span. The first part of the book is about the first weeks after the comet has made everybody blind. This is a time of chaos where everybody tries to find out what has happened and tries to find a way to survive. Also, there is a lot of action and the characters meet. The second part of the book has a much slower pace. Many years pass between chapters because not much happens. Everybody potters along with their scavenging and efforts to try to understand farming and the threat of the Triffids seems under control. At the end, the threat of the Triffids surfaces again, but there is also some hope in the ending. There is some hope to exterminate the Triffid threat when science prevails, science that got them into this mess in the first place, but who am I to judge. In this way, the book explores the different stages of post-apocalyptic survival.  I’ve always found the term post-apocalyptic strange because I thought it to mean post-end of the world books, and there is no after when the world has ended. But Thura explained to me that apocalypse actually means ‘revelation’ or ‘prophecy’ looking at the Greek origin of the word. This makes much more sense because post-apocalyptic books tell us about what might happen to the future of humanity when potential disasters happen and therefore are a warning. In this book, the warning is what might happen when we lose control of our scientific endeavours.

The strength of the book is not in the adventure part because the threat of the Triffids actually only plays a small role in the story. They are introduced as a threat at the beginning of the book, but they also disappear for a long time when Bill has worked out a routine to deal with them. At the end of the book, they turn up again as the biggest threat to hold back humanity to survive through the blindness disaster. It is hard to survive blind in a world where you constantly have to look out for enemies. So, this book is more about re-starting a society after collapse than about the threat of the plants. Maybe the Triffids are one big metaphor to teach us humans to not mess with things we cannot see the result of: the Triffids were designed by humans after all. Maybe John Wyndham saw that we humans accept potential dangerous situations all too easily when it is for profit or comfort and wanted to warn us. If that is the case, I suggest everybody read this book soon before genetic manipulation or artificial intelligence manages to mess up the world as we know it. But maybe I read too much into this book. Maybe this is only a book about overbred walking plants who sting people and eat them. Which certainly will give you something to think about next time you walk in your garden if you decide not to take the other warning.

Herbicide award for teaching us many ways to kill green things that were supposed to feed us and not to grow things that can stand up, walk and kill

 John Wyndham, the day of the Triffids (London, 1951)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

A few months ago, I was talking to my mum about books, as is often the case in our household, with a father who’s a theologian and a mother who’s a librarian. My parents’ house is nothing short of a massive library, with little stacks of books everywhere in addition to the overflowing bookcases. The living room contains mostly fiction, then there’s my father enormous personal library of theology and in the attic our family collection of history volumes. But the attic also holds the many volumes of English literature my mother has collected through the years. Anyways, I was perusing these books one day and found that most books were in fact British. My mother was an English student and I wondered whether she wasn’t required to read any American literature as well, and I asked her about this. In short, she said she did, but never cared for it much. Therefore, I have never read any American literature either. A few months ago I decided to change that and start getting acquainted with the great American novels. ‘On the Road’ was one of the first novels I read, but as so often, my mother was right: I didn’t care for it much.

The book is in five parts, but in my opinion the book is a mess from beginning to end, and so I’m not going through the plot of the story part by part (bit of opinion slipped in there already, sorry about that). ‘On the Road’ is about Sal Paradise, also the narrator of the story, who travels the United States between 1947 and 1950. In the beginning of the book Sal appears to be a former student, working on his book as many young men do apparently in that age, but he’s fairly calm and even shy. But then he meets Dean Moriarty: a maniac, who is either permanently high on all things chemical or just manically excited about life. Through Dean, Sal wants to get more out of life and he decides to leave New York for the first time, and travel West.

When summer comes, Sal travels to the West Coast by taking several buses and by hitchhiking. In Denver he hooks up with Dean and his equally insane friend Carlo Marx. At this point of the story, Sal still has trouble keeping up with their booze filled nights, endless women and crazed philosophical discussions that take hours. He eventually travels on to San Francisco, where he stays with an old friend, Remi Boncoeur, and his disillusioned girlfriend. They live in a shack and Sal works as a night watchman for a while in the city. However, after a fight he again has the urge to travel on and find the woman of his dreams. The story is filled with these idealistic ideas, mixed in with a nihilistic jazz-age vibe. But, eventually he ends up home once again in New York.

During the next winter, Sal celebrates Christmas with his family somewhere and that’s when Dean and his gang show up out of the blue. Dean has this crazy idea that Sal should make love to his first wife, Marylou, whom he has brought along, but they decide to wait until they’re in San Francisco once again. All of this ends in tears, Dean goes back to his second wife Camille and of course, Marylou was only really interested in Dean after all, so Sal returns to New York. After another year, Sal starts becoming lonely and he travels to Denver once again. There he finds Dean, who has kids all over the place now and two very unhappy wives. When they travel on together, Dean has become completely obsessed with finding ‘it’ and ‘time’, and Sal starts to share in his obsession. They plan to go to Italy together, but just drive around in their usual dangerous manner through the States and when Dean ends up with yet another woman, Sal goes back to New York again.

The last part of the book is when Dean decides they have to go to Mexico City to find ‘it’. As always, they travel fast and dangerously, often in stolen cars, living on booze only. They declare Mexico heaven when they find alcohol is cheap, the police are absent and cannabis is available. But then Sal falls ill and Dean simply leaves him there. After his recovery from dysentery, Sal returns to New York, a little disillusioned about his hero who has just left him. However, when Dean moves to San Francisco once again, they apparently never meet again, but the narrator ends the story with the words that always ‘I think of Dean Moriarty’.

So much has already been said and discussed about this book, I won’t go into a critical study of the novel, but I’ll just go into my initial reaction to the book. First off, I have to say again that the book is a mess. It feels like you’re reading a journal, but it’s being sold as a novel, so very little editing has been done. Also, it’s just the same over and over again. Some conversations change and some destinations change, but the general idea of traveling west, trying to find ‘it’ without success and returning to New York happens four times in the book. After the first time, you know the drill, so it just becomes repetitive. Even the characters become repetitive, because Kerouac doesn’t go into depth with them, so we know all we need to know about them pretty early on, and then it’s just the same again and again. This is probably what had me wishing that the book would end already after just 100 pages: it’s a drunken mess.

Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac and much of this novel is autobiographical or, even worse, what I’m guessing he would want his life to be like. This brings me to the subject of the characters, and how I intensely disliked each and every one of them. The women might have been okay, but they’re all incredibly one-dimensional, being either former wives carrying the men’s children or whores and therefore subjects of their so-called sexual liberation. Jack Kerouac tries to portray this ‘on the road’ lifestyle as romantic, but he doesn’t quite manage it in my opinion. Sal and Dean are supposed to be these professional bums, but, let’s be fair, they get by on borrowing money from people they never intend to pay back and on the fact that they’re middle-class white males. They live this merry and happy life, filled with jazz and all things Americana, but aren’t they just homeless alcoholics, refusing to take any responsibility for their lives and families? They spend hours on end discussing poetry and philosophy in a pseudo-intellectual manner, but even their discussions are filled with clichés, prejudices about other races and orientations and rooted in an incredible sense of self-importance and pretentiousness. If this is the ideal of youthful wanderlust; being an arse, what then is the reason it’s still so fashionable to be a fan of this book nowadays?

This brings me to my last point of critique, which is the tone of the entire book. Nihilism might be romantic to some, and maybe that was the point of the whole Beat Generation, but it doesn’t make much of a book. Jack Kerouac really is like one of the characters and his book read like the incoherent notes of some arrogant drunk who thinks he is getting closer and closer to ‘it’. When reading the book you keep waiting for a conclusion, but it never comes. Is ‘it’ in Mexico City? Probably not, because this is where his best mate and worshipped hero Dean Moriarty just packs up and leaves Sal when he catches dysentery. Maybe ‘it’ doesn’t exist and maybe that’s the point. Maybe the story is about being ‘on the road’ only, never to reach your destination. I had finished the book and all I could say was that this is a book, written in platitudes, about an author who goes on the road to find himself, only to find he’s the kind of author who writes books in platitudes. I’m guessing the deep and profound meaning of this book, according to fans, is that is has no real meaning. The romance of the age, the fifties, lies in characters that have simply stopped caring and can now be their true self, by being rude, chauvinistic, entitled and without any responsibilities. And there it is again: the nihilism of it all. A book that only seems to scream ‘Nothing has ANY meaning! Hooray!!’ doesn’t do anything for me.

Finally, and this might be a plot twist in my review, I would recommend this book, if you feel up to it and have some spare time. ‘On the Road’ is considered a defining work in the post-war generation, so I’d encourage anyone to make up their own minds. If this really is what the fifties in America were like, I’m extremely glad to be Dutch, but it is interesting of course. I am glad I’ve read the book, but I probably won’t bother again: I’ve had enough of young men shouting out through the pages: Do I sound smart yet?!
And I actually like having meaning in my life, I like having a goal and I like being a kind person. Maybe I’m simply too much of a female, not white enough, not American enough, not rich and immature enough. For the life of me I can’t understand why this book is a ‘classic’, but that might just be because I’m not cool enough, not ‘beat’ enough, or just too sober…

Chauvinistic Alcoholic White Male Award: for all the boys out there that still leave school with plans like these; you’ll love this book

Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York, 1957)

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Thura Nightingale