Tag Archives: Jack Kerouac

Half Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan

I am lucky to belong to a bookclub made up of bright, intelligent, well-informed friends.  We often have what I think are erudite conversations about the books we read.   We all have our differing opinions and points of view and none of us is shy of saying what we think.  I am grateful after every meeting for learning things about our books that I may never have noticed on my own.  After catching up with each other and talking about holidays, birthdays, children, jobs and generally putting our worlds to right, we recently had the most fabulous discussion about the Orange Prize shortlisted Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.  It’s not surprising really, as it is a remarkable book with a unique subject by a writer showing real promise with her second book.

The tale switches between Paris and Berlin during the early years of World War 2 and Berlin and Poland in 1992.  The story is one of friendship, betrayal, guilt and memory all relating to a group of young jazz musicians coping with the rise of fascism in 1930’s Berlin.  As Hitler’s power took hold, jazz was banned and it invariably moved underground.

“…Jazz. Here in Germany it become something worse than a virus. We was all of us damn fleas, us Negroes and Jews and low-life hoodlums, set on playing that vulgar racket, seducing sweet blond kids into corruption and sex. It wasn’t a music, it wasn’t a fad. It was a plague sent out by the dread black hordes, engineered by the Jews. Us Negroes, see, we was only half to blame – we just can’t help it. Savages just got a natural feel for filthy rhythms, no self-control to speak of. But the Jews, brother, now they cooked up this jungle music on purpose. All part of their master plan to weaken Aryan youth, corrupt its janes, dilute its bloodlines..”

The story focuses particularly on 3 of the musicians, Sid Griffiths, Chip Jones and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero).  These three are particularly peculiar in late 30’s Berlin, as they are black; Sid and Chip are American, Hiero is German.

“..He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever like to guess his mama a white Rheinlander.  Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil.  But he German-born, sure.  And if his face wasn’t of the Fatherland, just bout everything else bout him rooted him there right good..”

After a run-in with the authorities, Sid, Hiero and Chip escape to Paris, where, after many weeks of waiting and trying to keep the music alive, the Nazis occupy France and something very dreadful occurs to split the trio.   In 1992, Sid, who is the narrator, tries to make sense of the whole episode and how it has affected his life and those around him.

I’ve really tried hard with the above description not to give away too much of the plot.  It is difficult not to write more, but what would be the point of ruining it for you!

We discussed the plot in detail and were all agreed that it made for interesting reading, certainly providing a different perspective on the war years. We talked about how it wasn’t generally known that black Germans were persecuted, but this wasn’t such a surprise for me.  I started reading the book while in Berlin, and persuaded Mr Fictionhabit to check out some of the landmarks and streets mentioned in the book, luckily all very close to our hotel.  But while we were there we also went to Gedaenkstaette Deutscher Widerstand (Memorial to German Resistance).  This, by the way, is an excellent museum.  Free and with a brilliant English audiotour.  What I found interesting was the extent of German resistance to the Third Reich, but I have to admit my dismay at learning about those sections of society abused by the Nazis but largely forgotten by history.  There were so many persecuted minority groups working against the regime – if they had pooled their resources they may have been able to achieve something.   These groups included, communists, homosexuals, Romany gypsys, Christians, members of the labour movement and youth groups.  There was even a mention for Herr & Frau Hampel who were the inspiration for Alone in Berlin.  Generally speaking, however, the main premise of the book isn’t well known and therefore makes interesting reading.  Edugyan, must have done significant research for this book and it has paid off, as it feels so real.

As you will have noticed from the extracts above, the book is written in Jazz vernacular.  Some of my bookclub friends were a bit worried about this ahead of reading the book, but we all agreed, it wasn’t too difficult to get to grips with.  We also recently read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  While discussing that book we talked about the tempo of the narrative echoing freestyle jazz (yes, really, we did!).  We had a very similar discussion about Half Blood Blues.  The book has periods of high energy and periods of lull and becomes a bit dense where nothing much happens.  One of my very clever bookclub friends pointed out that maybe the vernacular and the changes in tempo were deliberate, to mirror the mood of jazz music, which speeds up, then mellows, builds to a crescendo, lulls, has staccato and fluid moments side by side.  This comment inspired another friend to mention that there were at least 3 heart-breaking moments in the book (honestly, tear-inducing), and the narrative seems to build to these points, mirroring different movements in a piece of music.  Once this was all mentioned, I could see and understand it.  Oh, to be so clever!

We also discussed how unlikable the main character was, how reprehensible and unforgivable some of his behaviour was.  I was one of those who felt very little sympathy with this character during his younger years.  But I was made to re-think when someone pointed out that his behaviour was very characteristic of most young men.  Desperate to find their place in the group, yearning for influence, showing off in front of women and people in powerful positions, not supporting each other for fear of losing face or position in the group, constantly competing against each other and never discussing their hopes and fears.  This revelation went some way to explain the behaviour although not to excuse it.  We were by now completely staggered by Edugyan’s skill at writing so proficiently about male relationships.

Half Blood Blues is by no means a fully polished book.  There are details which we were all dissatisfied with, these included issues of historical and geographical accuracy and a weaker ending than we’d anticipated. We were however all impressed and agreed that Edugyan shows real promise as a writer.

One of our members rebelled against Half Blood Blues and instead read the Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  She spoke about it with such affection and admiration that a few of us have been persuaded to give it a go over the summer.  It is possible that we may soon lose this member of our bookgroup as she makes a life changing move to the Isle of Skye (although bookclub by Skype has been talked of!) and it will be sad to see her go.  I console myself with the knowledge that I bonded with her and my other bookclubbers initially over books but over the 8 years we have been meeting to discuss books, we have become more than just bookclub buddies.  I am proud to call these astute, knowledgeable and articulate women, my friends.

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On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I am a late-comer to On the Road by Jack Kerouac.  It is the kind of book that people read in their late teens/early twenties as a classic road trip book that should offer enlightenment as to the meaning of life, as a catalyst to leading a more fulfilled and meaningful existence.  I need to admit, had I read this book during that time of my life, I am pretty certain I would not have understood or appreciated it.

Having now read the book, I feel that to fully understand it and to appreciate the impact it made when published, it shouldn’t be read in isolation.  It is one of those rare books that requires a bit of extra reading around the edges.  You need to be prepared to do some research and background checking to get a feel for the historical context and the intellectual movement that Jack Kerouac and his contemporaries started.

Some time ago during a visit to San Francisco that included a road trip down Big Sur, highway 1, I became familiar with the term “Beat”.  I had heard it before, but never knew really what it meant.  The guidebooks were full of references to Beat Poets and the Beat Generation.  Jack Kerouac was the first in his group of intellectual friends to coin the phrase Beat Generation, incorporating themes such as being downtrodden, dead tired, beatific (in the religious sense of euphoria), or the beat of music especially improvised jazz.  It was a term intended to capture the feelings of a post-depression, post-war generation who felt disenfranchised and restless to find more meaning in life than the conformity and social acceptability of middle-class America.  The group was mainly made up of intellectuals; poets, writers and philosophers who congregated around Columbia University.

On the Road is a semi autobiographical story based on events that took place during the late 40s.  It chronicles the travels and adventures of Sal Paradise, a young writer (based on Jack Kerouac) and his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Jack’s friend Neal Cassidy).  Sal and Dean meet through a mutual friend when Dean decides he wants to learn to become a writer.  Sal soon falls under Dean’s charms and is intrigued by his craziness.  He calls Dean “the holy con-man”  which describes Dean’s character pretty accurately as he can rarely do wrong in Sal’s eyes and yet plays the trickster, serial womaniser and all round live-wire.  Sal realises early on that at some point Dean will let him down and disappoint him.   There is a real poignancy to this realisation.  I didn’t like Dean as a character.  He is unreliable, rude and behaves abysmally towards the women in his life and some of his male friends.  However, I felt incredible sympathy for him.  We hear about his background; Dean is constantly looking for his drunk father who was in and out of prison and abandoned him early on;  We hear of a cousin who issues Dean with paperwork formally cutting ties with his extended family;  We meet a childhood friend who looks at Dean with distrust and doesn’t want him to come back and visit again.   It’s all very sad and goes some way to explain his behaviour.  His whole life Dean was disappointed and let down by everyone around and yet Sal knows that eventually Dean will copy this behaviour.

When Dean travels back west after his visit to New York, Sal promises to visit him later in the year.  The first part of the book follows Sal on his solo journey across America and back again. He hitchhikes west, meeting vagrants and travellers en-route.  He meets up with his old friends and Dean in Denver before heading on the San Francisco, Bakersfield and, once Autumn draws in, back home to New York.    The rest of the book follows Sal and Dean on 3 further trips back and forth across America and south into Mexico.  On each journey they tell stories and discuss life, they are look for “it”, but never really know what “it” is, they just know that the road is straightforward, pure, uncomplicated and allows them to live in the present.  It seems that only when they are on the road can they put their disappointments behind them.  When commenting on some of the car-share kids travelling with them on one leg of a journey, Dean hits on the crux of their philosophy.  He rages about how they worry about their bourgeois, materialistic lives, they worry about things they have no influence over.  To him these worries are not just a waste of time, they are a betrayal of time.

Throughout their travels there are episodes where they meet up with old friends, visit jazz clubs, go to parties and each outing serves as a reminder of their chaotic, frenetic lives and the lives of their friends and contemporaries.  As Sal and Dean are based on real people, so are some of the other characters in the book.  The poet Allan Ginsberg makes an appearance as Carlo Marx and William Boroughs becomes Old Bull Lee.

On the Road is a book driven by its characters, so if you prefer plot driven stories, this may not be for you.  The first person narrative can also be somewhat off-putting as huge passages become a stream of consciousness unfolding of thoughts rather than structured paragraphs.   I didn’t love this book, but I do think it is a remarkable book in terms of its themes and principles.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a book written in the 60’s when hedonism and frivolity were commonplace.  I couldn’t think of its British equivalent – I think in those post-war years we were too shell-shocked to have produced something as progressive (but please prove me wrong!).  I’m very glad I’ve finally read it and feel more rewarded two weeks after finishing it and having let it sink in.