Friday 17 June 2016

Amis Gets a Glimpse of Things to Come

In an amusing piece on the pleasures and pains of public lecturing in America, Kingsley Amis recalls an occasion on which 'vanity rather than greed' induced him to appear in New York as one of a panel discussing the topic, 'Is There a Beat Generation?' His fellow panellists were New York Post editor James Wechsler, anthropologist Ashley Montagu and Jack Kerouac 'who as they say needs no introduction'. Kerouac, the other panellists were assured, was 'very nice, perfectly charming in fact, provided he was convinced that those present were on his side, felt sympathetic to him, in short liked him'.
 When Kerouac appeared, he greeted Amis, mystifyingly, with 'Hallo, my dear' and Montagu with 'I saw you on the Jack Paar show. You didn't have anything new to say.' Amis continues:
 'Having thus variously put the pair of us at our ease, he crossed to the back-stage piano without giving us the chance to tell him how much we liked him. Then, seating himself at the instrument, he began a version of the dear old Warsaw Concerto, but broke off every now and then to appear before the photographers. When he did this he weaved and bobbed rather as if about to start what we squares used to call jitterbugging...'
 Later, some way into what was meant to be a ten-minute stint, we find Kerouac 'talking about a swinging group of American boys intent on life, forecasting the appointment of a beat Secretary of State, and saluting Humphrey Bogart, Laurel and Hardy and Popeye as ancestral beats. Half an hour later or so, he said he would read his poem on Harpo Marx...' Later still, during Ashley Montagu's contribution, Kerouac, 'wearing Mr Wechsler's hat, began a somnambulistic pacing of the stage, occasionally breaking off to wave balletically to the photographers in the wings. He went on doing this while Mr Montagu's ironies flew above the beat sections of the audience.' And so it went on.
 This account was written in 1959. In 1970 Amis added a postscript, which concludes: 'I think I was a bit urbane in my description of the late Jack Kerouac's activities. This was complacent and unimaginative of me. I did not give him sufficient credit as a pioneer of the movement, now in full career, to reduce argument to animal bawling and culture to egoistic tomfoolery.' A movement that has only gained strength since Amis's time (anyone see Eddie Izzard on Question Time last week?).


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  2. Yes, I saw Izzard's ridiculous appearance and judged it to have done damage to the cause he supports. Amidst all his posturing there was an eloquent piece of mime though; this was when he held his clenched fists to his chest and said Brexit is like this and then (holding his arms out) Remain is like this, thus evoking the sheer meanness of the former. The 'Breaking Point' poster of his co-panellist, Nigel Farage, (of Syrian refugees entering Slovenia!) rather confirms this irrelevance and sheer nastiness. Excellent piece on Kerouac.

  3. Just this moment read this in Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' - '"You see, Aschenbach has always only lived like this (italics)" - and the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand tightly into a fist - "and never like this (italics)" and he let his open hand hang comfortably down along the back of the chair.'