Although he was born and raised in Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s family was French-Canadian, and he was proud of it.
Published in 1967, when Kerouac was at the height of his fame, Satori in Paris tells the story of a ten-day visit to Paris and Brittany in search of his ancestors.
On this hectic odyssey, fascinated by everything and everyone he met, from a faded French beauty in a Montparnasse gangster bar to one of his strange, foppish Breton namesakes, Kerouac experienced a feeling of transcendence, a satori, which was to the Beat generation the culmination of all experience.
Andrew Sarris reviewed Satori in Paris for the New York Times in 1967. Here is is blunt and accurate, in this blogger’s opinion, excerpt.
If the latest spiritual adventures of Jack Kerouac lack the ebullience of earlier explorations, it may be because he is hunting down a pedigree rather than an identity. (“As in an earlier autobiographical book I’ll use my real name hear, full name in this case, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, because this story is about my search for this name in France.”)
By his own admission, Kerouac was 43 years old when he braved Paris and Brittany. That’s a bit old for a Dharma Bum drunk on Dante’s Beatitude, a Rover Boy with a yen for Zen, a traveler of the fifties who managed to bypass Marx and Freud on the road across the American continent.
Kerouac can still write a blued streak, but his skyrocketing prose no longer illuminates the landscape. He now travels alone, out of his time and place, more like a Babbitt than a beatnik.
He now seems to revel in a calculating callousness, particularly in his country-club put-down of “a half dozen eager or worried future writers with their manuscripts all of whom gave me a positively dirty look when they heard my name as tho they were muttering to themselves Kerouac? I can write ten times better than that beatnik maniac and I’ll prove it with this here manuscript called Silence au Lips all about how Renard walks into the foyer lighting a cigarette and refuses to acknowledge the sad formless smile of the plotless Lesbian heroine whose father just died trying to rape an elk in the Battle of Cuckamonga, and Phillipe the intellectual enters in the next chapter lighting a cigarette with an existential leap across the blank page I leave next, all ending in a monologue encompassing etc., all this Kerouac can do is write stories, ugh'”–Ugh, indeed. No there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-and-Grove-go-I feeling in Kerouac’s credit-card sensibility.
At times, his aggressive religiosity resembles Cassius Clay’s: Methinks women love me and then they realize I’m drunk for all the world and this makes them realize I can’t concentrate on them alone, for long, makes them jealous, and I’m a fool in love With God. Yes.”
As for what a satori actually is, he explicates in quasi-religious terms: “Somewhere during my ten days in Paris (and Brittany) I received an illumination of some kind that seems to’ve changed me again, towards what I suppose’ll be my pattern for another seven years or more: in effect, a satori: the Japanese word for ‘sudden illumination,’ ‘sudden awakening’ or simply ‘kick in the eye.'”
Unfortunately, the illumination comes at the end of a shaggy dog story by a saloon Sartre who manages to get gushy over the straighforwardness of a Paris cab driver.
New York Times Book Review (sign-in may be required)