On the Road at the British Library

Kerouac’s 120-ft manuscript unraveled for new exhibition.

In 1951 Jack Kerouac cut and taped together sheets of architects’ tracing paper to create a typewriter scroll which measured 120 feet in length. Over the next three weeks, fuelled (so the story goes) by nothing but coffee, he wrote the novel for which he and his generation of artists and writers would be remembered: On the Road. He did so to avoid interruption, working with febrile intensity producing what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “spontaneous bop prosody” without having to load new paper after every page.

From now until 27 December, visitors to the British Library’s Folio Society Gallery will be able to admire the first 50 feet of Kerouac’s original scroll, lovingly laid out in a bespoke white case, sitting at the heart of a new exhibition of materials related to the so-called Beat Generation. First editions of titles such as William Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl are displayed alongside information panels and sound recordings: Kerouac reading from his book, poetry, jazz, and a recording of Neal Cassady, the model for On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, reading from Proust – donated to the library in 2007 by Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s former wife.

Jim Canary, a conservator from the Lilly Library at Indiana University and “keeper of the scroll”, has for the past ten years toured with the manuscript, unrolling it and ensuring its safety during trips to Rome, Dublin, Birmingham, Paris and across the US. The delicate scroll was bought by James Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts football team, in 2001 for 2.43 million dollars. “He had the idea of having it travel and sharing it with the world,” Canary said. “Many people thought when it was sold at auction to a private individual that it would never be seen again, but Jim was so much the opposite. He likes to make things happen and so putting it out there has created a whole buzz of energy.”

Part of that energy either produced or was produced by the upcoming Walter Salles film adaptation of the book, released in UK cinemas next week. The film features Twilight and Friday Night Lights stars Kristen Stuart and Garrett Hedlund. I asked Canary what he thought the book might mean for a new generation of readers. “There’s never an end to that personal quest: the road, the path. It’s always there. It was a road of discovery for them – pushing limits and seeing what’s out there. That’s why I think it resonates, because that’s universal. We all think like that.”

While admiring the exhibition, musician David Amram appeared with a tote bag full of tiny drums, pointed to a large photograph of the foremost Beats laughing and smoking in a US diner, and said: “That’s me.” At the back of the photograph an unnamed figure is shovelling a spoonful of dessert into his open maw. “I had no table manners,” Amram laughed. “That’s amazing,” inserted Matthew Shaw, curator of the new exhibit. “We need to change the caption, there’s still space.”

Amram thanked the library for hosting the scroll. “Jack always wanted to be considered as being beyond the culture, as an artist and writer,” he said. “Now it’s finally happening, and it’s beautiful.” Over the next two weeks the library will host a reading by poet Amiri Baraka (7th), a preview of the Walter Salles’ film (10th) and a talk by Beat scholar Howard Cunnell (12th) on the topic “1951: The Great Year of My Enlightenment”. Entry to the exhibition is free.

"Keeper of the Scroll" Jim Canary in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era