On The Road: Kerouac’s Grand Slam and The Missing Man

Hello. I am sorry it’s been so long. Nothing drains you quite like A-Levels. I finally got around to reading On The Road (The Original Scroll) last night, and this was the product of it. All names of the writers were kept as I did not read the modified version. 

In the three hundred page or so span that is Jack Kerouac’s magnitudinous novel On The Road, Lucien Carr is mentioned only four times. His name is cited briefly, dispersed amongst others, and for those readers without knowledge of the Columbia clique, it will have no significance. Those who are aware of the formation of the Beat Generation – those East Coast literary rebels that rose to prominence in 1950s Manhattan, the group of drug fuelled artists driven mad by their desperation to break the mould – will notice the way Lucien’s name juts out from the prose. The way in which Kerouac writes about him is surprising: either due to his brevity or the fact that the name is mentioned at all.

On The Road was written in three weeks by Kerouac as he recounts the way he and his friends travelled across America – from East to West, circling backwards to Denver and New York. It is a celebration of freedom, American youth, and of his friendship with fellow Beat author Neal Cassidy – “it was remarkable how Neal could go mad and then suddenly the next day just calmly and sanely continue with his soul – which I think is wrapped in a fast car, with a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road.” Kerouac finds himself in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg, and thinking of William S Burroughs in Texas when he realises that he has found ‘the perfect bar.’ On The Road, along with Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, has been revered as a pillar of non-conformity, sexual deviation and brutal honesty. Aside from the first edition of Howl, Lucien Carr’s name is mysteriously absent from the works of the Beat authors. In Kerouac’s novel, he is first mentioned when discussing a previous event – “I took a straight picture that made me look, as Lucien said, like a 30 year old Italian who’d kill anybody who said anything against his Mother.” Unlike the others, Lucien is not introduced, and he is not included in Kerouac’s raw portrayal of America. We are informed that he is from Missouri, and he is later to be found on a boat with the Beat group, but there is no interaction: “he came to see other people. He didn’t know we were there.” In a work that often feels like a love letter to the American landscape, Lucien Carr feels in absentia from the “long raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the west coast.” His startling absence from the pages of On The Road would only puzzle those who are aware that it was this Delphic delinquent who was the kernel of the Beat Generation, that it was Lucien Carr who was responsible for pulling lost Columbia undergraduates into his world of narcotics and turbulence, that he led the writers of the 1950s into the underworld of Times Square and the streets of Greenwich Village that would both corrupt and inspire them.

It was Kerouac who introduced the name of “Beat Generation” to the group, a name first conceived by Herbert Huncke, and later discussed with John Clellon Holmes. Kerouac altered the connotations from the meaning of the underworld, and the group’s ongoing battle with non-conformity, to a phrase which was associated with being upbeat, and more musically ‘on the beat, which showed contemporary significance. The pages of On The Road are filled with financial and romantic instability; friendships and romances break on the road, divorces occur – Kerouac has a liason with a six foot ginger named Bea who is married – but happiness flows through the book, the feeling of disconnection from troubles left in New York. It is as if Kerouac’s 1949 work captures the Beats at their finest: Ginsberg falling in love and composing Howl, a hotbed of ideas, laughing and drinking and a plethora of women. Whilst the Beat generation threatened to flicker out at the close of Lucien’s committal of homicide, On The Road proves that the flame is still burning – albeit without the man that pulled them all together.

It was Lucien Carr, the ‘fallen angel of Beat mythology’, who introduced Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Hal Chase and later Kerouac, through his then girlfriend Edie Parker. Columbia University served as a backdrop for one of the most defiant literary movements in History – with Lucien and Allen attending as English students and Jack Kerouac on a sports scholarship. Fascinated by Arthur Rimbaud, Carr sought to break the literary mould in the way of Joyce, Woolf and Beckett, and this was the force that pulled the group together. David Kammerer, a lifelong friend of William Burroughs, had been Lucien’s mentor since he was young, and had become madly infatuated with his androgynous beauty. Kammerer followed Carr across the states, ending up in New York whilst he attended Columbia. It is thought that David was madly in love with Lucien; a determined infatuation that far outweighed anything Ginsberg may have felt. Although Lucien had a girlfriend at the time, Celine, and had no sexual interest in David, the latter made death threats and maintained his obsessive behaviour even in the face of rejection. Breaking point was reached on the evening of August 13, 1944. David pushed Lucien too hard, causing him to stab his admirer with a boy scout knife. After pushing Kammerer’s body into the Hudson, a terrified Lucien Carr went to Burroughs for help, who gave him some money and advised him to confess. Dissatisfied, Lucien Carr went to Jack Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the glasses and the knife. Kerouac would later address the turn of events in The Town and The City and Vanity of Duluoz. It was this event that almost caused the Beat Generation to crumble, and sent Carr on his quest for normalcy. Without the murder, Lucien Carr may not have slipped through the net of the Beat Generation; his name could be as recognisable as Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s. Was this murder the reason that Lucien’s name is so absent from the 125,000 word scroll of On The Road? When Ginsberg wrote in Howl that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” he was almost certainly talking about the corruption of Lucien Carr, and the homicide that drove him to seek reclusion. Was the murder the reason why Lucien Carr never produced a body of work? Or was he an inspirer rather than a writer?

Carr was no longer in the Beat group by the time that Neal Cassidy was introduced in 1947. He was instead serving two years for second degree murder. Cassidy’s effect on the Beats cannot be disputed; he became Allen Ginsberg’s mentor after a brief affair which Kerouac addresses in On The Road: “Now there’s something started but I don’t want anything to do with it.” He had a profound effect on Kerouac himself, as it is Neal who features most prominently in the book, often painted with admiration as a free-spirited bisexual who always seemed to find himself on the road. Their friendship is not a stable one: Kerouac lusts after Cassidy’s first wife and has an affair with his second, but in a book which follows the temporary lifestyle of moving from state to state, the friendship between the two is a mark of permanence. Written in just three weeks with a madness fuelled by Benzedrine and coffee, On The Road forms a tribute to the car-stealing criminal that was Neal Cassidy. It celebrates losing yourself on the road and then finding yourself several times over; low budget roadtrips with no knowledge of future plans. On The Road is a novel that has meant something to every generation; it is a cornerstone of American literature that marks the transition between, as Kerouac writes “the East of my youth and the West of my future.” Never has the book meant more to a generation than the generation of the Beats, those who understood the thrill of the jazz music, the Levis, the narcotic experimentation, and the haunting call of the open road to leave everything behind and to live purely in the moment. This was what Neal Cassidy had taught Kerouac: that life is to be enjoyed, that people are temporary and that commitment is a wasted experience. On The Road is rushed, badly punctuated and written in a drug filled haze, but it brings with it an adolescent whirlwind, a testament to friendship and the fact that “nobody knows what is going to happen to anybody beside the forlorn rags of growing old.” The novel ends with a growing betrayal, a lingering promise that is broken by Kerouac as he marries and conforms to social convention. Neal Cassidy returns to the road, and the reader is left feeling that On The Road, although written by Kerouac, was never as truly about him as it was about Cassidy.

It becomes obvious that Neal Cassidy redefined the term ‘beat’ for Kerouac, for Ginsberg, and for the generation that grew around them. He was a free spirit, someone who was willing to go as far as it took to unravel convention and fulfill the vision that bound the Beats so closely together. “[Both] Jack and Allen were blown away by him” elaborated his second wife, Carolyn Cassidy. “His restless energy, his love of life, the way he talked, the way he lived purely for the moment.” On The Road appears to be a dedication to Neal above anything else, and this is reflected in Kerouac’s final paragraph. “I think of Neal Cassidy, I even think of old Neal Cassidy the Father we never found, I think of Neal Cassidy, I think of Neal Cassidy.” Neal Cassidy embodied the Beat philosophy; he altered Kerouac’s perspective and without him, it is unlikely that On The Road would ever have been written. However, amidst the stream of text, those who have come to understand the formation of the Beats will recognise the missing man: Lucien Carr, without whom the Beats would never have been formed, the man whose act of homicide redefined the group and what they stood for. When I think of the Beat Generation, and of 1950s America, I think of Lucien Carr. I even think of Lucien Carr, the father that he inevitably became, and the writer that he never was. I think of Lucien Carr.


Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 masterpiece is like a narcotic: the immediate effect lasts for a little under two hours, but it lingers in the bloodstream and you’re left thinking about it for an indeterminable stretch of time afterwards. Insomnia, loneliness, and vengeful insanity are captured so painfully realistically that the viewer wishes to look away, wishes to wrench themselves away from the pitiful life of Travis Bickle, but finds it impossible to do so. Yet upon reflection, having been submerged into the misty streets of New York City, having witnessed violence, prostitution and a tragedy occurring at the hands of our torturous protagonist – we are left asking, what is Taxi Driver? 

The majority of the film’s mystery comes from the content not included; the words not said. Our view of the city is warped, because Taxi Driver is a deeply personal film, it is one with a lens focused on the soul of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the lonely insomniac, Travis Bickle. This is not a film about New York, it is a film about Travis Bickle’s perception of New York. We see the lonely streets and the dimmed lights, we witness the camera panning through empty corridors, and we are only introduced to other characters through their interaction with Travis. Even the weather is chosen to specifically reflect Travis’ feelings towards the life he leads – someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. Taxi Driver is a microscopic observation, a window into the life of just another lonely soul. 

Who is Travis Bickle? The way that the plot – like the mist rising from the city streets – wraps its way around him, conceals sections, barring the audience from full knowledge. We know him as an ex-US marine, an insomniac, a taxi driver. We know he watches pornographic films during the daytime, and that he goes to Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Travis alters during the course of Taxi Driver; his subdued, relentless dissatisfaction becomes active rather than passive, and everything – including his unfortunate attempt at romancing Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) is a catalyst for revenge. After a twelve year old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) finds her way into his cab, a dollar bill given to quieten him about the incident by Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), haunts Travis.

As an audience, we realise a little late that the plot has changed course. Travis purchases some guns and tapes them to his legs and arms. This follows on from a rejection he received from Betsy; a campaigner for Charles Palentine, after being successful in taking her for coffee – I had black coffee and a slice of apple pie with a side of melted cheese. It was a good choice. Betsy had a coffee and a fruit salad. She could’ve had anything she wanted – Travis then took her to see an adult movie, and she walked out during the film, visibly horrified. After she has rejected him, the camera pans down an empty hallway, and Martin Scorsese is known to have said that this was the most important shot in the film. When questioned, the director revealed that it was designed to show that we, as the voyeurs, can’t bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. This is in contrast to the well-utilised “bullet shots” that show the later violence in excruciating slow motion. 

What we are essentially watching, although most do not realise it at the time, is a preparation for assassination. Travis goes through various muscle training exercises; he practises pointing the gun and pulling it out from underneath his sleeve. He even watches television with the gun aimed at the screen. He does this silently, and nobody outside his isolated existence is even aware of his plans. When Charles Palentine, the man who is a Presidential Candidate, and whom Betsy spends her working hours supporting, hails Travis’ cab, Travis sees through everything Charles presents himself as to the public. This film is as ardently political as it is biographical; there is an undercurrent of change bubbling beneath the city surface – and it dawns upon the viewer that Travis intends to kill Palentine. Why? It is never explained. Taxi Driver has more to say through unexplored content than what actually plays out on the screen. Was it because he knew that this man, this unknown man, held more of Betsy’s affection than Travis ever would? Or was it because he saw what needed to change, and believed that this man wouldn’t resolve anything? 

Killers are often dehumanised in films. They are dismissed as motiveless; teetering on the edge of insanity. Travis, throughout the entirety of Taxi Driver, is so unequivocally human that we almost struggle to understand the concept that he is intending to shoot someone, that in a later scene, he will be a murderer. It is his traits and his demeanour that cause him to be perceived as such; he is an insomniac, he was in Vietnam, he eats apple pie and writes Anniversary cards to his parents – one day, there will be a knock on your door, and it’s gonna be me. One shot shows Travis sitting watching television, with the gun pointed at the screen as usual, with Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky playing in the background – the anthem of loneliness, the album that represented the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Awake again, I can’t pretend, Jackson sings, whilst Travis points his gun at a couple dancing on the television, and I know I’m alone, and close to the end, of this feeling I’ve known. Wordlessly, Martin Scorsese conveys the loneliness of Travis Bickle, and for the first time, he appears to be pathetic. For the first time, he seems genuinely breakable. 

Travis has, for the film’s duration, become obsessed with the thieves, crooks, pimps and prostitutes that frequent his late night taxi journeys. It is Iris that grabs his attention most fiercely, as reflected when he later finds the crumpled dollar bill given to him by Harvey Keitel. He visits the brothel, paying for time to be with Iris, to try and convince her to stop the prostitution. To his surprise, she rebuffs him and doesn’t wish to be rescued. Well, Iris, I look at it this way – Travis tells her. A lot of girls come into my cab, some of them very beautiful. And I figure all day long men have been after them: trying to touch them, talk to them, ask them out.  And they hate it. So I figure the best I can do for them is not to bother them at all.  So I don’t say a thing.  I pretend I’m not even there.  I figure they’ll understand that and appreciate me for it. Iris tells him that she understands the options given to her in life, and her work as a prostitute. Her calm acceptance is not enough for Travis. Why is it that he wants to rescue Iris? Why is he so invested in something that is none of his business? Perhaps it is because, as an ex Marine, Travis knows what it’s like to be scarred by a youthful pastime. Or perhaps it is more to do with the film’s underlying theme of change, and Travis’ overwhelming desire for it. 

Taxi Driver follows Travis Bickle through his starting appearance, sunglasses and slicked back hair, and finally, a mohawk. Caught before he can assassinate Charles Palentine by heavy security, Travis escapes to the brothel. There, the film reaches its peak. This is the event that, however unknowingly, Travis’ life has been leading up to. This is what has taken an unmentioned amount of planning. Travis first shoots Sport in the stomach. The camera moves painfully slowly, using the aforementioned bullet shots to allow the viewer to see the violence clearly. From the floor, the dying Sport shoots Travis once in the neck, which isn’t enough to wind him, but does cause him to press his fingers over the wound in pain. Iris’ client, a mobster appears and shoots Travis more severely, this time in the arm, but he reveals his sleeve gun and kills the mobster. The bouncer harasses Travis, leading them into Iris’ room. Travis kills the bouncer by shooting him in the head, whilst the camera pans around the brothel, showing the blood splattered walls and floor. Iris cries hysterically, and Travis points the gun to his own head before the police arrive, only to discover that he is out of ammunition. 

While recuperating, the camera shows a letter hanging from the wall of Travis’ flat. It is a letter from Iris’ parents, thanking him for rescuing her. Next to it hang newspaper clippings that hail Travis as a local hero. Travis has finally caused some of the change he so longed for. 

The final scene – because the final scene was never going to be a pile of blood and dead bodies, Taxi Driver could never have ended in a homicide, shows Betsy getting into Travis’ taxi. She tries to talk about his fame with him, but he denies being a hero and drops her off free of charge. The homicide – the planning of which supposedly cured Travis of his need to be with Betsy – may have worn off as the last shot sees Travis glancing back at her through his rearview mirror. 

Taxi Driver is about the deeds not done and the words not spoken. At its most basic level, it is a film about an insomniac taxi driver who has lost all faith in everything, from family life to politicians. At its best, it is the tale of desperation: of a battle with loneliness and wanting to fix the lives of those in the city, of those who are surrounded by the scum our protagonist is fascinated by. This film does insomnia, loneliness and rejection better than anyone. It makes murder a complexity, and doesn’t just dismiss the murderer as a psychopath, but someone who is intently focused on; someone who has not emerged unscathed from war but understands what must be done to change how things are. 

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese were one of the most powerful Director/Actor combinations to ever darken Hollywood’s door, and Taxi Driver, along with Mean Streets, cemented their lifelong friendship. De Niro, who worked twelve hour shifts driving taxis to prepare for the role, is fantastic. He is sparing, showing flickers of emotion as the camera passes over his face, but never revealing everything. We leave the film knowing nothing about Travis’ past, and are better for it. Harvey Keitel effortlessly conveys false bravado and a slimy, unrepentant nature as Sport. Peter Boyle is quick witted and altogether likeable as Wizard – I’m no Bertrand Russell, I’m just a cabbie. Bernard Herrmann wrote the wonderful jazz score which trickles through the film, and it suits the dimming lights and wet city streets incredibly well. But it is Scorsese and Schrader who must be applauded most of all; Scorsese for his camera shots that speak more than the characters themselves, and Schrader for bringing his loneliness and dissatisfaction together so eloquently in a near-perfect screenplay. 

I likened Taxi Driver to a narcotic, because it comes in at one hour and fifty three minutes, and you’ll never quite shed the feeling it leaves you with until you watch it again. You’ll also never quite understand it: was the final scene a dream sequence? Had Travis already killed himself in the brothel? How much of it was in his own imagination? – but it’ll live with you, as it’s a film that stays in the bloodstream. 


The Hunchback Of Notre Dame: Victor Hugo’s Love Letter To Medieval Paris

Novels, if written properly, exist to cause the reader to either love or hate a time, person or place. Joyce’s Ulysses leaves those who are brave enough to finish the journey longing to visit Dublin; to be a part of the cobbled streets, the small highstreet shops and the bustling, fresh atmosphere which correlates with the Irish way of life. Who can say that they have read Fitzgerald’s illustrious classic, The Great Gatsby, and never once longed to see Long Island in the 1920s, to explore it with Nick Carraway’s ocular perspective? Martin Amis collects the dregs of the Manhattan underworld in Money, shaking the city’s brittle reputation; Philip Larkin relives his mortifying experiences as a undergraduate at Oxford in the subtly autobiographical Jill, and Emily Bronte caused the expanse of the Yorkshire Moors to become a literary minefield, visited by those in fear (and perhaps hope) that an unsettled spirit may press her hand against their window. Many novelists have taken their readers, lackadaisically, into constructed worlds of capital cities. If there is one book that shall remain a pillar of medieval Paris, that is a martyr to the city’s architecture and way of life in the ancient world, it is Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, translated, rather unusually, as The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. 

The Anglicised title is unusual for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the direct translation from French (and certainly the most accurate) is Notre Dame of Paris. The great structure of Notre Dame remains a stony, unchallenged metaphor in this slowly-unfurled tragedy of change and discovery. Secondly, Quasimodo, although often mistaken as such, is not the novel’s central character, but one of a select few. His story is explored at length alongside those of La Esmerelda, the sixteen year old gypsy, Claude Frollo, a scholar who took pity on Quasimodo when he was abandoned as an infant, and Pierre Gringoire, a playwright, who is married (albeit unconventionally) to Esmerelda. These characters have their own lives to live, and each run blackly through the pages, alongside each other in parallel streaks. 

The novel opens in 1482, with the joint celebration of The Feast Of Fools and Twelfth Night. The Feast Of Fools, designed inexplicably for the people of Paris to laugh at the deformed, disabled and unfortunate citizens, sees the deaf, one eyed, hunchbacked Quasimodo, named after the weekend that follows Easter Sunday, being paraded through the streets like an animal. I have explained previously that tragic novels offer their readers a different kind of sadness – and Notre Dame delivers an unexpected blow, with sharp stabs of pain being offered amidst jocular sentences. There is a scene whereupon Quasimodo is being openly mocked, and as he is deaf, and unable to lip read under such extenuating circumstances, does not understand. He responds to the remarks by telling them his name, and is immediately shouted down by those who brand him as ‘scum.’ Perhaps the most devastating part for the reader is Quasimodo’s calm acceptance that he is hideous, an outcast, and too disgusting to be spared a glance. His cool comprehension of this is delivered, by Hugo, in eloquent paragraphs. The author makes no apology for the tragedy unfolding before him, for that is what Notre Dame is, a tragedy. For those that come to Notre Dame expecting instant gratification and a rewarding, mutually agreed, love story – select Wuthering Heights instead. Or Pride and Prejudice, if you wish for something less tumultuous and have a penchant for double weddings. It is a slow burning novel with an ending that shall make your unknowing soul plummet, filled with malevolent characters that have been previously damaged. 

There is only one love story contained within the pages of this novel, and that is the one that exists between Victor Hugo and medieval Paris. The narrative is consciously put on hold for a few chapters at a time so that Hugo can indulge himself by lamenting about a time once had, and now lost forever. The novel opens with the best description of the Notre Dame that literature has to offer: 

Above our heads, a double Gothic vault, with carved wood panelling painted sky blue with gold fleur de lys; beneath our feet, a pavement of alternate black and white marble. A few yards away, an enormous pillar, then another, and another; in all, seven pillars along the length of the hall, supporting the springings of the double vault at its mid-point. Around the first four pillars, the stalls of tradesmen, sparkling with glass and tinsel; around the last three, oak benches, worn and polished by the hose of litigants and attorneys. 

The love between Hugo and the city of Paris is, like most feelings in the novel, wholly one sided. La Esmerelda, the aforementioned gypsy of Notre Dame, finds herself in the unfortunate state of being loved by three men, and loving a fourth who cares nothing for her. The first is her husband, the playwright Pierre Gringoire, who has never touched her and cares more about his own interests than paying attention to his wife. The second is Claude Frollo, Quasimodo’s paternal figure, who used to be relatively sane before power corrupted his morals. The third is the only one that is known outside the novel, and outside the films, referenced regularly as a great Parisian romance by those who have misunderstood the essence of the story – the tender love of Quasimodo, which although never reciprocated, is the only love that matters. 

Allow me to explain this further. The idea for Notre Dame was conceived when Victor Hugo was exploring the great Cathedral alone, and found the word ANANKE, which is Greek for fatality, etched into the wall. This left Hugo to ponder what sort of twisted, unfortunate creature would scrawl this word in such a hidden place, and eventually, curiosity got the better of him; thus, the novel was written. The subject is first broached on page 276: 

The student looked resolutely up. ‘Brother, would you like me to explain in simple French that Greek word written on the wall there?”

‘Which word?’


A faint blush spread over the archdeacon’s yellow cheekbones, like the puff of smoke which is the outward sign of the secret connotations of a volcano. The student hardly noticed it. 

‘Well, Jehan’ stammered the older brother with effort, ‘What does that word mean?’


It must be noted that Quasimodo and Esmerelda’s fates are intertwined. The two were swapped at birth, with Esmerelda being taken by her loving, unmarried Mother by gypsies, and replaced with a deformed child – Quasimodo. Esmerelda’s mother was so horrified by this that she rejected the infant, and he was brought up by Claude Frollo, a priest at Notre-Dame, and had dutifully been the bell-ringer ever since. Fate aligns the two, so it seems that Hugo may decide to unite them. But alas, Notre Dame is a tragedy, and tragedies do not end with mutual happiness. Esmerelda, for her part, has hopeless, childish devotion to a man who shall never care about her: the Captain of the King’s Archers, Phoebus. Phoebus is engaged to be married and has no interest in the gypsy girl. Claude Frollo, overcome with jealousy due to his psycho-erotic obsession with Esmerelda, stabs Phoebus, but Esmerelda is blamed for it. Her execution is ordered, as she believes in and admits to having used forms of witchery and sorcery in the past. She is fated to die, but the characters in the novel have not yet learned that fate cannot be avoided, and so Quasimodo rescues her just before she is due to be executed. 

This is the section of the novel that the film makers dote on. They ignore the tortured feelings of Gringoire and Frollo, disowning the troublesome Phoebus. The focus, particularly in the Disney version, is between the friendship between Esmerelda and Quasimodo, which never truly occurs. Esmerelda is a teenage girl. She is frightened and repulsed by Quasimodo’s ugliness, and is too youthful and naive to overlook such things to see that he truly loves her. The hunchback, for his part, does not wish to be looked at. It makes him deeply uncomfortable. The two have minimal interaction; Quasimodo cares for Esmerelda, right up until he inevitably leaves her unguarded, and she is (also inevitably) executed. Fate has intervened, as the reader, loathe as we are to admit it, always knew she would. Who is in Esmerelda’s heart when she dies? We shall never know. It is probable she still harboured ridiculous feelings for Phoebus, but may have felt gratitude towards Quasimodo. This is not Esmerelda’s story. 

The final paragraph leaves you feeling something slightly short of disappointment. You believed, against the inevitable, that love would outdraw fate. Yet it’s also a beautiful passage, and you find yourself sighing softly as you close the book, reflecting on the memory even though you’ve barely finished. 

One of the two skeletons was that of a woman and still wore a few shreds of a robe of what must have been white material, while round its neck could be seen a necklace of margosa seeds, together with a little silk sachet, decorated with green glass beads, which lay open and empty. These objects were of such small value that the executioner had doubtless not wanted them. The second skeleton, which had enfolded the first in a tight embrace, was that of a man. They noticed that its spinal column was curved, that its head was between the shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. But the vertebrae of the neck showed no fracture, and it had obviously not been hanged. The man to whom it belonged must therefore have come there and have died there. When they tried to release him from the skeleton he was embracing, he crumbled into dust. 

Why did Quasimodo go and die alongside Esmerelda? The scene, although appearing to draw inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, draws no parallels. Their love was no desperate, or reckless, or even reciprocated. There is no doubt he found life unsatisfactory, having never been loved; mostly feared. Nietzsche’s theory on love is plausible: that compassion helps humans to exercise the nicest part of their psyche, and is something altogether necessary. The admiration of Esmerelda that he felt was the closest Quasimodo had come to love, and without her, he crumbled, like his skeleton, into dust. 

I have stated that Notre Dame is not Esmerelda’s story. Nor is it Quasimodo’s, or Claude Frollo’s, or his brother Jehan’s, or Pierre Gringoire’s.This is fate’s story. Victor Hugo was violently in fate’s grip since he saw that word on the wall, as if it were waiting there for him. It is also Paris’ story; the cathedral’s, the medieval way of life’s, to be forever immortalised in his novel. 

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, or the more accurately titled Notre Dame Of Paris, is a book that has a long lasting impact, not just on the masses, but on the individual. Perhaps when next visiting the cathedral itself, you’ll crane your neck in search of a small, crooked man, desperately ringing the bells at the top of the tower.

Rust And Stardust: Nabokov’s Lolita

What makes somebody want to tackle such a classic as Lolita? A stoic novel that unwittingly explores the darker, more abrasive side of humanity, whilst unwaveringly remaining a pillar of literature, despite all of the critical analysis and commentary proceeding it? This is a question that I should be able to answer, having recently read both Ulysses and Jude. My decision to read this great novel was based on a quote I came across: and the rest is rust and stardust. The line rounds off one of the many verses that flows through the book.

Lolita is one of the saddest novels I have ever read. It doesn’t come with a stigma of melancholy in the way that any Hardy masterpiece does; rather it creeps upon the reader slowly. When the book begins, the heroine has already died in childbirth. Humbert himself becomes deceased shortly after he finishes the manuscript, and many other deaths follow suit throughout the novel.

The story unfolds with a death – the death of Humbert Humbert’s childhood sweetheart Annabel, who succumbed to typhus. In a chilling passage where Humbert explains his attraction to what he calls ‘nymphets’ – otherwise known as underage girls (there must be an age gap of at least ten years between he and his lover), he partly excuses himself by blaming the web of young love and death that his past self was tangled in. Other deaths follow – almost like a deck of cards toppling down one after the other: first, Humbert’s wife Valeria, in childbirth, then his second wife, Charlotte, from a ‘bad accident’, which appears to have been intentional, then Lolita’s old seducer and rival of Humbert dies, from murder. From the outset, Lolita could be considered an obituary, as everyone, including Humbert himself, from coronary thrombosis, is dead on arrival.

Yet what Martin Amis dubbed ‘Nabokov’s Grand Slam’ is much more than this. Even those that have not read the novel know it to be a story of twisted paedophilia – it is one of the most talked about books in History. And yet, for those who have read it, as previously mentioned, Lolita is not only sick in its entirety, but dreadfully sad. The narcissistic, psychologically damaged Humbert is caught in the web of a disease. For that is what we all suspect paedophilia to be: a disease, because who would choose to be that way? As a lodger in the Haze household, Humbert first casts an eye upon Lolita, and comes to accept gradually, as the reader reaches the sickening dawn of realisation, that it is incumbent to him that he must be with her sexually, and that he will do whatever it takes to be in that position. This involves marrying Lolita’s Mother, Charlotte Haze, who must know that he has no interest in her, but pushes for the wedding anyway. She soon discovers Humbert’s writings about her daughter – for he is a linguist and author combined – and realises whom she has married, and what a dangerous position her daughter is in. This is a particularly gut wrenching passage, and like many others in the novel, you will want to look away, as if it were a film with an unpleasant scene, but you can’t. Nabokov reminds us how paedophilia can affect others, but also leaves the reader wondering. How does Lolita cope with the loss of innocence thrust upon her at the age of twelve? Does it usurp her psychological state? She seems coolly aware of Humbert’s intentions towards her, and although young, she is from the outset unwilling to indulge him. In any case, this is not her story. It is his.

There are parallels drawn to the feeling of a Father when his daughter first finds love, but as Nabokov will have been aware, something feels so desperately wrong about casting Humbert in a paternal role. The Freudian despair he feels as he sees Lolita with people that he considers his rivals is painful for the reader, because despite coming to loathe Humbert for all he has done, he is still the lonely protagonist who cannot become the master of his own fate, or escape the clutches of his desires. When Lolita finally settles down with a boy her age and becomes pregnant, Humbert declares himself free of his desires after all, and embarks on an affair with a woman his own age named Rita. Is it ever that easy to escape being a paedophile? Can rejection prevent it? We will never know, in Humbert’s case, because he finishes the manuscript as Nabokov finishes the tale.

Lolita, in the end, is a tragedy. It becomes a tragedy for everyone: for lonely Humbert, who dies of coronary thrombosis after finishing the manuscript; for Lolita, who dies in childbirth; for Charlotte and Valeria, for Lolita’s suitors and Charlotte’s friend, who dies of cancer. Some may argue, through all that he has done, such as murder, and attempting to seduce a twelve year old girl, that death was too good for Humbert. But Nabokov never sought to punish his creation, just to display to everyone his torturous existence.

Why do we all come and read this novel, although it disgusts us, time and time again? The feeling will never vanish. We will never cease to be sickened by the prose. It is because of the writing, Nabokov’s wonderful elegance, comparable to none. If I could describe it, I would use the author’s own quote: it is like rust and stardust. The rust is found in the elements where you wish to look away because the words burn too strongly. The stardust is everywhere else: threaded through every sentence and chapter.


The Start Of Non Fiction: In Cold Blood

Prior to In Cold Blood, my limited experience of Truman Capote had consisted of Summer Crossing, an unfinished novella that he had wanted to remain unpublished, and a segment written by Martin Amis from The Moronic Inferno. In some ways, this was the best way to tackle Capote’s magnum opus, by having as little knowledge of the author as possible. 

As every literate being is aware, In Cold Blood is the tale of the 1959 homicide of the Clutter family, carried out by Perry Smith and Dick Hicklock. It was not a conventional murder, and perhaps this is the reason that it caught Capote’s eye, and sent him travelling to Kansas with Harper Lee to discover more about the killing. The murderers, who actually begin the story as robbers, heard that the Clutter household contained thousands of pounds. Upon finding nothing of the sort, and waking the entire household, Perry Smith murdered them all. This passage is brutal, but succinct, and Perry’s words as they walk out the door are chilling: “I thought [Herbert Clutter] was a very nice man, right up until I shot him in the back of the head.” 

In Cold Blood is not a novel. It stopped being so as soon as Truman Capote took an interest in the murder and wished to document it. It crossed the line from fiction to non-fiction, and thus became the first actual non-fiction book, a martyr to its genre. Some have described it as a ‘forensic happening’, and this is exactly what it is. In Cold Blood recounts the journey of Smith and Hicklock as they go on the run to avoid being caught; navigates them through the psychology of their own strange relationship, and follows them to Death Row, where they are finally hung. The only thing that detracts from the book’s investigatory nature is Capote’s bias towards Perry Smith over Dick Hicklock. He also seems to empathise with the murderers, almost becoming melancholy when the twosome are eventually hung. 

Nothing about In Cold Blood is conventional. It stemmed from Capote’s curiosity about a homicide and ended with a camaraderie with the offenders. Yet, if you want to trace non-fiction back to its source, or even get a better understanding of the author himself, there is no better book to read.

Fluorescent Adolescent: A Review Of Boyhood

In the age of ostentatious Hollywood blockbusters, it’s rare to see the release of a small budget film that celebrates the mundane. Yet Richard Linklater’s observational masterpiece, Boyhood, does exactly that. The film itself is a wildcard, having been made over the span of twelve years, permitting the audience to watch Mason Jr (portrayed by Ellar Coltrane), age before their very eyes. 

Coming in at just under three hours, Boyhood could easily have been a boring biopic with too much unnecessary footage. Due to the unconventional method of filming (the cast would meet for one week every year, and shoot for four or five days) and the bond between Linklater and Coltrane, there were very few inessential moments. 

The film opens with Coldplay’s Yellow, whilst Patricia Arquette, who plays the Mother in the narrative, collects Mason from school. We learn that she has just been in a meeting with Mason’s teacher, and that he tried to break her pencil sharpener by filling it with rocks. Mason, far from a vacant child, with an ethereal adult presence about him, defends himself by saying that he needed some sharper rocks for his collection. 

Other details become apparent very quickly. Arquette is a single mother to two children, Mason and Samatha (as played by Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter). Their father (Ethan Hawke) is flyaway, having moved to Alaska to escape being tied down by parenthood. It is never stated why the marriage fell apart, but it becomes obvious that Mason Snr’s commitment issues played a heavy part. The juxtaposition of the biological parents is a fascinating presence in itself, as their Mum, who is responsible and represents the stability in the children’s lives, makes rather poor romantic choices. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t give the details away. It does involve moving around far more than necessary, and a constant worry for the audience that the children will become fatigued by it all, or that they’ll invariably come away in a messed up psychological state, or as incomplete humans. But they never do. Part of this has to do with Mason Snr, who becomes a far more stable and responsible Father as the film goes on. Although not always present, the fun-loving weekend Dad cares for Mason and Sam an awful lot, and the discussion he has with Mason about there being real magic in the world is undoubtedly one of the best scenes of Boyhood. 

The film, essentially, is a ‘coming of age’ tale. It sees Mason through six to eighteen, through personality development, extra curricular interests, through multiple haircuts and experiences, such as drinking, smoking, having a girlfriend, and suffering a break up for the first time. It sees Samantha from eight to twenty, from the little girl tormenting her brother with a particularly torturous rendition of Oops, I Did It Again, into a twenty year old woman who attends college. It isn’t just the children that are coming of age, though, this film follows the parents through their own tumultuous curves. Olivia (as played by Arquette) is taken through night-school, bad relationships and the final realisation that she would have been all right as a stand alone parent all along. There is a moving scene near the end where she breaks down, crying because she believes her life purpose is over now Mason is moving out and attending college, and that the only milestone that she has left is her funeral. We see Mason Snr sell his old sports car, put away the shades, obtain some facial hair, and finally grow up a bit. He gets into a new relationship with a woman who has Jesus-loving, gun-owning parents, and they have another child together. As they stand in the kitchen at Mason’s graduation party, a rather awkward encounter, Olivia says to him, speaking of his new child “you’re doing it all again.” She almost seems jealous, as if she wishes she could have the time back with her own children. 

Richard Linklater said himself that he had very little idea where the story was going, apart from the general arc, when he first sat down with Ellar. As time progressed, these annual discussions prompted Ellar to decide just how much of himself he wanted to incorporate into Mason, such as the photography obsession. The script was not written all at once, but in yearly instalments, and it worked extremely well, for the most part. The reason I say most and not all is because there were a few cliche scenes, such as when Mason was talking to a girl at a party, and towards the end there was a poorly handled restaurant scene. Overall, though, the film was fantastic, and the cinematography was an ocular delight. 

As the film unfolded, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I kept asking myself questions, such as, is Samantha being favoured over Mason? How will this affect his mental balance as he ages? Is Mason dyslexic? He never seems to do his work. But this film is not like the others that are constantly released. The scene before it fades to black sums Boyhood up perfectly. A new female Mason has met at college says to him: “You know how they say seize the moment? I think it’s the other way round. I think the moment seizes us.” And that’s exactly what Boyhood does – it shows us that it’s all the mundane moments that make a life, and it does this wonderfully.

The Acceptance Algorithm: The Cabinet’s Reshuffle

Yesterday saw the precipitate reshuffling of David Cameron’s Cabinet, and most notably, Michael Gove’s demotion. The former Education Secretary has been labelled as the most unpopular member of the Cabinet, and the main cause of resentment in the teachers’ unions. Although other ministers, such as William Hague and Owen Paterson, were used as pawns in Cameron’s desperate chess game for re-election, it is Gove’s demotion that has attracted the most attention, and those who are more politically astute have criticised the decision. 

Michael Gove, known best for the setting up of free schools and for being a stalwart of educational reform, has fallen under significant criticism over the duration of his tenure as education minister. His idea for the adaptation of the A-Levels – abandoning modules in favour of a two year course ending with just one exam, has done nothing to cause the unions to look upon him favourably. Yet, I still find myself asking the question: why Gove? Why, in a party filled with uninspiring lightweights, would any leader worth their salt wish to demote a political heavyweight, somebody with ideas and the power to carry them out? 

The answer to this question is unfortunately all too simple. The Conservatives, despite all of Cameron’s recent waffle about Gove being a “big political brain”, aren’t looking for unpopular ministers on their quest to re-election. Cameron also promised that a third of the cabinet would be female by 2015, and currently the standing is 25%. This aberrant feminism may cost Cameron the votes that he so desperately needs. Feminism, misconstrued as it often is, refers to equality of the sexes, not prioritisation of one. By openly admitting that he has selected Nicky Morgan, amongst others, based on their sexuality alone, David Cameron has displayed a remarkable ignorance about the concept of feminism, one which I am certain he shall live to regret. 

The Cabinet Re-Shuffle has been nothing more than a pathetic grasp for votes, but it has cost Cameron – and the rest of the Conservatives – arguably their best Cabinet minister. They have also lost capable Foreign and Environment Secretaries William Hague and Owen Paterson. And if there’s one thing Mr Cameron ought to have taken away from his time in the House Of Commons, it’s that his Ministers may be unpopular, but nobody likes a spineless turncoat, and his latest move may have just ensured the success of Miliband and the rest of the circus troupe in the next election.