Sunday, September 18, 2011

Helen Weaver on Her Affair with Jack Kerouac


In her new book “The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties”(City Lights, $17), the translator and writer Helen Weaver provides a lush picture of her short, turbulent affair with the Beat writer that changed her life. In Weaver’s swirling memoir, readers will get a fresh perspective on Jack Kerouac and his magnetism as a man and writer.

Weaver was 25 in the fall of 1956 when she met Kerouac. The product of a sheltered childhood, Weaver’s world was shaken by Kerouac while he was on the cusp of publishing “On the Road,” the novel that would make both his career and the Beat Generation. Kerouac was passionate, kind and irresponsible, as well as prone to drunken depressions. The book is an exploration of the bohemian counterculture in New York’s Greenwich Village and the coming of radical changes in American society. Weaver was also involved both politically and sexually with the martyred comic Lenny Bruce in the 1960s, and later became both a noted translator of the French philosopher Antonin Artaud and an astrologer. “The Awakener” is a vivid look at the 1950s Beat era and Weaver’s winding path to personal enlightenment.

Weaver, 78, lives in Woodstock, N.Y., where she spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone.

Q. Where does your title “The Awakener” come from?

A. When Jack lived with me, I couldn’t get enough sleep. That was the silly meaning of the title. Later, I had a feeling that Jack woke a whole lot of people up with his writing, for the 1950s had been such a sleepy time. There was also the Buddhist connection. The word “buddha” literally means “the awakened one.” Jack was very important in creating interest in Buddhism in the United States.

Q. Could you describe the chaotic nature of your three-month relationship with Kerouac?

A. Jack was a mass of contradictions. He really was a sweet, sensitive person, but he was an alcoholic. I wouldn’t say he was an angry drunk…he’d got really depressed when he drank. My roommate was not working, so she and Jack could stay up late, and I had to get up to go to my nine-to-five job. It was very stressful.

Q. Could you describe the hair-pulling incident?

A. Jack came over very late with his friend Lucien Carr. I don’t do well when people interrupt my sleep. I just completely lost it. Apparently, I pulled out a chunk of Jack’s hair. He said that was the beginning of the end of his looks. He said he had to wear a hat after that. I was quite flattered, though, that Lucien started calling me slugger.


Helen Weaver in 1955

Q. You were involved in the campaign to fight the censorship of the comedian Lenny Bruce, then you had a sexual encounter with him. What happened afterwards?

A. The most important thing that happened after I had sex with Lenny Bruce was when I walked into my analyst’s office the next day. I told this father-figure analyst that I had had sex with Lenny, and he asked, “How was it?” It doesn’t sound like much, but it was an amazing event in my life. I was pretty uptight, but that was the beginning of my sexual revolution.


(Helen Weaver's memoir from City Lights Books)

Q. After working in publishing for years, you went on to have a brilliant career as a translator. How do look back at the 25-year-old Helen Weaver?

A. I wouldn’t want to be her again. If nostalgia means you’d rather be back in the past, then I don’t have nostalgia. I salute her and I thank her for taking all those great notes of the 1950s. She was braver than I am today. I admire her for being open to new experiences, but I don’t envy her at all. I’d rather be where I am today as a 78-year-old woman. I am much happier today.

(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in June 2010)

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