Posted by: zhiv | April 19, 2008

Literary Discovery: Richard Yates, part 3


I did a quick little run through the book blogs this afternoon, remembering that I had found a helpful and well-done Richard Yates website over the weekend.  I wanted to read the 1999 Steward ONan article I had seen linked, and do some more digging.

It’s late as I write this, 1020.  Upstairs my daughter, the GD, is reading Revolutionary Road.  She doesn’t have to be at school tomorrow until 1130, so she can stay up late reading and then read some more in the morning. 

The chase is on.  It’s an odd thing, chasing afer a literary classic that was published in 1961.  But this process and phenomenon of literary discovery is a strange thing.  The days of “discovery” of Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road, and one of the most important books of the 20th century are numbered.  I’m telling you, this is crazy stuff, and a crazy time, but it’s probably just me, riding the wave of enthusiasm.  Right now, she’s on page 84, and I’m going to heat up a scone for her and make some camomile tea.  In the spirit of Yates, I’ll pour myself another glass of wine as I move things along.

In the GD’s read, Frank Wheeler has just slept with Maureen.  (update:  I’ve discovered that Maureen is played in the movie by Zoe Kazan, daughter of screenwriters Nick, son of Elia, and Robin Swicord, who are people that I know fairly well, although I don’t remember meeting Zoe.  And I was talking to Nick and Robin on Saturday night, the 5th, leaving a party, before I wrote any of this.  Weird.)  I told her to picture Mad Men, which I keep saying owes a major debt to RR, though I haven’t seen anybody making that comment.  But in my twisted ideas of being a good father, I’m trying to preserve her innocence and allow her to read the book without picturing Dicaprio and Winslet, trying to keep her safe from the virus in the few short weeks that remain.  I think Leo D. is great and he’s as good as it gets in youngish Hollywood, a real movie star and an extremely talented actor, perfect to play Frank, but the days that one can read RR and not think about Frank Wheeler as LD are over, for all practical intents and purposes. 

My humble little Richard Yates chase says something about how biographical information and other sources, like a film version of a book, can affect and heighten our experience and appreciation of authors and their work.  My first post on RR was a simple blog review, and I’m pretty happy with it in retrospect.  Then yesterday, two weeks later, I wrote about scarcity and book collecting and my growing sense of the first rumblings of what might become a significant literary phenomenon.  And now I’ve read some criticism and assessments, profiles and interviews, gaining a sense of Yates’ own story and the history of the reception.  Now I know about Blake Bailey’s biography A Tragic Honesty, and how he came to writer it.  I want to read the stories and Easter Parade and more. I want to watch the Seinfeld episode “The Jacket,” based on the fact that Larry David went out with Yates’ daughter.  These are all the types of things that I love when they go along with a great book, and you can throw in Sam Mendes and Scott Rudin and his new Oscar for a literary movie, and maybe see a little bit of my own odd Hollywood perspective.

I loved RR and read into it deeply, and now that I’ve read some commentary by very smart people, along with a couple of interviews, I don’t think I underestimated the book’s power and importance, but it seems like it may be impossible or very difficult to overestimate it.  This is such a strange thing–forgotten classic is very slowly brought back to attention by writers, a decades-long process, then becomes Big Movie.  How is it possible that all of the important writers of the early part of my reading lifetime, all of the passion and art and color and music of the writing of the 60s and 70s could be slightly diminished somehow in the sands of time by this dark and troubled American truthteller?  In my first post’s first sentence I said that the book was stunning, and the story of the man’s ultimate impact and the evolving story of his literary reception and importance will be equally stunning.  I’m ecstatic and dumbfounded at the same time.

Yates was single-minded about Fitzgerald, seeing deeply into him the same way that Fitzgerald looked into Flaubert, apparently.  The success and acclaim of Yates’ favorite book and longtime introductory canon staple The Great Gatsby is a mirage of sorts, when you think of Fitzgerald’s crack up and his devolution.  For me, growing up as an ignorant jock, with parents who could have been Yates himself or Frank and April Wheeler, by the time I got around to literature Fitzgerald was an easy entry point, and it says something that I didn’t read it until college, rather than early in high school like my daughter.

1120, time to check on her, and she’s on pg. 140, in the description of Shep Campbell’s past, heading towards his fixation on April.  This is one of my favorite parts of the book, worthy of its own deep analysis.  “It’s exactly like Mad Men,” she says.  Should I feel bad that I’ve faked her out so completely?  The funny thing is that, born in 1990, she has a deep sympathy and bond with the Romeo and Juliet Dicaprio, so she’s going to be really excited.

But she is also racing headlong into one of the purest of American tragedies.  As an American girl, does she have a deeper understanding and sympathy for April Wheeler that I never felt?  Which is not to say that April’s memory of the visit from her father was nothing less than devastating to me.  Did the prism of Mad Men, which is entertaining enough, but not especially important, somehow corrupt my own reading of the RR, as the film is bound to do for so many others?  Reading the criticism, which is mostly just informed commentary so far, the step after Fitzgerald is Madame Bovary.  This makes a lot of sense, and it feels like a discussion of Yates is a talk about the more profound depths of modern fiction. 

In my reading this afternoon, and then tonight, it takes awhile to move through Flaubert and finally come round to Chekhov and Yates, but eventually it’s there.  This is a strange thing, following along after my daughter, helping her find the trail.  Purely by chance, or maybe not, she was finishing her spring break reading of Catch-22 as I was reading RR.  She plowed through Heller’s book steadily, in a normal way, not gulping it down as she is the semi-obscure, rising masterpiece.  I’ve never read Catch-22, but I suppose I have ideas about it, but I wonder how it compares to RR.  I’ve read The Moviegoer a couple of times, but not recently, and wonder about it as well.  I could go on about the GD’s 50s-60s literary preparation, or my own recent reading of Mary McCarthy and James Baldwin and writing about Warhol and Capote.  When a young teacher at her school taught Russian lit and culture for the first time in fall 06, I pulled out the old Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky volumes and put them on the shelf beside obscure Leskov books I had culled over time.  And that fall I read Turgenev and Chekhov for the first time.  I angry at my ignorance and sloth.  I had read, but had wasted energy and the short season of absorption and focus on some odd byways.  I was always playing catchup, at the same time that I was deadening my small energies. But I accept the dispensation, and I reached Chekhov in my time, and arrived there together with my daughter.  Did Frank Wheeler read Chekhov?  Probably, and that’s what makes him sad and doomed, and why he rushed without thinking into marrying a Chekhovian tragic heroine.  At least I didn’t make that mistake.

So we’ll see what tomorrow brings with the year of Yates, 2008; the year, for me, of 50th birthdays.  Chekhov and before that the Romans, can be seen from one perspective as a prelude.  It was mid-life literary discovery.  In March, a month ago, I felt the joy of literary discovery and mentioned it as I traced a connection between Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf, work that still needs to be completed.  But now in April, apropiately enough, we fine a rare phenomenon and time, as literature and reputation and film and discovery all come together at once. Coetzee fits into the same model.  What would it have been like to have read Coetzee in the 80s, so easily done?  I don’t really know what to say about these experiences.  The ruler in Lord of the Rings under the spell of age and decreptitude comes to mind, although I’m not sure why it feels like the spell on me is lifting now and Ihave a weird sort of middle-aged enlightenment and energy going.   I suppose there’s no excuse for it, really, and it’s just par for the course for me and my own regrets and blindness.  But I can also go a little easier on myself, and be glad to have arrived in the end, able to get it and share it and pass it on.  And even further, it just tells me that there are great and nourishing, captivating works and writers out there, all over the place, that there will continue to be discoveries and enthusiasms all the way through.



  1. I was so interested to read this just now.

    I am currently writing a PhD on Yates and am loving my work and the fact that, as you say, he is still, but only just, a ‘discovery’. The film will put paid to that. Since I am only in my second year of study I feel as if I’m being chased by a pack of hounds trying to get my work completed before the Hollywood treatment explodes his name and work across the world; there is no way I will manage it but it spurs me on.

    It is interesting that you think De Caprio will be perfect in the role. I agree he is a great actor but I think he looks too fresh-faced still and is too well-known a face to carry off the sense of ordinariness and world-weariness that describe Frank. I may be wrong. There is a good piece about this by someone called Jim Denchfield on the RY forum and he makes the point that there is not one atom of DeCaprio’s being that knows about failure: Frank all about failure.

    Well, I’ve probably gone on too long but I wonder what your daughter made of it and in particular the amazing ending. Please let me know if you have time!
    Kate (England)

  2. Kate — No apologies, please! It’s just great that some one deep into the Yates world has stopped by. My obsession from 10 days ago has abated somewhat. You might look at my post on “Some Literary Blockbusters,” which has some notes on books and movies, which I will probably be writing about more often. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts and the approach to your dissertation, and will head over to the sleepy forum to see if there’s any news.

  3. Well, I’ve been into RY for about six years. I was doing an MA at the time and decided that his work was the way forward for me, not least because there’s so little on him. I’m looking at his awareness of performative behaviour – everyone playing a role all of the time – and what that reveals about notions of authenticity in human behaviour. He doesn’t appear to see much authenticity! I’m also thinking about the time he was writing – a time of official optimism – and how he undercuts that.

    To date I’ve only found the Twayne’s book on him by Castronovo and Goldleaf (and that’s very good), the Blake Bailey biography (also very good) and a chapter in Jerome Klinkowitz’s book which is called something like The Novel of Manners. Apart from that I’m reliant on interviews and reviews for help. The good thing is that I won’t have any problem proving that my work is original!

    I will look at your other posts. Can I ask where you are writing from? I love that photo and wonder where it is…..I’m in East Anglia which is glorious and very sleepy. I wonder what Yates would have made of the idea that people are now studying him, making films of his work…..doubtless some four-letter expletive would have shot through his cigarette.
    All the best

  4. Kate — This is hilarious. I just did the same thing you did. I left you a post over at “Academic study of the great man,” and then was going to ask some questions over there about first editions. So I came back here to link and read over my “scarcity” post, see that it’s a mess, and then stumbled on your new comments, which of course answer the questions I asked over at the Yates forum!

    And then you ask a simple question about my own blog, and of course I don’t have a clue on how to answer it. I’ve been meaning to get my kids to help me do a better job with setting things up here, and I finally managed to start a pathetic little blogroll, and you raise an interesting issue. You should probably be able to find it under the “books” category, and I’ll make sure it’s in there, and I guess I’ll start a “books and movies” category too, why not. Lately I’ve just been catching up on posting and haven’t been categorizing anything.

    Somewhere in my earlier posts (not that many–just started doing this in January) I think I said something about dissertation topics, which I think you’ve hit very nicely: “an inexhaustible resource that is virtually untapped.” It seems like a good time to be working at being a Yates expert.

    And the “performative behaviour” approach is very interesting. You might see that I was just reading Mary McCarthy’s “The Company She Keeps,” which seems to be all about the same thing. I read “The Group” right after Rev. Road, and it seemed meagre by comparison, but TCSK was much better and a deeper read in ways after having read RR.

  5. KCJ — I wouldn’t be nervous or worried about saying anything about your work that feels like a stretch in any way–the line about performative behavior was completely sufficient, I get it. I’m more curious about how you responded when you first started reading Yates, which books you would recommend to a newbie like myself, but it sounds like you’ve got a full plate at the moment, so just enjoy it.

    And anyway, you’re 49, so that changes everything–I’m 49 too (5-0 in November). I figured that you were a young tyro 20-something powering through postwar fiction like a thresher. One of the things I find most interesting about RR is that Yates himself and Frank and April are exactly the age of my parents, so I could easily be one of those anonymous kids in the book. My mom had her Aprilness, back in the day, and my dad was something of an unconscious, not so sensitive Frank, but he definitely went through his “organization man” struggles. Pretty interesting stuff.

    On LS and not writing the diss., I should probably do a post on that. I already said I would do one on LS and mountaineering. That gives me two things to get around to.

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