“..leaving the page of the book carelessly open” – Anne Sexton

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Yates’

A Tragic Honesty

Posted by Carla Maria Lucchetta on November 8, 2009

yates olderI just finished reading A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Baily (who has also recently written a bio of John Cheever).  Lacking enough time to pleasure read, I had to renew it from the library twice so for about three months I carried this hefty 650 + page book to and from work, hauling it out to read on transit. In the age of e-readers and soft covers, let me tell you, a hard back, very thick book elicits stares. Not that I noticed them really, Mr. Yates‘ life was so engrossing that a couple of times I almost missed my subway/bus stops.

As a self-confessed literary snob, and reader of what I consider fine literature, I’m feeling a bit sheepish that I only discovered Yates last year, because of the pending film treatment of Revolutionary Road. He was writing in my adult lifetime therefore I could have bought his books and helped, at least in a small way, to contribute to his livelihood. That’s probably a ridiculous thought but it does occur to me that a man who is more well-known posthumously as one of the greatest contemporary American writers could have used at least one more reader while he was alive.

Yates did possess a tragic honesty, in his writing and in his life. He lived in ways people couldn’t understand, perhaps not even himself. He wrote about things people didn’t necessarily want to see in the world and recognize in themselves. It occurred to me while reading about his efforts to get those wonderfully crafted stories published in various magazines (esp. his heartbreak over the elusive New Yorker), that the era of reaching career pinnacles is somewhat behind us. The struggle for an agent, publisher, good review, film contract – these are dying goals in an age when you can publish your own blog, thoughts in 140 characters, and books to sell on consignment in stores. Hell, we might not be needing bookstore soon. So reading this biography was in so many ways a look back into an increasing lost time of the great struggle for lasting art.

Yates was one of those creatives who really couldn’t fully see his own talent – all the while using it – and his yates youngstories were often rejected because his characters seemed “bleak,” the atmosphere “dismal.” In actual fact, he was writing about human foibles and realities that are largely inarticulated, even still. Some criticized the fact that he mined the same field – that of his chaotic childhood, father-less (for all intents and purposes) and mother-ful (always there but terrifically selfish). I just think autobiography is  what most artists circle back to. His writing was so much more than a mere account of wrongs done to him. He nailed human intention vs. behaviour – for better or worse. I can’t think of anyone I’ve read who does it better.

Now I’m back to reading (in some cases re-reading) his novels and stories, which are all the richer by knowing what influenced and affected him. Like many artists, he was his own worst enemy, procrastinating writing by poor living habits, and sadly because of  his post-war ill health, made worse by his  alcoholism. Although I have yet to write my first novel, and have only published one short story, I can certainly relate to the difficulty of having to hold down a responsible “day job”  that leaves no free time, physically or mentally, for writing. I fully relate to his frustration with the “PR dodge” an anathema to any kind of creative writing. In true form, he came up with the perfect phrase to encapsulate the rally of many writers between paying the rent and contributing artistically.

Obviously anyone who admires the work of this master should read this book. After I exhaust the far two few books in Yates’ library I plan to go back to the book and author that drove his writing ambition, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby Thought I’ve read it numerous times, this time around I want to try to see it through the keen and sensitive writerly eyes of Richard Yates.


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Yates’ Revolutionary Road

Posted by Carla Maria Lucchetta on March 30, 2009

revolutionaryroad1The film rights to Revolutionary Road were first sold in 1967. If only a film had been made back then…

I fully intended to write my thoughts and impressions of Richard Yates’ unforgettable novel, Revolutionary Road the minute I closed its final page. Unfortunately the film had been taunting me for too long and I gave in and watched it the very next day. I wish I hadn’t.

Richard Yates, tortured genius that he seems to have been, created what I think is a perfectly written and realized piece of literature in Revolutionary Road. Not a word, sentence, paragraph, character sketch, plot or punctuation point is amiss in his story about the tantalizing and disappointing effect of the American Dream on a young New York couple in the mid-’50s. “Is that all there is?” is still a fairly common question even in the modern world, where people rush to create “the good life” while abandoning their true destinies and then wonder what they missed.

Reams have already been written on the book and its place in the American literary canon. Here are two great articles. The first by American writer Richard Ford, adapted from his introduction to the current  edition of Revolutionary Road. And the second a look at Yates’ work by novelist Stewart O’Nan.

Essay; American Beauty (Circa 1955), The New York Times, 2000, Richard Ford

The Lost World of Richard Yates, Boston Review, 1999, Stewart O’Nan

yates1Now, I’m a huge fan of Mad Men, the AMC television show that is a nostagic and ironic look at the ’50s, which seems to highlight the politically incorrect habits of a few generations ago; the smoking, drinking, the blatant racism, the lunchtime affairs, and the accepted idea that a man’s wife is his property to do with as he pleases, including slapping her around, consultations with her psychiatrist as though she was his child, etc. Some people I know refuse to watch because they just don’t want to remember, and help glorify, a time when people (esp. men I guess) behaved badly. My parents were a young married couple in the ’50s and I think one reason I like the show is because it sheds a  new light on some of their marital issues, on my mom’s love of martini’s and Frank  Sinatra, and also – and this is a big one folks – I like remembering a time when it was customary for men to wear suits and ties and women dresses. A time when people were still courteous and chivalrous (putting aside what some are calling misogyny, which was really just the way it was then, good or bad). Sure the exterior courtesy hid a lot of crudeness and also the need to remain stoic at all times wasn’t altogether healthy. But contrasted with today’s ultra-casualness and too-much-public-information, it sometimes feels like a better place. Men were men, women were women.

Revolutionary Road, written in the early sixties, so was of that time. While there’s an element of disdain for the ’50s, for the smothering of individuals by enslaving them to social dictates, it isn’t looking back from too far off. Making a current film of an age gone by with the actors they chose meant performances that merely mocked the times rather than portrayed them. It was painful to watch. The beauty, the absolute treasure of Yates’ writing is how he expertly portrays the wide divide between how we imagine a conversation playing out and how it actually does. His detail of character and place is unparalleled. All the yelling Winslet and DiCaprio do, combined with the lengthy camera shots portraying pained looks, really doesn’t translate. If made at all, the film should have gone for actors with wider ranges. vintage-yates

I will definitely be re-reading the book in an effort to rid my mind of the Titanic couple (incidentally, I might be the only person on earth who hasn’t seen that film!). For now though, I’ve moved on to Yates’ excellent short stories. Now I know I’m hardly the first to discover the mastery of Richard Yates. My only question is, why did it take me so long!?

*(I found these vintage book covers on various sites around the Internet. Since Revolutionary Road is a book that I want to occupy a forever-place on my bookshelf, I might have to dig to find an earlier cover and pass my current film cover on to a willing recipient!)

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Books to film

Posted by Carla Maria Lucchetta on March 7, 2009

rroadCurrently I’m reading, and enjoying, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a book that might not have been on my radar if not for last year’s film adaptation. I’ve yet to see the film, choosing as I usually do, to read the book first. I do this because I am generally disappointed by book to film adaptations. It’s not that easy to put my finger on why so many of them are irritating. I mean, it stands to reason that a shorter medium with a wider audience means that elements of the story have to be changed. I bought the film-tie-in edition (no other edition was available) and even knowing, as the cover indicates, that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are April and Frank Wheeler is already annoying, just 4 chapters in. It is now not possible for me to read character descriptions without seeing them and I haven’t even seen the film!

In The Reader, for instance, it bugged me that the boy cast as Hannah’s young (underage) lover was really not all that young. The opening scene in the book, in which she picks him up and carries him to a hospital is an important foreshadowing event about their uncanny connection. This new type of coupling changes everything about the story. And again Kate Winslet is in my view the whole time I’m reading Hannah.

(Maybe I just don’t enjoy Kate Winslet? Or perhaps I should have discovered these great books prior to Hollywood?)

At the same time I’m fascinated by the process. I mean, imagine how difficult it was to turn The English Patient, more poetic prose than plot, into a film?

Salman Rushdie recently wrote about this topic for The Guardian. He says, “Everyone accepts that stories and films are different things, and that the source material must be modified, even radically modified, to be effective in the new medium. The only interesting questions are “how?” and “how much?” However, when the original is virtually discarded, it’s difficult to know if the result can be called an adaptation at all.”

The article is a bit long, within it he talks about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire and other adaptations. It’s well worth the read: A Fine Pickle

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