Sunday, 7 June 2009

1961, movie stars and extreme wordsmithery

Not long back I picked up a book (a novel) at a friend's house. It looked like this:



Movie tie-in covers...you don't want to look but you can't help yourself, right? This one caught my eye (movie stars do that...it's their job, I suppose) and I remembered an article I'd read about how this was a great book even if it was from way back in the mists of time (1961) and not terribly well-known. I hadn't heard of the book before the Sam Mendes directed film came out last year and I hadn't seen the film yet either (I very rarely get to the cinema for films other than Us or PGs these days). In fact even if I had had a grown-up cinema opportunity in the last year or so I'm not sure 'Revolutionary Road' would have been a film I would have jumped at anyway (no real reason - I loved Mendes' 'American Beauty')...but the book...that sounded interesting. Its author, Richard Yates (1926-1992...nothing to do with Yates' Wine Lodge as far as I know) sounded a bit of a mystery too. Was it really such a great book – a classic that had somehow been overshadowed by other works, other great American novels? There was only one way to find out. I borrowed it from the friend...and I read it.

To be completely honest my Mum (who was at a loose end book-wise and who is a big fan of 'good novels') read it first. She loved it, read it in a day and passed it on enthusiastically with a 'it's brilliant, it's brilliant'. Of course this made me suspicious (how often do you like the same books as your parents...it does happen...sometimes...) but after a couple of weeks I got round to reading it too. And she was right, godammit - it is a really, really, really good novel. There are lines (and even groups of lines) that are so perfect you just want to read them over and over again...and how often does that happen? Really? Poets try to do it all the time...but how often do they succeed? This novel filled me with admiration for the ex Mr Yates and more than a hint of dismay that he is yet another writer to succeed more posthumously than pre (he had some success as a writer whilst alive but nothing mindblowing...apparently he had a great career as a drunk though...and there is a hell of a lot of drinking in 'Revolutionary Road', well researched evidently...). There is a book about Yates by Blake Bailey called 'A Tragic Honesty' (reviewed by James Wood in the Guardian back in 2004 here). That article is well worth a look - it gives you plenty of background on Yates, his work and his life.

But back to 'Revolutionary Road' - it's a tale of sad old surburbia, of strained relationships and promise unfulfilled but none of that misery matters much because the writing is so good that it turns every disappointing scene into a dazzling display of what I feel the urge to call wordsmithery. Confident, precise, piercing, economic...you could keep coming up with adjectives to describe the way this book is written but really, you may as well just go and read it. Come back and tell me if you don't love Frank Wheeler (the central character) even though you'll absolutely hate his stupid guts at the same time. Having seen the cover and the movie posters it was hard not to see actor Leonardo di Caprio as Frank in my mind as I read from time to time and to wonder whether he would be right for the part (as you do). As it happens I should think he makes a fairly good job of it. I was never one of those who thought DiCaprio physically attractive (I'm always fairly indifferent to round-face young boy looks...) but I have liked DiCaprio's acting (especially since he got older) in films like 'Blood Diamond' (a much better film than you might imagine), 'The Departed', even bits of 'The Aviator'. I think DiCaprio has fought, as an actor, to be taken seriously to an extent and that would help when it comes to Frank Wheeler (Frank wants to be taken seriously...he just doesn't know what for). I didn't find myself imagining Kate Winslet as Frank's wife April Wheeler so much – partly because Kate Winslet is just so much Kate Winslet now (big movie star, global brand) that I find it hard to see her as any other character these days. I liked her in 'Titanic' (just to be awkward), in 'Sense and Sensibility' and in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (to my amazement I liked that film...I was expecting to hate it) but these days she's just everywhere...like Madonna, Tom Cruise, Katie frigging Price...and when that happens stars/celebrities are ubiquitous to the point of extreme tedium, aren't they? 'Less is more, darlings, less is so much more' you want to shout at their jets as they zoom overhead. That and 'there are other people in the world too you know' and 'don't forget the little people'...oh, too late, you already did....

Anyway, forget the film, it'll be on Film Four eventually (or whatever your favourite free film channel is, international visitors) and then we can all fall asleep in front of it. Get the book though and read it with your eyes wide open. Then when you've finished it read it all over again.

p.s. and go and read Ross Wilson's comments to this post (especially his first one). If I haven't convinced you to try Yates he certainly will!

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34 comments:

Poetikat said...

Have you seen "Hideous Kinky"? Worth a look if you like Winslet.

Kat

Rachel Fox said...

I forgot - there is another Kate Windswept film that I like - 'the Life of David Gale'(2003). Kevin Spacey is the centre of the film but she is good in it too. I am a Spacey fan I would have to admit...I like him in 'American Beauty', 'K Pax'...pretty much everything he's in. Never seen him on the London stage. Don't get to London much these days (if ever).
x

Jim Murdoch said...

If I was to recommend a Kate Winslet film I'd have to go back to an early Peter Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures. All she'd done was TV work up until then but she was well cast. Here's a link to the trailer.

Rachel Fox said...

Poor old Richard Yates...it seems he is doomed to be drowned in a wave of Kate Winslet recommendations!
I have seen that film though, Jim. It is a good one.
I think you'd like 'Revolutionary Road' (the book). Have you read it?
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Claire A said...

Haven't seen the movie or read the book (yet!), but I absolutely adore Kate Winslet. She's just brilliant in everything and I have to disagree -- I think she 'becomes' every character she plays 100%. You should see her in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility if you haven't already... loved that movie.

x

Sorlil said...

I remember seeing the film advertised and thought it looked interesting, think I'll keep an eye out for the book!

Rachel Fox said...

I did mention that one, Claire, in the three of hers that I like most (I really love it - it beats all the 'Pride and Prejudice's hands down). Winslet made that before she was 'huge star' - she's not even the lead.

I am not saying she is a bad actress at all. Most of all I think (what with the oscars and all) that we've been overexposed to her of late (or she has been overexposed to us). She may well be very good in 'Revolutionary Road' and I think it's good that the film has brought attention to the book but most of all what I'm trying to say is that the book is BRILLIANT.

So yes, Sorlil, keep an eye out for it.

x

Rachel Fox said...

Although, saying that...perhaps not one to read during pregnancy (or with a very young child). Maybe give it a year or two.
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swiss said...

i can't remember how i came across the book but i thought it was so fabulous that i couldn't even consider watching the film. i don't see di caprio or winslet as the wheelers and even if they do okay in it that isn;t going to change.

while i shan't go off on one about william maxwell again, but yates to me is one of those people that's just been passed by. revolutionary road is easily comparable to carver but for me it captures that same sense fo urban desolation, the same emptiness as john cheever's the swimmer.

cover aside it's available criminally cheap in the supermaket(in the supermarket!) and should at the very leats be bought if not shoplifted...

hope said...

Funny, I specifically was avoiding that film because of DiCaprio...for about the same reasons as you. I know he's getting better with age but give me a Kevin Spacey film any day of the week. :)

That said, guess this is another one for my ever growing list of books. Thanks for the suggestion.

Rachel Fox said...

Glad you agree with me about the book, Swiss. I'd like to think I won't watch the film but I just know that one wintry evening...I'll end up watching it out of nosiness to see what they did with it.
I really might reread the book straightaway just now though.

You should definitely read it Hope!

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The Weaver of Grass said...

On the whole I don't like the book of the film. One or the other but one seems to destroy the other for me. Example: I love "Moby Dick" but don't think the old film did it justice. I read The Kite Runner and really enjoyed it - but I have no desire to see the film - I think it would destroy my images of it.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Weaver I know what you mean...but then books like this one might have disappeared out of view almost completely if it weren't for the filmmakers getting them back into circulation (as it were). I might never have heard of 'Revolutionary Road' without the film and those two famous faces (sad but true) and it really is a good read so I'm glad I did catch up with it. It's what language was made for...to be used like that!

As for 'The Kiterunner' I had read the book and got a lot from it. I did end up seeing the film but it was so rushed...there's a lot of story to pack in to an average length film...so it couldn't possibly have the same effect (and it didn't). It should probably have been a series (if anything) rather than a movie.

I found reading 'Moby Dick' a pretty painful experience. I think just reading a page of it now and again I would like...but reading it as a novel? Didn't work for me...
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Ross Wilson said...

Ah, Rachel, you have good taste. And for a second there I thought you were going to say you hated it!

A few inches to the right of my monitor, behind a pile of poetry books, are all of Richard Yates’s books (prevented from falling off my desk by Blake Bailey’s brick of a book, The Life and Work of RY.)

I picked up a copy of RR in 2003 and read it in The Fleapit Inn (as I called the rundown hotel I was living in at the time.) Not the kind of book to read between work and all night parties, but what a bloody book it is, and read it I did. Then I re-read it, and re-read it again.

For those of you still to read him Yates is a master of dialogue and point of view, switching from character to character so we get to see them from inside, from a distance, from different angles; we relate to them, sympathise with them AND are critical of them and even dislike them (until Yates wants us to feel for them again and does so with a magical twist of his pen.) Like you say Rachel: we end up loving and hating Frank! Also, Yates has a great way of taking a character’s thoughts out of the present into some other time, like a childhood memory, only to jolt us back into present time, like a slap in the face: stop dreaming! Most books want you to dream: Yates wants your toes to curl!

Yates was more into rubbing salt into wounds than sugar coating and he piles on the misery the way other writers pile up the plot points, but he’s such a great craftsman and so true to life, and funny, balancing the misery with enough humour and compassion that he gets away with it for me. I think he was ahead of his time though, which is weird as he was such an anachronism in his own time, obsessed by Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby and dismissive of sixties experimental writers. A Tragic Honesty, Blake Bailey titled his biography of Yates, and it’s probably the shock of this honesty, of his unflinching focus on humanity that makes his work more accessible to us now than it would have been in the idealistic sixties. I don't think Yates was a misanthrope though, there’s too much affection for people in his work.

He’s also a master of compression (check out The Easter Parade; most regard it as his second best novel, but it might even be his masterpeice.) It's a lesson in economy: Yates doesn’t waste a word. The novel starts with its main character a wee girl. She isn’t a wee girl for very long! Yates can make the years pass by in a few paragraphs! It’s terrifying stuff.

His short stories are probably even better than his novels! How could you resist such a title as Eleven Kinds of Loneliness?

Bailey’s book is a must-read also! When Yates died his friends couldn’t find the manuscript he was working on amid the squalor of his lonely pad: they eventually found it in the freezer! Yates, a manic depressive chain smoking alcoholic, tended to burn his property down by mistake from time to time! It’s the kind of biography I like as it goes at the life through the work with a passion for the art and craft that adds to your understanding and appreciation of it. I would advise people to read the novels and stories first though. There used to be a couple of his stories online. There might be more now, I haven’t checked in years. There used to be an interview with Yates online as well.

Also, there is a tribute to Yates on Youtube if anyone is interested. It's very sad, as I remember. Oh, and a good article by Stewart O’Nan: The Lost World of Richard Yates is online. I think it was largely responsible for getting his books back in print. I think only RR was available when I picked it up six years ago. Now all the books are in print.

I was shocked they made it into a film though. How could it possibly work? A camera can’t get into a characters consciousness the way Yates could with a pen. And how horrible Kate Winslet is on the new edition. What next: Gwenyth Paltrow on Plath’s Collected! Now I’m seeing all kinds of “stars” eclipsing the books on my shelf. What a horrible thought.

Ross Wilson said...

Do I go on or what? Exceeded the word limit there. Tsk!

Anyway,here’s some words from the great man himself I couldn’t resist typing up!

“the good work is it’s own reward and you share it with as many readers as you can and it stays alive, and has some hard-won clarity and richness, some distillation of human investment, that continues to claim some kind of permanent interest no matter what angles fashion may dispose new readers towards . . . I don’t need a cheering crowd to tell me that it’s worth it. It would be nice to be the fashion, to be recognized for what I’m trying to do – in the sense that Mailer is, for instance – life would be easier in a lot of ways – but the price of doing something difficult and honest, something true, as April Wheeler learned, is doing it alone.” Richard Yates.

Rachel Fox said...

No word limits here, Ross, if you're saying something worth reading (which you were - very much so). I will go and read more of his work - definitely - and I suppose I should go to 'The Easter Parade' next. Thanks for all those points well made...especially about why his writing works so well. I know when I've written prose I really try to switch from character to character and some of the other stuff you say Yates did so well (and I did think as I read the book 'hell, why ever try to write prose when someone else does it as well as this?'). He really was the real thing.

Apart from that one article I had read (around the time of the film coming out) I had not heard of Yates at all and so reading the book and just being so amazed by it was like having a kid's xmas or something ('a real surprise you didn't see coming' - who said that...oh it was me...).

Great quote from him too in your second comment. I think maybe you should have written this post! Still, glad to get you along anyway. You're like a visiting Professor or something.

As for the film...the second thing my Mum said to me when she handed it back was 'I don't see how they could make a film out of it.' Now I know I'll see it some time...I am interested in how and when adaptations work (or not).

x

Rachel Fox said...

Really was the real thing? Hmm. Might have worked on that a little more...
x

Susan at Stony River said...

Ok, you've convinced me--this one's on my list!

And that's the truest thing, about our mothers' favourite books... LOL

Rachel Fox said...

I think you'll love it, Susan. Enjoy.
x

Ross Wilson said...

I'm pretty sure I first heard of Yates through an article or book review maybe a year or two before I picked up RR, 01 or 02.

I've said to others "read this!" and they've cringed "not another book aboot the Suburbs." "it's aboot human nature!!!" I'd cry . . . well, maybe Winslet and co will convince them!

Yates had a massive impact on me in my mid twenties. As you say, why write prose when Yates wrote prose? Maybe that's what turned me to poetry. Problem is then you get hit with YEATS don't you? And all the rest of them. It's like getting infected with TB (talentedbastards.)Isn't there a jag or something???

I was reading the other day about how Goethe was so in awe of Shakespeare he was relieved he didn't have to write in the same language.

The film of RR might be interesting. Although I can't imagine it working as a film, I did admire American Beauty at the time, so . . . it will be interesting, and no doubt toe curling, just not in the way Yates would have intended perhaps. But who knows?

Yir visitin' dish washir.

Rachel Fox said...

You're right...it's about so much more than the suburbs. And more than that it gets so far beyond 'about' altogether. I may even become evangelical about it and go on a mission round the world replacing all the bibles in all the hotels with copies of 'Revolutionary Road'.
No I won't. Nice idea though.

As for poets who dazzle to the same degree...most poets annoy the hell out of me to be honest (on some level). Is that sacrilege? Can't be worse than the bible thing surely?

x

Sorlil said...

wow, Ross - you've sold Yates to me, I'll definitely look out for his books now!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I considered posting Ross's (how many ssss?) comments as a new post. I might add something to the end of the original post. Now.
x

Ross Wilson said...

Joseph Brodsky once suggested that poetry should be available in hotel rooms like Gideon Bibles.

A lot of poets can erupt a lot of crap, to paraphrase MacDiarmid(so can a lot of fiction writers I suppose) but I know what you mean.

A writer like Yates cuts through the crap and that's why he has such a grip on his readers. He reminds me of Larkin in the way he cuts to the bone. But there's more heart in Yates. He had no time for obscurity or pretension, purple prose or playing around. "Write with balls!" He once demanded of a female writer, and when she said she didn't have any, Yates told her "write with ovaries then!"

One of the funniest and saddest scenes I've ever read is in his novel A Good School where a teacher tries to commit suicide. Yates makes you feel for the man AND laugh at him at the same time, all in a few lines! I'm tempted to type it up but that might spoil it for folk. And that wee girl at the beginning of The Easter Parade. Within a few pages she see's a haggard badly aged face reflected in a window and is shocked to discover it's her! Yates is devastating. Sometimes, you just want him to leave you alone. Tell us it's all going to end happily ever after Richard! But you can't put it down. Who the hell would be brave enough to start a novel with:

"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life"?

Grim and grimey with life is Yates. "Was there ever a writer who saw so clearly and depicted so faithfully the cracks in this broken world?" Michael Chabon wrote of him.

Rachel, we should start going around the doors, preaching the word of Yates!

deemikay said...

Now, me and novels... I've mentioned it before. So that means I'll probably never read this.

And I'll much more probably avoid the film. (Though I did like KW in Eternal Sunshine...)

Rachel Fox said...

No I thought of that D...but you just said novels of the last 10 years (or was it 20?) and this one's older than that so you have to read it. If you don't Ross and I will keep coming round and leaving copies outside your house till you do.

Of course I'm joking. Read what you like.
x

Rachel Fox said...

And there is heart in Larkin, Ross, it's just a bit of an English one (small, fucked up, bitter, apologetic even...). He's my number one English poet.
x

deemikay said...

True, I did say that (and I think it was 20 years). But even given that, I'm not exactly in the habit of saying "phew, that's my 15th Victorian doorstop this week!"

So, I'll put up a fight when R&R come battering down the door!

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe one day when you're an old, old man you'll read it and think 'they were right, those mad evangelists, this is brilliant.' Ross and I, of course, will both be locked up in some form of institution by then (even if we have to build it ourselves...using only copies of Richard Yates books perhaps). Now I'm just being silly. Move along now.
x

deemikay said...

I'n not saying you're wrong. Just that I can't find the energy to read many novels these days. (But I read lots of other things as you know...) And as lack-of-energy implies that I'm a very, very old man - I think I must be. :)

And I want to be in that institution myself... sounds fun. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Only people who have read the book (and can answer a series of detailed questions on it) will be allowed in...We don't take just anyone you know.
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deemikay said...

I'll make my own then... I'll be far too lack-of-energied to read it in older age.

Ken Armstrong said...

Oh yes, I like the sound of that one... I do. Thanks. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Good man, Ken, you won't regret it.
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