Thursday, May 21, 2009

Updike, Roth, Dreiser

This blog entry was really started by my blogger friend, Emily, who “tagged” me to name twenty-five writers who have “influenced” my life (not necessarily because they are great writers). Although I “answered” her with just their names, I had promised to explain why. To me, reading literature is to explore history and psychology, the human tapestry laid threadbare. Basically I am drawn to those writers I can personally relate to and I’m embarrassed to admit that those I like the most I take the longest to read, lingering over the experience so as to savor every word.

Before getting to my more detailed “answer” by writer, this is what I originally wrote to Emily:

“I’m not too good at this – in fact as I don’t “do” Facebook, I don’t even know what getting “tagged” means. But I think I get the gist of it. This is an interesting project, one that I would have to give a lot of thought to explain why I chose my 25 writers. It is something I might get to this summer. Frequently, the reasoning will be that one writer brought me to another wonderful writer, simple as that. So, I promise, sometime in the future I’ll write an entry on this, but I can’t promise I’ll “tag” 25 other bloggers – I don’t even read that many blogs and except for yours, they are mostly financially oriented (that reveals where my own blog is frequently slanted). But I did come up with my 25 authors and so, below, here’s the list in the order as I thought of them (might have to be rearranged when I think this through). There is a heavy bias to contemporary American fiction, with one biographer in the group. I could name scores of writers who have written for me their one-time classic (such as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” or Alan Lightman’s “The Diagnosis”), not to mention the writers I studied in college (Franz Kafka for instance), who have had an impact on me and therefore could easily be added to the list. I could also add Pat Conroy whom you mention, but he didn’t come up when I went through this mental exercise. One of the best works I read by him is a memoir, “My Losing Season” but you’d have to love basketball as much as I do to appreciate it. Also, I share your admiration for Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift” and “Rule of the Bone” (which I think is his best work). Here are the 25, off the top of my head:”

So, further expanding my answer, I am going to keep the same order, as they came to me, but no other significance beyond that.

John Updike. If one searches “Updike” in my blog you will find other entries. I once saw him at a Pen Writers meeting where he was the main speaker and wanted to go over to him to chat. He seemed so approachable and kindly, but I became involved in a discussion with Russell Baker whose book All Things Considered we had just reissued. So other people surrounded Updike and I thought there would be other opportunities, at the Frankfurt Bookfair or perhaps the American Booksellers Association meetings, or another Pen Writers conference, but our paths never crossed again, other than his speaking to me through his works. Updike’s influence on me is he not only helped explain the American Zeitgeist, but he also explored issues relevant to my “maleness” ten years hence, as Updike was nearly exactly ten years older than I. The stages of Harry Angstrom’s life as depicted in the Rabbit novels are neatly spaced out about a decade apart, so painstakingly capturing the times in America, his maturation and ultimate decline.

I am now reading his last novel, the Widows of Eastwick, with sadness and reverence for a great American writer. Only a man who has walked the walk can write words such as this: "Jim's illness drove her and Jim down from safe, arty Taos into the wider society, the valleys of the ailing, a vast herd moving like stampeded bison toward the killing cliff. The socialization forced upon her -- interviews with doctors, most of them unsettlingly young; encounters with nurses, demanded merciful attentions the hospitalized patient was too manly and depressed to ask for himself; commiseration with others in her condition, soon-to-be widows and widowers she would have shunned on the street but now, in these antiseptic hallways, embraced with shared tears -- prepared her for travel in the company of strangers." Unfortunately, I’ve had similar “hospital experiences” and dread the inevitability of an encore. But, now, with Updike gone, I think of his poem “Perfection Wasted” which you can find at the very end of this blog entry.

Philip Roth. I think I respond in a similar way to Roth, a writer who seems to know me but in a different way. Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman narrates the novel. It is through Zuckerman in many of Roth’s other works that we have a window into Roth’s view of writing itself. The Anatomy Lesson is one of the “Zuckerman” novels. In it Zuckerman is thinking about his writing and what it had become in his life:

“It looked as though life had become bigger yet. Writing would intensify everything even further. Writing, as Mann had testified – not least by his own example – was the only worthwhile attainment, the surpassing experience, the exalted struggle, and there was no way to write other than like a fanatic. Without fanaticism, nothing great in fiction could ever be achieved. He had the highest possible conception of the gigantic capacities of literature to engulf and purify life. He would write more, publish more, and life would become colossal.

But what became colossal was the next page. He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead. Inherent in this choice was a paradox that he had never foreseen.”

Of course in spite of all of Zuckerman’s protestations, Roth has gone on to write at least a dozen novels after that one, and, thankfully, is still going strong. His more recent works are dark, clearly concerned with his physical decline and the future. But, writing is work, something that I have found, and few work as vigorously and focused as Roth.

Theodore Dreiser. I skip to a writer of my college years, having devoured everything he wrote during those years, either for assignments or just because I found his Darwinian philosophy of life a revelation at the time. I spent a harrowing week in the Brooklyn Hospital ward with pleurisy, the consequence of teenage stupidity because I had taken caffeine tablets for a couple of all-nighters to study for exams and became exhausted. This led to my contracting that most painful condition. In the hospital I began to read Dreiser’s “Cowperwood trilogy,” the first two written before the 1920’s and the last one some thirty years later after WW II, tracing the life of financier Frank Cowperwood. Cowperwood’s life is built around an economically and socially hostile world, where the survival of the fittest reigns supreme. On his way to school as a ten year old, the future financier passes a store window which exhibits a lobster and a squid contained in a fish tank and one day he discovers the lobster had devoured the squid, Dreiser commenting: “The incident had a great impression on him. It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: How is life organized? Things lived on each other – that was it…Sure, men lived on men.” This social-Darwinian leitmotif runs through all of his writings and became a worldview that reverberated throughout my working life. My DNA, though, prevented me from doing the “eating” but I learned how not “to be eaten.” In my very first job after college I was thrown to the wolves in the production department of the now defunct Johnson Reprint Corporation, which was part of Academic Press. By “wolves” I mean coworkers who did not like my intense work ethic and would have eaten me alive except I learned how to deal with them from my Dreiser “education.” That education would prove to be valuable right up to my retirement, helping me negotiate the labyrinths of corporate politics as well.

That’s it for this session, three down, and only twenty-two to go! Just looking over the remaining list I can see that this is going to take a very long time to do thoughtfully. Rather than rushing through it, I’ll post installments as time permits, leaving the rest of the list a mystery although perhaps you can guess many just from the first few.