I’ve been saving the contents of old floppy disks onto my computer. It’s a long process, and I get distracted by these things I wrote ten to twenty years ago, feeling by turns regret, pride, melancholy, and surprise. Continue reading
Lying in bed half asleep, the radio news from the crash site washing over me, I thought of this passage from Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, a novel soaked in death. Is part of the preoccupation with MH17 the unimaginable horror of dying in the air?
Just as the Lockerbie air disaster is the backdrop to late 1988 in literature, mid-2014 will have MH17, stirring memories in future years of those amateur militia, the fields strewn with luggage, the reporters with their noses covered outside the horror-trains full of bodies in the heat.
As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold fast a diamond solitaire. There has been a lot of death in the newspapers lately. Before Christmas that Pan Am Flight 103 ripping open like a rotten melon five miles above Scotland and dropping all these bodies and flaming wreckage all over the golf course and the streets of this little town like Glockamorra, what was its real name, Lockerbie. Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and giant ripping noise and shattered screams this whole cosy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually still feel packed into your suitcases, stored in the unpressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them.
– John Updike, Rabbit at Rest 8
There’s a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in this weekend’s Australian. It’s a biography which I felt relied far too heavily on Updike’s stories for insight into his life, unpicking the fictionalisation of each piece Updike wrote in an exhaustive and unilluminating way.
Yet, typically, in this review we get so little engagement with the biography itself. Instead, in this case as in many others, a review of a literary biography is a chance for the reviewer to reassess or recap the significance of the biographical subject. A review will draw on the portrait offered in the biography, and give some quick assessment on how good a biography it is, but it will not tend to properly discuss the book as biography. The concept of biography as a literary form is short-changed, and the significance of the biographer downplayed.
It’s understandable why this happens; it reflects the status of biography. Yet reviewing biographies as biography could be a major step forward in the development and recognition of the riches and potential of the genre.
In the first chapter of his biography of Charles Dickens (1990), Peter Ackroyd describes the death of Dickens’ infant brother and comments:
If the infant Charles had harboured resentful or even murderous longings against the supplanter, how effectively they had come home to roost! And how strong the guilt might have been. Might have been – that is necessarily the phrase. And yet when the adulthood of Dickens is considered, with all its evidences that Dickens did indeed suffer from an insiduous pressure of irrational guilt, and when all the images of dead infants are picked out of his fiction, it is hard to believe that this six-month episode in the infancy of the novelist did not have some permanent effect upon him. (18)
What are we to make of this technique, ‘might have been’? Probably, the ‘might have been’ will not be justified again (‘that is necessarily the phrase’) throughout the long tome of a biography. ‘Might have beens’ make for interesting reading – what is a biography without speculation? But ‘might have beens’ need to be made by a biographer who is fair and insightful and knowledgeable. (And I suspect Ackroyd has those qualities.)
Note also the appeal to Dickens’ fiction; every literary biographer does this; Adam Begley overdoes it in his new biography of John Updike, every scene from Updike’s life explained by a story or novel he wrote. It’s a dangerous business; so far Ackroyd does it in a suggestive and interesting way. But we’re all meant to know Dickens’ work, and he can refer ahead to characters like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, etc – what of the writer people are not so familiar with – like KSP?
I’m sad to read of the death of British writer Sue Townsend at 68. I’ve read all the Adrian Mole novels but for the Lost Diaries and love the wry commentary on British society and current affairs from the Falklands War in 1981 in the first novel through to the Iraq War in Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and beyond. I felt like the series would go on forever.
Comic writing feels more immune to death. It seems to have already faced up to mortality, and got over it. But Adrian Mole was always getting older; she probably would have even killed him off soon, which I would have found unbearable. There was always a sadness reading about him in his mediocrity. It produces the humour, but it also touches a nerve: everyone thinks they’re special, everyone wants their own specialness recognised. We laugh at Adrian because we can see himself more clearly than he can. But can we see ourselves?
The novels Adrian Mole made me think of are Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Updike’s Rabbit novels are not primarily comic, but they are quite funny; more importantly, they explore the shifts in America over decades through the eyes of an everyman. (Updike did kill Rabbit off before dying a little prematurely himself.) The comparison to Holden Caulfield is a little more obvious, but an interesting one, because Holden is the adolescent we know is special, and it lends his plight a particular kind of poignance. What Townsend makes us realise is that there can be a different kind of poignance in the everyman.
I was meaning to pay tribute to Townsend, and there I am writing about Adrian Mole. I hope she understands. It sounds like she had a hard life, and her humour came out of dark places.
My copy of this novel is a gaudy movie tie-in on special for $2 from Elizabeth’s Secondhand Bookshop in Fremantle. The characters have the same name as the film, but really that’s where the resemblances finish.
Three divorced women who get together to drink, cast small spells and compare adulteries are entranced by Darryl Van Horne, a rich bachelor newly arrived in Eastwick. Their wild times at his mansion come crashing down when he takes a young bride and his fortune proves to be illusory. The bride develops cancer after the witches cast a spell on her. Are they to blame?
Updike’s novel isn’t primarily a supernatural one; it’s just a theme or background for what is yet another novel about adultery by middle aged, upper middle class Americans. But his prose is often beautiful and his insights sharp.
(I found a great review basically saying what I’ve just said except better: http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_updike_witches.html )