Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’
November 5, 2013 | by John Freeman
Seven years ago I was walking up Fifth Avenue with David Foster Wallace. He wanted to know what I thought of The Names. That one’s the key, he said, speaking of Don DeLillo’s work like it was a safe which contained its own code. It was hat-and-glove weather. Wallace wore a purple sweatshirt. Where did I get my coat? he asked. That’s a great coat, he said. It was like something James Bond would wear. Had I been to this restaurant before?
We had just walked into Japonica, a sushi restaurant on University Place. Our interview was underway, and Wallace was already several questions ahead of nearly every writer I had ever profiled. Most writers, even the most curious one, don’t ask questions of a journalist. Nor should they, necessarily. They are the ones being interviewed, after all.
Wallace, however, seemed to think in the interrogative mode. He was tall and slightly sweaty, looking like he had just come from a run. But he seemed determined not to intimidate. He was like a big cat pulling out his claws, one question at a time. See, look, I’m not going to be difficult.
Once we got going, though—and there was a propulsive, caffeinated momentum to the way he talked—he returned, constantly, to questions. Had I ever written about my life? It’s hard, right? Are celebrities even the same species as us? Is it possible to show what someone was really like in a profile?
“These nonfiction pieces feel to me like the very hardest thing that I do,” he said, talking about Consider the Lobster, the book he had just published, “because reality is infinite.” And then. “God only knows what you are jotting.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this encounter lately. For the past fifteen years, I have interviewed a lot of writers. A few hundred—perhaps too many, but why not say yes? Shortly out of college a friend gave me a vintage set of The Paris Review Book of Interviews. They exhaled the flinty musk of a cigar smoker’s home, and were as snappy as the lining of a 1940s dinner jacket. Read More »
September 6, 2013 | by Jonathan Franzen
This week, to celebrate the launch of our Fall issue, we will preview a few of our favorite footnotes from “Against Heine,” Jonathan Franzen’s translation of the Austrian writer Karl Kraus. Click here to get your subscription now!
In the end, the people who never came out of their province will go farther than the people who never came into one.89
89 I think there’s a lot of truth in this, but Kraus also seems to be making an implicit claim about his own decision to remain rooted in Vienna, in contradistinction to Heine. Here’s the story I tell myself about his agon with Heine. Basically, Kraus arrives too late. He’s an assimilated Jew who has an enormous facility with language but strikingly less talent with “original” forms like poetry, drama, and fiction. And unfortunately there’s already been a German-speaking Jew like him—Heine—who, worse yet, became one of the most famous and influential writers of the previous century. Kraus needs room to live and to work and to believe in the necessity of his work, and what does he have to hold on to in his struggle against his famous precursor? His feeling that there was something wrong with Heine—with the work, the man, his language. And so the story that he tells himself is that Heine was a proto-Kraus who betrayed his gifts by his moral failings and thereby betrayed assimilated German Jews, too. Heine helped create the stereotype of the rootless, linguistically facile Jew. Without Heine, no feuilleton, yes. But also: without Heine, Kraus could simply have been a great satirist who happened to be Jewish. Hence, I propose, the ferocity of the attack in this essay, and the peculiarly moral tone of it. If Kraus also sounds an anti-Semitic note, it’s because he’s trying to annihilate the bad Jew, the stereotypical Jew, so as not to hate himself. That so many Gentile German philistines are willing to forgive Heine’s Jewishness only adds to his rage.
I, too, often make moral arguments about art, but on my better days I’m suspicious of them, because I’m aware of the envy, the powerlessness and self-pity, that lurks behind them. Back in the nineties, I spent a lot of time assembling a moral case against John Updike. I was offended (rightly, I still think) by Updike’s famous comparison of a writer’s work to excretion: you take in life, digest it, and shit it out in paragraphs. Updike was very proud of his three-pages-per-day regularity, and I didn’t need to know much about his personal history to imagine his mother crowing over the neatness and beauty of his daily bowel movements. My moral complaint was that Updike had tremendous, Nabokov-level talent and was wasting it, because he was too charmed by his daily dumps and too afraid of irregularity to take the kind of big literary risks that might have blocked him for a year or two. His lifelong penchant for alliteration was of a piece with this. It made reading even his otherwise fine stories about the Maples painful; I couldn’t get through more than a few lines without running aground on the anal-retentive preciousness of his prose. Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive processes, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist. David Foster Wallace was the one who actually called Updike an asshole in print (in the New York Observer), but I felt the same way. If you’d suggested that I envied Updike for his unobstructed productivity, or for all the women he got to go to bed with him (and then wrote about in graphic detail), I would only have restated my moral case more trenchantly.
Later on, after Updike ceased to seem like such a threat, I went through a period of feeling deeply censorious of Philip Roth, because he didn’t seem to care about his many glaring technical deficiencies as a fiction writer, and because his admirers didn’t seem to, either. Roth’s writing seemed to me, as Kraus says of Heine’s, “always and overplainly informative,” which was why, I believed, the philistines had come to tolerate him a lot better than he tolerated the philistines. As with Updike, my judgments had a flavor of Krausian moralism: Roth was lazy, Roth was an asshole, etc. Naturally, I believed that I was merely sticking up for vital aesthetic virtues—a fiction writer ought to be able to write good dialogue, create convincing and well-rounded female characters, and let a story tell itself without discursive intrusions—but these “vital” virtues happened to coincide with some of my own abilities as a fiction writer. To make my moral case against Roth, I had to ignore or downplay other plausible virtues, most notably Roth’s heroic fearlessness of his readers’ moral judgments, because I subterraneanly envied his fearlessness and wanted people to pay attention to me and not him. This was the kind of thing that Nietzsche had in mind when he mocked the “slave” mentality of moral judgments.
“Heine and the Consequences” is the document of Kraus’s struggle to overcome his great precursor. On his own terms, he may have succeeded; his best-known and most shattering work, The Last Days of Mankind (a documentary “drama” of the First World War) was written in the decade that followed. German readers, however, are not so convinced that he vanquished Heine. My friend Daniel Kehlmann, the Austrian novelist, loves the essay and grants that Kraus scores a lot of points off Heine in it. “But,” he says, “Heine is still wonderful, too.”
May 6, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
The first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way was published almost exactly a hundred years ago. Its opening lines make one thing inescapably apparent: Proust’s style is inimitable; there is much more to it than long sentences, pauses for reminiscence and brittle cookie breaks, and whatever other tropes readers have associated with Proust. It is a style that tussles with our notion of literary temporality itself. Over the last century, countless translators have struggled with these famous opening lines:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: « Je m’endors. »
Nobody seems to be able to agree whether to translate the verb of the principal clause as a conditional or a past participle, because while in French it is obviously the latter, it seems to act as the former. We’ve had various degrees of “went to bed early,” “used to go to bed early,” “would go to bed early,” each meaning more or less the same thing, but none hitting the nail directly on the head.
Scholars have found these lines, at once, undeniably charming and a huge pain to work with.
But in this seemingly untranslatable sentence, even among translators—whose very job it is to take troublesome idioms and phrases and grammatical twists and make them legible and appropriate, and to do so by imparting as much of Proust’s style and as little of their own as possible—there is so much variety that it raises another important question: How would this sentence have been handled by other writers? Read More »
August 30, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
July 20, 2012 | by Lorin Stein
Have made writing full time. Have novel and short essays. Attended NYU’s Summer Writer program last year. Would you have a good list of places for submissions beyond The Paris Review, The New Yorker and The New York Times? Thank you for reaching out via Twitter and offering some of us (hopefully lovable) newbies some guidance.
We get asked this a lot. It’s a reasonable question, but it always makes our hearts sink.
Here’s the thing: no matter how many classes you take, no matter how much time you spend at the keyboard, you cannot write seriously unless you read. And that means, partly, reading your contemporaries. Their problems are your problems; you can’t write—that is, you can’t write for serious readers—until you know what the problems are. Read More »
May 14, 2012 | by Sadie Stein