Monday, March 16, 2009

I know what you did last summer


When I open my Stories of John Cheever, pages spill to the floor from the broken spine. I don't know why, but I like it that way, constantly sorting the pages and shoving them back in. This wornout old shoe of a book never goes out in public anyway. I bought it in the early 80's, and have probably read most of the stories 20 times or more. They age well.

When Wallace and Cheever hit the same issue of the NY'r this month, Wallace got 10 pages (or thereabouts) and Cheever one or two. But the life of Cheever has already been examined so extensively, what more to say? Who left to quote? What else to show? The only things we're lacking are chest x-rays and blood tests.

And now it's Wallace's turn to be pinned to the table and split apart for the public autopsy. The betrayals have already started, in the name of ... well, what exactly, I don't know.

I confess. I read biographies of authors, lots of them. And not one has done anything but stain the author's work. After reading a bio, you second-guess the author's creations -- you begin to doubt the reliable narrators, the motives of characters.

A bio will never make an author's work better than it was originally. But I read them to satisfy my prurient interest in what a brilliant person drank and smoked and all the other stuff. Usually bios are at least 25% about sex.

I've read too much about certain authors that they're ruined for me now. Every line has an unintended footnote that I can't erase.

Some authors rise above the gossip whipped up and devoured in their behalf. Yes, it's rather fascinating that such a perfectly crafted and economically worded book as Great Gatsby could have been written by such an emotional mess as FSF. But does that bit of knowledge inform the text at all? No, it's just a momentary distraction from a clear-eyed, wistful story.

33 comments:

  1. I stopped reading author biographies after one particularly scathing one about Scott and Zelda. I just didn't need to know all of it, and it didn't change the fact that the last 10 pages of Gatsby will always reduce me to a blubbering pile of goo, thinking "I'll never write anything approaching this brilliance so why bother?"

    I was crushed when I found out John Irving -- a god to me in my formative years -- dumped his long-suffering wife for his young agent. But it didn't change the fact that Hotel New Hampshire is a great novel!

    I should read Cheever again. It's been years. (Your worn book reminds me of my copy of the complete ee cummings.)

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  2. I need page 337 - where is it??? I remember Cheever's stories being done on PBS - they were fascinating.
    You've got it right on again about knowing too much about the author - and in terrific prose, I might add. The best life an author has that's worth sharing is what is written down by the author - fiction and memoirs - I eat up literary memoirs. Did you ever read "Come tell me how you live?" by Agatha Christie Mallowan (her married name, of her 2nd husband 10 yrs her junior - love that woman) - the description of packing for the trip to Syria to live on a dig is wonderful?
    Or the Susan Allen Toth's books on Smith and England?
    (Sorry this comment is so short...lunchtime is over.)

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  3. i think the end of Great Gatsby is so memorable. In fact, that is all I can remember!

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  4. I haven't read Cheever for many years; I'll have to return to it. I like biographies and because this is me, I especially like to read biographies of noteworthy women, especially anything about Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a truly remarkable person.

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  5. Oh, no! I should have been singing the LaLa song while reading Laurie's post. I didn't know that Irving had dumped his wife for his young agent. I was hoping he would dump wife in favor of ME.

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  6. Assignments all around. Laurie, Margaret & Tash read or re-read Cheever short stories. ken read Gatsby, start to finish (some of his scenes remind me of your photos). I'll reread ee, then freshly read Agatha memoir & ER. Susan, behave.

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  7. That settles it. I will not write your biography. Happy now?

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  8. I'm wracking my brain. I don't think I've ever read an author biography. The biographies I read are generally historical.

    Ah! Dickens. I read his, the one by Peter Ackroyd. It made me appreciate his works more, not less, even though he was a bit of a wacko.

    My assignment, should I choose to accept it, is to read Cheever (I've never read him, I should be forced into exile until I do) and reread Gatsby, which I haven't read since Junior High. Surely at 14 I lacked the maturity to appreciate it; I don't recall the ending you all love.

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  9. I have a great old paperback of Gatsby from the 1940s or 50s that I bought in Berkeley in 1967. I love it because it has flying Rolls Royces and maritini glasses on the cover with shooting-star trails behind them!

    OK, kids, now it's time for "recesso."

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  10. Ever see The Swimmers? It has Joan Rivers in it... a favorite. Outside of instructional manuals the last book I read was Jack Smith. The rare book I've read more then once is Nabokov's Dozen. Artist don't seem to write about themselves. They're generally guarded. Paul Klees writings though are excellent, sexless and complex.

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  11. Now, this is funny. I erased the
    beginning of a comment earlier where I admitted never having read Fitzgerald, or Cheever or finishing college, or...whatever. A long story...i don't want to bore anybody.

    I recall beginning 'Gatsby' but never finishing. Certainly the St. Paul school system never encouraged such intellectual pursuits. What a gulag! And they just keep throwing more money at it
    yet it only gets worse.

    When I was in school we had a handful of people working in the office. Nowadays its layer upon layer of administration.

    They came to my door asking for support to pass a school funding
    referendum. I told 'em to fire half the people working at Colborne
    St. (St. Paul school system headquarters). One of those teachers broke character and laughing, agreed with me.

    If I had such a miserable track record in my trade i'd be hearin'
    "Pack up your tools, Willie, and go home-we don't need you anymore."

    Oh, boy, I've pissed off somebody
    now. As penance I will have to get
    up to the library and get that
    'Gatsby' epic. Cheever, huh?

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  12. I confess to being addicted to books on tape for fiction these days. Right now I'm listening to "A Hole in the Universe" by Mary McGarry Morris. I don't know where it's going and I don't care, it's totally engrossing. I'll look for Cheever - who I have read in a beellion years - but to tell the truth I would rather listen to something by Jasper Fforde, who has a new one coming out in July. His website is a great place to waste time.

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  13. I remember "The Swimmer!" It was unusual and sad. It looks a little dated but would be fun to see again.

    I love audiobooks, PJ. I get so involved in them I wonder if I'm safe behind the wheel. I look for them second-hand, though. Usually they're outrageously priced brand-new.

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  14. Remember double features? Well I saw "The Swimmer" and "The Magus" on the same bill in 1969. Both very interesting movies.

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  15. The Swimmers was rather brilliant. And I believe Burt Lancaster produced it -- have know idea why that piece of trivea is in my brain -- wonder if it's in the right spot. Bandit, you are the only one of us who uses the citation and quotation marks properly. So I'm guessing you're highly self-educated.

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  16. And can probably spell trivia correctly, if pressed.

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  17. The Magus! One of my favorite novels from college. In fact, I liked most of Fowles' stuff. I really must go back and reread Magus to see if I like it as much now. I was way into him then -- along with Kundera and Calvino and John Barth. (I reread Barth recently and yawned a bit.)

    Susan, you crack me up. I felt the same way about John Irving back in the 80s. I actually met him at a student hosted function then and made a complete blithering ass of myself, spilled my margarita on his sleeve and was so embarassed I just turned and ran out. (Jealous?)

    Everybody go back and read Gatsby! I took Cheever off the shelf, AH.

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  18. True Confession:

    I have never read a word of John Irving.

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  19. i must admit I like that dumb movie...gets me every time..

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  20. That's ok, K. I don't think Irving has lasted. Or Barth. They were so much of a particular time. I feel that way about Robbins as well.

    But Kundera -- he'll go on forever.

    KM, I know, so sad. the movie is actually quite true to the story. Cheever would be very difficult to film.

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  21. I still love Robbins. Though his later novels don't have the wow factor of the earlier ones.

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  22. Did you guys see Dick Cavett's interview with Updike and Cheever?

    Cavett posted it on his New York Times blog recently. I watched it out of interest in Updike; my mother was an Updike scholar and published the first book of literary criticism on his works. Because she liked Updike and because I've always been proud of her achievement, I feel a little possessive of him. Updike and Cheever called each other "John." They were fans of each others' work.

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  23. Kind of like my City of Pasadena employee telephone book. It's online now on our Intranet, but I insist on keeping the very old hard-copy version, no longer published. I have it in a litle binder now and many of the pages are loose. I cross names out, add names in. I can't do my job without it.

    OK, so maybe it's not so much like your Cheever example!

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  24. Burt Lancaster: A friend of mine and her girlfriend volunteered to work on John Tunney's senate campaign one time when they were in college at UCLA. They got an assignment to pick up Burt Lancaster at LAX and take him to a rally. They met him out on the tarmac and took him to their small Japanese car. He was kind of surprised but went along with them. My friend and he got into a "debate" over whether he really did his own stunts in some movie or other. Burt was very nice and thanked them profusely for the ride. When they got to the rally, however, the campaign people were embarassed at how this could have happened and whisked Burt away from the girls as quickly as possible. But when it was time for him to return to LAX, Burt insisted that he ride back with "his girls" in the little Japanese car, now escorted by a couple of big black campaign vehicles.

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  25. I love that story Earl. Big fan of BL here; I adore Local Hero.

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  26. And let's not forget the greatest movie in the history of World Cinema:

    "The Sweet Smell of Success"

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  27. Earl:

    Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

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  28. Petrea, I know what you mean about $$$$$ of books on tape/cd. I buy them second hand as well. I don't know that there's such a thing as Cheever on tape. Maybe we can get KB to be our reader.

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  29. Petrea: I was thinking more Bugs Bunny. ;-)

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  30. We know, Earl.

    PJ, fan of recorded books as well. I listen to them while hiking. Petrea would be the better audio star, however.

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  31. I didn't get it, he was explaining for my benefit. Thanks, Earl.

    I'd love to do an audiobook, especially yours, Karin.

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  32. whatever you do don't read Son of the Circus by J. Irving...It is way, way too bizzare even for him.
    -K- I loved Irving at 25. Either he didn't age well or I didn't. I prefer it to be him.

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