Saturday, March 07, 2009

Richard Yates

The American writer Richard Yates has recently been much in the news, largely thanks to the successful film of his 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio (see a clip from the film at the bottom of this post). Our former colleague in the Department, John Fanagan, has been using the first months of his retirement productively on what he calls a 'binge' in discovering Yates's work, and here writes an introduction to the author. John has also kindly donated all the books to our Library.

[added later : go here for our second podcast, which features John discussing Yates's life and works]

I have just finished A Tragic Honesty , a biography of Richard Yates, who died in 1992. Rarely can a book have been so aptly named: his life was disastrous on a personal level. His parents separated when he was a child and he became a chain-smoking alcoholic. He was attractive to women (and loved them), but his two marriages ended in divorce; he was impossible to live with. Like King Lear, whom he resembles in some ways, he had three daughters. Unlike Lear, they really loved him and he them. They were the joy of his sad life.

If he was a disaster area as a human being, he was a writer of real power. I have read four of his novels and some of his short stories in the last few weeks and am recommending him to all my friends. Of course, because of the success of the film version of his Revolutionary Road, all of his books are back in the bookshops now, in attractive retro-covers, published by Vintage.

His novels and stories are set in early Sixties America and mainly focus on the experiences and relationships of men and women, their ideals and (almost inevitable) disillusionment with their lives. Yates's writings are highly autobiographical: not just about himself in various guises, but his mother, his sister (who died a broken alcoholic is her forties) and friends and acquaintances. Young Hearts Crying (1984), though one of his later novels, has a familiar cast of idealistic young people being bruised by their experiences of the world. For the teenage reader, particularly at a boarding school, I'd recommend A Good School (1978) whose central character, William Grove, is Yates himself: nervous, an aspiring writer, struggling to fit in at an eccentric American boarding school. His ambivalent attitude to the school is both convincing and recognisable.

I laughed out loud at this description of Yates in his car, near the end of his life: ‘a gaunt whiskered old man hunched over the wheel of his tiny car, a cigarette smouldering in one fist while the other clasped an oxygen mask to his face ... the locals seemed to be adjusting, automatically making way when the telltale Mazda came tooling into their ken’. His writing, however, remained beautifully crafted to the end. It took him five years to write his first novel; nearly as many for the second. He had started with short stories and I'm dipping into those now, particularly Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The title says it all.

He is a great writer. Try him.

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