On Novels and Novelists

To give and reconcile: Lois Lowry discusses childhood, importance of fiction

In a recent talk at Bowdoin College in Maine, award-winning author Lois Lowry discussed how her books in many ways reflect her own life:

In a winding narrative of her life story, Lowry intertwined personal anecdotes, beginning with her childhood, with their parallels in the subject matter of her subsequent novels. She told of her first novel, “Autumn Street,” which was inspired by her life as a child in Pennsylvania.

Reporter Surya Milner reports that it became clear from students’ remarks that one of the features of Lowry’s work that they most appreciate is “a style that, at times, integrates harsh or uncomfortable realities with the familiar comfort of childhood.”

Lowry said that her own experience taught her “how profoundly affecting a book can be for a kid at a particular time in his or her life.”

75 Years After Steinbeck Sailed, a Boat Is Readied to Go Back to Sea

In 1950 John Steinbeck and his friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, along with a crew of four sailed a wooden boat, the Western Flyer, down the coast from California to Mexico. They spend six weeks collecting marine specimens. Steinbeck wrote a book, The Log From the Sea of Cortex, published in 1951, about their experiences. The trip also provided the outline of the character Doc in Cannery Row.

John Gregg, a geologist and businessman from California, bought the boat for $1 million this year and is having it restored at a boatyard in Port Townsend, WA. Restoration of the badly damaged boat as a science education vessel will require an additional $2 million.

The restoration is a labor of love for Gregg:

When he was 11 and growing up in southern Georgia, a bookmobile carrying a copy of the book came to his neighborhood. That one book, Mr. Gregg said in an interview on the Flyer’s deck — the air full of the scent of pine tar, gulls cawing on the waterfront — turned him into a scientist and a lover of boats at the same time.

Plans call for the boat to be sea-ready by 2018. In the meantime, juniors and seniors from Port Townsend High School are studying Steinbeck’s books about boats and fishing: Cannery Row, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, and The Pearl. The literary unit will also include visits to the boatyard to study the boat and its history.

Ross Macdonald at 100

The Santa Barbara Independent celebrates one of the city’s most famous residents:

On the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday, the great detective novelist Ross Macdonald is poised to enter into his greatest period of renown since the 1970s, when his books were international best-sellers and he was on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

Ross Macdonald, pseudonym for Kenneth Millar, was one of the most influential writers in the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction. Born in 1915, Millar was raised mainly in rural Canada. He first came to Santa Barbara, CA, in 1946 and settled permanently there in the 1950s.

This long article analyzes the work of Macdonald, which has influenced many other writers, including Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Richard North Patterson, and Jonathan Kellerman.

Fortunately, Macdonald’s singular voice as a writer has not been silenced. His effortlessly flowing prose, his intuitive feel for the human condition, and his enduring integrity ensure that his work will continue to be read by people who care about what the detective novel can accomplish. The combined publication of the 1950s crime novels, the Archer short stories, and the Welty-Macdonald letters constitute a treasure trove for readers, those new to Macdonald and those returning to his works, those interested in detective fiction and those simply interested in great prose.

On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

The Classics Spin #9: “Cannery Row”

Back in March I won the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for The Classics Spin #9. And I mistakenly thought the completion date was May 15. In fact, it was May 5. Not that it really matters, since I’m a bit late either way. But I did finally finish reading the book on the plane flight to Europe.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
Original publication date: 1945
Rpt. New York: Penguin, 2002
ISBN 978–1–101–65979–3

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chopped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

This opening paragraph introduces readers to Cannery Row, where, when the “cannery whistles scream … men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.” But at day’s end, after these workers “straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town … Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns.”

The book’s narrator asks, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” He decides that the way to write this book is “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

And so, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row tells the story of this place through the intertwining stories of its inhabitants. Set during the Great Depression, the book portrays a time when work was hard and life was even harder.

The main characters include Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated; Lee Chong, a local Chinese grocer; Mack, the leader of a group of unemployed men; and Dora, owner of the local brothel. The book acknowledges the characters’ many faults—drunkenness, malingering, craftiness—while at the same time portraying their good qualities—kindness, charity, friendship. After all, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” are the same as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown