Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 25, 2009

The Sunday Salon: films, writing, literary prizes and some more

tssbadge42After the excitement of Obama’s inauguration and the great expectations heaped on him, the Oscar nominations were announced.  All glitter and glamour provide a welcome distraction from underlying economic decline and gloomy prospects within a world that’s still full of war and other devastations.

The papers this week and my Sunday Salon reading provide a reflection of this mixed bag of excitement and woe.

Whereas Tom Cruise has been hailed as a star in Valkyrie, a film in which he plays the Colonel at the head of a high level plot to assassinate Hitler, Jennie McCartney in the Sunday Telegraph does not think highly of this film and writes that it is not a convincing portrait of Germany at the time.  I’ll defer judgement until I’ve seen the film but the fact that Frank Kermode thinks it’s a film ‘that works for him’, even if all Germans speak with English accents, is enough of a recommendation for me. 

Kate Winslett has been nominated for her part in ‘The Reader’ a film that manages to evoke the kind of questions and moral dilemmas equal to any well written book.  I came out of this feeling dumbfounded by the realisation that there is not an easy solution to the Reader’s (Ralph Fiennes) contradictory feelings engendered by first love and realisation of what the woman he loved has been involved with. 

On to another film, one I have not seen yet.  Rather than seeing the film first I read Yates’s book The Revolutionary Road last week. To be frank, I had never heard of Yates (described by one Sunday reviewer as ‘someone with a cult following in America’) but having read the book I am greatly impressed by his writing which depicts a suburban America in the 50s that is abysmal and gloomy.  The protagonists, the Wheelers, husband and wife, drink so much that you wonder how they can ever sit up straight, let alone do a day’s work or look after their two children.  Nevertheless, just as Yates himself slowly drank (and smoked) himself into oblivion, yet managed to write books and depict characters with a precision that is lucid and perceptively sharp, similarly the Wheelers go through their days, meet up with friends, have disastrous affairs, and analyse their predicaments, until the inevitable catastrophic end.  It’s a desperately gloomy book with unlikeable characters, yet depicts a truth in the environment and an existence that the Wheelers are unable to escape from.  Yates has a desperate and gloomy world view, nevertheless I could not put the book down, was drawn along into the inevitable tragedy and in the depiction of a life not worth living.  So I shall look forward to watching the film and also to reading some more of Yates’ stories.  Justine Picardie in The Sunday Telegraph supplement recommends Yates’ short story collection ‘Liars in Love’ suggesting not only that Yates is a remarkable writer but also that reading him may help you to stop drinking:  

His fiction continues to serve as a warning of how alcohol leads to disgrace and collapse, yet his life remains oddly heroic…. He may have been a drunk but the never lost his resolve as a writer, and therefore never gave up. [Justine Picardie – The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 25 January 2009].

I started today with reading one or two articles in Prospect, a magazine that I  once in a while pick at a newsagent or bookshop.  In ‘The art of prize-fighting’, Tom Chatfield considers prizes as a vital part of the modern market for serious literature, but ‘they’re also increasingly flawed and compromised.’ Literature prizes go as far back as the Greeks who founded the idea, with a Greek calendar stuffed with contests.  However, only at the beginning of the 20th century was the modern concept of literary prizes invented with the Nobel Prize.  Since this introduction however numerous others followed, from the Pulitzer in America to the Booker in England.  However, Chatfield notes that ‘….the bottom line is that [this] public are ill-served by much of the current marketplace of overlapping awards…’ and there is a real danger that ‘…. the public notion of a great book is allowed to wither into tautology: one that wins prizes and should be bought, but doesn’t need to be read.’  A health warning in other words, that within all the circus of prizes and awards really new and innovative ‘great’ writing gets lost.  You can log onto the website and provide your comments on the Prospect blog.

This discussion chimes nicely with the reading of, and thinking about, another book that I have on my shelves and pick up every so often, to read a page or a few pages, Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard, which mysteriously has reappeared on the Amazone website.  As I mentioned, a copy was was sent to me by Lisa when I complained that I could not find it here except as part of a very expensive collection of Annie Dillard’s work.  I am glad to see it back on the lists, even if only as a second hand option.  It is a lovely book that helps me to think about writing and also about how you in fact review books.  In one of the first chapters Dillard notes that it is integrity that separates art (‘great literature’ in my translation) from non-art.  Arbitrariness is damning and meaning in art is contextual.  Integrity must forge the true connections on the page.  Something to think about.

how-not-to-write-a-novelThe Sunday Times reviews a book that I will definitely get hold of: How not to write a novel – 200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published’, by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark.  I know, there are endless books around that tell you how to write , but this book gets a real thumbs up as a refreshingly new approach to writing for aspiring writers.  It is about what NOT to do, rather than what to do. 

Meanwhile, we’re halfway through Sunday and rather than being able to while the rest of the afternoon away with all this fantastic reading that’s around I have to open up the work laptop and write an executive summary of a lengthy report on merger of two colleges…  Creative?  Mmm, I don’t think so, not in the sense of literary creativity.  As a consolation prize I have Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz on my bedside table.  Come what may, that means I shall go to bed early! 

 The Septembers of Shiraz



  1. This sounds like a book worthy of going to bed early! Realllll early!

  2. Fantastic post! You have been busy this week. I feel compelled to read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD before seeing the movie too — and I’m a huge Kate Winslet fan, so there’s no chance I won’t see the film.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying Annie Dillard. I very much enjoy what she says about fiction, more from a critical standpoint than anything else. My reading list grew much longer after reading the book.

  3. Dear SC, I went to see REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Went innocently, with a few very good friends. Sometimes, we go to the “art” theatre where you can see non-mainstream stuff. We plunked down and we chatting and laughing. The film began and I had a bad feeling, it was the expression on Kate Winslet’s face as she stood on the stage taking bows that were really rather desultory. Uh oh, I said. Then there was a better moment (what was it?) and I thought, oh, OK. This will be allright.
    But it wasn’t.
    It never got right.
    The film was intense and very black and white. As in, I would have sworn that I watched it in black and white. There was no color.
    So I guess it was brilliantly done.
    We came out into the lobby and looked at one another and Lisa said, “I’d like a drink.” And I said, “I’d like a cigarette.” There was so much of both in the film, honestly, you start to feel like you could or should do it, too.
    Nonsense of course.
    Geez. Powerful film.
    Also makes me long for a really good, well-written (maybe Nora Ephron) romantic comedy.

    I suspect the film will draw you just as the book did.
    Let me know.

  4. bbbeader: I’m halfway through I think… fascinating book
    lisakenny: Kate W was very good in The Reader too – so now that I’ve finished Revolutionary Road I cannot wait to see the film!
    Oh: it sounds as if the film starts where the book starts, i.e. with a flop of a play and yes, the books is hugely hugely depressing but so well written! Film ‘s not on yet in the cinema I recently discovered: a nice one with a couple of small screens, just opened, with slightly more ‘highbrow’ stuff… Very enjoyable.

  5. This was a great post, and it really made me think. I’ll probably see the adaptation of Rev. Road before I read the book. My, it does sound depressing!
    I read “The Feminine Mystique” in my early 20’s, and I recall the author saying that women in the 1950’s were incredibly unhappy because of the ultra-femme roles (June Cleaver, etc.) they felt forced into. Many of them were alcoholics and would start drinking way before the kids got home from school. It was their way of coping with their miserable little lives.
    Now, on to lit. prizes… There is not a single Orange Prize winner I could ever get through, and the same goes for the Booker. I don’t even look at the winners anymore. The juries, (at least for those 2 awards) must be nose-in-the-air lit snobs who choose the prizes based on how intelligent they think their boring and convoluted choices will make them look.

  6. I have never heard of Richard Yates up until the release of the film, Revolutionary Road. Immediately I realize how much I have missed out not reading this American author, who has a knack to delineate his characters with a very lucid vision but a detached air. Both the novel and film convey a very forlorn American in the 1950s. Self-deception dooms the couple, at least their selves. I am also planning to read The reader before the Academy Award.

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