Some Very Good Masters
by Richard Yates
The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1981
IT must have been the movies of the 1930's more than any other influence that got me into the habit of thinking like a writer. I wasn't a bookish child; reading was such hard work for me that I avoided it whenever possible. But I wasn't exactly the rough-and-ready type either, and so the movies filled a double need: They gave me an awful lot of cheap story material and a good place to hide.
When I was about 14, I started submitting movie-haunted stories to my English teachers, as if to prove there was something I could do, but it wasn't until three or four years later that reading, both fiction and poetry, began to sweep the movies into a dark and vaguely shameful corner of my mind, where they have remained ever since. I almost never go to a movie now, and have been known to explain loftily, if not quite at the top of my lungs, that this is because movies are for children.
At 20, fresh out of the Army and surfeited with Thomas Wolfe, I embarked on a long binge of Ernest Hemingway that entailed embarrassingly frequent attempts to talk and act like characters in the early Hemingway books. And I was hooked on T.S. Eliot at the same time, which made for an uncomfortable set of mannerisms.
But F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby turned out to be the most nourishing novel I read, in much the same way that my discovery of John Keats some years earlier made most other English lyric poets seem insubstantial. Like certain of Keats's poems, Fitzgerald's novel is a short piece of work that gains range as it gathers momentum, until the end of it leaves you with a stunning illumination of the world. And the best part of this for an apprentice writer is that the novel can be seen not only as a miracle of talent but as a triumph of technique, suggesting at least a hope that you might be able to figure out how it's done.
You can figure out the important part of it almost at once: Every line of dialogue in Gatsby serves to reveal more about the speaker than the speaker might care to have revealed. The author never permits his use of dialogue to become merely "realistic," with people exchanging flat, information-laden sentences, but contrives time and again to catch all his characters, however subtly, in the very act of giving themselves away.
An especially pure concentration of that skill occurs in the talk at the awful little party in Myrtle Wilson's apartment--the party that provides Nick Carraway with a well-earned observation that has always struck me as an eloquent statement of every storyteller's quandary and delight:
"Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase "objective correlative" until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are "the finest specimens of human molars."
Get it? Got it. That's what Eliot meant.
Or the heap of custom-made shirts into which Daisy Buchanan weeps "stormily" during her first visit to Jay Gatsby's house. ("They're such beautiful shirts. It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before.")
Or the homely entries in Gatsby's boyhood "Schedule" and "Resolves," which his father carefully reads aloud to Nick, as if for Nick's own use and profit, after Gatsby is dead.
The Great Gatsby, along with most of Fitzgerald's other work, was my formal introduction to the craft.
In 1951, when I was 25, the Veteran's Administration bailed me out of gainful employment with a disability pension for a rapidly healing case of TB, and so for the next two and a half years I lived in Europe with nothing to do but write short stories and try to make each one better than the last. I learned a lot. Being allowed to write full-time was very instructive in itself, and I also learned how rich the American language can be when most of it must be dredged up from memory.
Three of those stories were sold to magazines before I came home, and there were five more sales over the next few years. But suddenly I was 29, earning my living as a freelance public-relations writer--an activity I can recommend to no one--and it was increasingly clear that I had better write a novel soon.
That was when Madame Bovary took command. I had read it before but hadn't studied it the way I'd studied "Gatsby" and other books; now it seemed ideally suited to serve as a guide, if not a model, for the novel that was taking shape in my mind. I wanted that kind of balance and quiet resonance on every page, that kind of foreboding mixed with comedy, that kind of inexorable destiny in the heart of a lonely, romantic girl. And all of it, of course, would have to be done with an F. Scott Fitzgerald kind of freshness and grace.
Like many other readers, I have always felt that the first 70 pages of Madame Bovary aren't as good as they could have been, but from the moment Charles and Emma are invited to the society dance, Flaubert lets everything start to roll.
And talk about "objective correlatives"!
- When Charles finds a green silk cigar case in the dust of a road newly trampled by heroic-looking horsemen, and when Emma later hides it away from him for her own use as a source of voluptuous daydreams.
- When Rodolphe has his farewell letter to Emma delivered at the bottom of a gift basket of apricots, and when Charles then unwittingly drives her over the edge of a nervous breakdown by thrusting one of those apricots under her nose and saying, "Smell that fragrance!"
- When the pharmacist's young apprentice Justin, who is helplessly in love with Emma, is cruelly reprimanded by his employer, in her presence, for possessing an illustrated marriage manual and for messing around with the jar of arsenic. Wow.
Another thing I have always liked about both Gatsby and Bovary is that there are no villains in either one. The force of evil is felt in these novels but is never personified--neither novelist is willing to let us off that easily. Tom and Daisy Buchanan might have been blamed for Jay Gatsby's death, but Fitzgerald prevents us from seeing it that way by having Nick say, in his own final judgment, that they were simply "careless people." Charles Bovary might have every right to hold Rodolphe responsible for Emma's eventual suicide, but when he accidentally meets the man afterward he says, "I don't blame you. Fate is to blame."
Here are some of the other writers without whose work I might never have put together a halfway decent book of my own: Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Conrad, Joyce, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Sinclair Lewis, Ring Lardner, Dylan Thomas, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce.
It would be easy to extend this list to twice its length by bringing it up to the present day, but I have come to distrust any such list as sounding like the membership roster of a private club, or like the breathless final results of some popularity contest.
Time is everything. I am 55 now, and my first grandchild is expected in June. It has been many years since I was a young man, let alone an apprentice writer. But the eager, fearful, self-hectoring spirit of the beginner is slow to fade. With my 8th book just begun - and with deep regret for the desolate wastes of time that have kept it from being my 10th or 12th - I feel I haven't really started yet. And I suppose this rather ludicrous condition will persist, for better or worse, until my time runs out.