Friday, January 30, 2009

From Updike to Queneau - and back again?

It seemed appropriate to write something about John Updike this week, but while I was still planning the perfect angle, I was side-tracked by an email from my friend H who is also a reading writer - or a writing reader - like me. It was simply entitled Updike is dead and consisted of a single line, a link to the writer's obituary in the New York Times:

I read the tribute and was rather amused by the fact that judges of Britain's infamous Bad Sex in Fiction Prize had recently 'honoured' Updike for 'lifetime achievement'. Of course I knew that whatever I wrote about Updike would contain some reference to his sexual, well, not activity - unless one can call writing about sex a sexual activity? - but at least to the way he brought suburban sex to mainstream literature with a novel like Couples in the sixties. I read Couples more than a decade after it had first appeared, when I was finally old enough to appreciate it, and frankly, I found quite a lot to appreciate.

Thanks for the link, I replied to H's email. Wanted to scribble something about him in my blog. It's true that his sex scenes sometimes sounded ridiculous - as most sex scenes taken out of context? - but I have to admit that 'Couples' (especially the sex) made a huge impression on me in my youthful innocence.

I don't know him all that well, H replied, but his short stories are fantastic. His literary essays too. He wrote a beautiful essay, 'Getting the words out', drawing a link between his stuttering and his writing. My partner was also mad about 'Couples'. Have you read Colim Toibin's 'The Master' (about Henry James)? Definitely my book of the past 12 months. Now I also want to read Michiel Heyns and Lodge's books about him. I also read Perec's 'A Void' (originally 'La Disparition' in French). Normally intellectual pyrotechnics don't impress me - but fuck if you can combine intellect with a heart it makes for a great read. It's also extremely funny, a man who gets blown up (assassination) when he has sex with one of those huge sea lion-type things you get in Florida and Mocambique. But I don't think it's everyone's cup of tea.

Then of course I had to respond: It's fascinating to read all 3 those Henry James books in a short space of time. 'The Master' is probably the most 'literary', but do have a look at what Lodge does with exactly the same material. Exactly the same episode from the life of James! Michiel's book uses another angle and an imaginary typist, for me the most 'enjoyable' of the 3, or the most imaginative anyway, would love to hear what you think. And 'La Disparition' I've been wanting to read in French for yeeeears, but I just don't get there... You know how it goes. I remember a long time ago I read in Time Magazine what an enormous task the English translation was. It might be even more difficult in English than in French to write a phrase without an e. You can't even use 'the'??? In French at least you have 'le' AND 'la', so as long as you stick to feminine nouns, you're more or less OK. My partner is mad about Perec and his buddies who did all those wonderful style exercises...

Who are Perec's buddies and are they translated in English? my friend H wanted to know. I discovered him with a detour via Granta - the list of all the food he ate in one year - and then of course I read 'Life A User's Manual'. It's one of those books - like James Joyce's 'Ulysses' - which was supposed to be a total wank but turned out to be total magic for me. Right book at the right time???

So I asked my partner about Perec's buddies and promptly answered H: Raymond Queneau is the most well-known of the group, in France anyway. They called themselves Oulipo, acronym for Oeuvre Litteraire Potentiel or Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle or something like that. Queneau's 'Exercises in Style' must surely be translated in English. I quickly googled his name and found some interesting English entries, for instance on the site He wrote 99 short 'stories' about exactly the same incident (or non-incident), a guy on a bus who looks at another passenger and finds something wrong with the button on his jacket, if I remember correctly. My son had to read the book about 2 years ago as a set work in French high school, and he wasn't what I would call ecstatic about it, but I found it magnificent. The kind of thing any potential writer should try as finger exercises...

As you can see, by now H and I had quite an entertaining literary roadtrip going, meandering away from Updike, taking a shortcut through Henry James, detouring around Perec and Queneau, with no final destination in mind. This is part of the joy of reading, I realised once again. It is always seen as such a solitary act, but the moment you put two enthusiastic readers together, you can be sure there will be a joint voyage to some unknown destination. Which is why, instead of writing just another boring tribute to a dead writer, I decided I'd rather invite you along for the ride by sharing these emails with you.

Who knows, if we keep going, we might even get back to Updike?