Archive for the Debatable issues Category

Heroes

Posted in Debatable issues on September 23, 2009 by kateonyates

A few thoughts here about that discussion April has with Frank (round about page 111  as far as the end of Part one): I love the way this description of their intense discussion kicks off as Frank imagines how April will have worked herself up into a lather during the day. What’s clever though is the way we slide across from Frank’s thoughts to hers;  ‘she must have spent the afternoon in a frenzy of action…’ becomes, by the end of the paragraph, ‘Her whole day had been a heroic build-up for this moment of self-abasement; now it was here, and she was damned if she’d stand for any interference’ – and so she launches forth. Brilliant dramatic shift in pace and perspective.

April’s argument for going to Paris is predicated on her fierce belief in Frank; she believes that her high opinion of him and the kind of man he could be is universally shared: ‘But if you mean who ever said you were exceptional, if you mean who ever said you had a first-rate original mind – well my God, Frank, the answer is everybody.’The irony of this is impressed on the reader as Yates explores Frank’s idiomatic thoughts, thoughts which reveal his weakness and vanity (‘Had Bill Croft really said that?’). He cannot win the argument without demolishing April’s high opinion of who he is and of who she has married but this is not within his capabilities. Thus the ‘note of honest doubt’ that he thinks he might have heard in her voice is immediately countered by his acquiescence that, ‘“Okay, let’s say I was a promising kid.”’ Furthermore, as he develops his posturing, ‘his voice had taken on a resonance that made it every bit as theatrical as hers. It was the voice of a hero’. Far from condemning Frank for this inability to put his wife straight, Yates offers up his fallibility as a man to a reader who might very well recognise that with such small dishonesties all marriages are weakened. With these small indicators of human, and particularly male, posturing, Yates critiques notions of heroism in its contemporary form. Through several of his male protagonists, he suggests that the mid-twentieth century ‘hero’ is a pastiche of Hollywood lead actors; he has all the substantiality of a male in an advertising campaign and we are invited to watch him flounder as he checks his image in mirrors, adjusts his voice just as he adjusts his hair,  postures and preens. This is one remove from Fitzgerald’s flawed men who have heroic stature; the fallen idols of romance novels and classic film; Yates’s men never get close to heroic.

While his characters are never heroes, Yates observes how the ordinary man will borrow slithers of heroic fabric to coat his otherwise average behaviour. So here, Frank’s voice alters as he sees potential in himself and in the moment.  Yates uses moments such as this one with Frank to indicate the gap that exists between how his protagonist wants to be seen and how he is seen; usually it is the reader, rather than the other characters, who does the real ‘seeing’. The gap his females have to negotiate is typified here by April. It is, Yates suggests, a difference encouraged by a society that asks its females to take second place to their male partners and to place a greater value on their needs and their ideas of themselves. While loneliness, dissatisfaction and resentment characterize April’s life, domestically imprisoned as she feels herself to be in their neat little home, the reader is aware that the real danger for April comes from the construction of Frank she has made in her mind. At this stage in the novel, we have seen that Frank has to face ‘the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny’ but we have not yet seen April confront the reality of the man she is trying  to put on a pedestal (and society would appear to be encouraging her in this). As she learns to face up to the truth of who Frank is, and, therefore, to the truth about the shifting sands of their marriage, Yates suggests, with her tragic end, that that reality is too much to bear.


Considering mothers in A Special Providence

Posted in Debatable issues on August 26, 2009 by kateonyates

It’s been a while – I know, I know- and apologies to those who regularly check in and find nothing new under the sun. I want to go on with some more thoughts about Yates’s second novel. Not a patch on the first, it’s still an interesting read, especially for someone studying Yates and piecing together his views on life and relationship. It would seem that one of the reasons A Special Providence is perhaps Yates’s least successful novel and least admired work is that he remains too close to the characters he describes, a fact he acknowledged with characteristic ease and insightful self-criticism:

I suspect that’s why A Special Providence is a weak book – one of the reasons, anyway. It’s not properly formed; I never did achieve enough fictional distance on the character of Robert Prentice. (Ploughshares interview, 1972)

Re-working the main character of his 1962 short story, ‘Builders’, a protagonist Yates acknowledged as, ‘clearly and nakedly myself’ (ibid.), Robert Prentice’s wartime experiences and his experiences trying to free himself from his cloying and dependent mother, form the central drama of the story. While Yates was, in this novel, clearly trying to continue the ‘autobiographical blowout’ (ibid.) he’d begun with ‘Builders’, I would suggest that the weakness of the book is not just Yates’s lack of distance from Robert Prentice but encompasses his portrayal of Robert’s mother, Alice Prentice, as well. While Yates felt that with ‘Builders’ he’d ‘managed to avoid both of the two terrible traps that lie in the path of autobiographical fiction, self-pity and self-aggrandizement’ (ibid.) it seems that both traps awaited him in this, his second novel, and not just in the portrait of the protagonist. Alice is an archetype of all Yates’s mother figures, seemingly the closest he came to creating a portrait of his own mother Dookie and, in that respect, Yates, driven by both his love for, and antipathy towards, Dookie, diminishes and caricatures her.

Blake Bailey includes an interesting vignette about the complexity of this relationship:

Once, when Yates was responding to questions about his work, a young woman commented on how awful the mother was in A Special Providence – “so careless and thoughtless and self-centred” – and asked Yates what he thought of her. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said quietly. “I guess I sort of love her.” (A Tragic Honesty, p.36)

While we can’t fail to see the poignancy of Alice’s predicament, a single woman, impoverished and self-deluding in her social ambitions, we don’t as readers achieve the same level of empathy with her  that Yates achieves with some of his other portraits of mothers (although any empathy with have for his mother figures is highly circumscribed). Blake Bailey acknowledges that this failure of distance is most evident in Yates’s maternal figures:

‘Yates’s compassion for human weakness, for the flaws that make failure so inevitable, is everywhere in his work – with the occasional exception of certain characters based on his mother’ (Ibid.p.17). However, I take issue with Bailey’s exception to this claim, when he suggests that Alice is ‘rounded and essentially forgiveable’. For me, Alice Prentice is the ‘Dickensian grotesque’ that Bailey sees more clearly drawn in Yates’s other novels.

In the long Prologue to A Special Providence, Yates describes Robert Prentice’s leave from the army in 1944. Deciding to spend the time with his mother, he makes the long journey from the camp in Virginia to New York. Prentice is alarmed to find his mother living in near squalor and penury but continuing to borrow money and drinking heavily. Using the metaphor of the movies (a metaphor that he overworks in this novel), Yates indicates how Prentice makes life more palatable by seeing ‘himself as the hero of some inspiring movie about the struggles of the poor.’ (ASP, p.10) The problem for him is, ‘that his mother refused to play her role’, as we see here:

He kept hoping to come home and find her acting the way he thought she ought to act: a humble widow, gratefully cooking meat and potatoes for her tired son, sitting down with a sewing basket as soon as she’d washed the dishes, darning his socks in the lamplight and perhaps looking up to inquire, shyly, if he wouldn’t like to call up some girl.

While ironically drawing attention to Prentice’s traditionally inflected understanding of appropriate male and female roles, as he visualises the adoring, attentive mother, dutifully taking care of all the housework and dancing attendance on a son who has been out to earn a living to support them both, Yates subtly suggests the problematic nature of their relationship. With Prentice’s imagining, Yates both sets up an ideal and demolishes it as a possibility as he then describes her subsequent behaviour. He captures the growing emotional distance between the protagonist and his mother, a distance compounded and exaggerated by her emotional response. Following an argument about money, for instance, an argument that Alice is not able to win, she has the first of several tantrums we witness: ‘And she burst into tears. As if shot, she then clutched her left breast and collapsed full length on the floor, splitting an armpit seam of the dress…’ Ridiculous in its extravagance and both grotesque and immature in its attempt to manipulate, Alice’s behaviour alienates her son and the reader. Beyond the gap in communication and behaviour highlighted between these two people, the ideal that Robert Prentice has imagined is an ideal of marital, not filial, devotion; by ascribing such an ideal to Prentice, Yates indicates a basic problem in the nature of their relationship, a problem, he suggests throughout the text, that seals their fate.

The problem of domineering mothers, and of mothers that control and manipulate their sons, occurs time and again in his fictions with intertextual resonances that create a clear indication of how Yates viewed motherhood and felt deeply the failings of his own mother. The shades of inappropriate behaviour on behalf of the mother are hard to miss, as is indicated by one particular image in A Special Providence, that of a sculptress mother using her child as a model. In this novel, the small naked boy is made to endure both discomfort and humiliation as the mother in question attends to her own needs, invading her child’s privacy and attacking his dignity. He is laughed at and belittled when his little friends peer into the barn where his mother has her studio. Although Alice is described as seeing ‘Bobby round-eyed with humiliation, hunched over with both hands hiding his genitals’, (ASP, p.133) she doesn’t register his shame and gets him to carry on posing. Both the reader, and the boy, looking back, experience this as a form of grotesque selfishness and insensitivity coming as it does after he has been observed and laughed at by ‘three or four pairs of eyes peering in through an inch-wide crack in the wallboards.’ According to Bailey, ‘Dookie’s favorite model for her faunlets, often posed in the nude, was the small, obliging Richard’. (Bailey, ATH, p.21) There is something so deeply poignant about Yates’s rendition of this idiosyncratic event in A Special Providence that one almost doesn’t need the confirming detail from Bailey that this event mirrored exactly his own experience.


‘The Best of Everything’

Posted in Debatable issues on May 4, 2009 by kateonyates

Re reading this story the other day, I continue to marvel at Yates’s economy of style and the complexty of his depictions of men and women. It is a wonderful indicator of how enormous the gap was between men and women who, in the fifties, couldn’t easily express themselves either about their emotions or about sex.

In ‘The Best of Everything’, Yates directs his readers’ sympathies to his female protagonist, Grace. While Grace, as we have seen earlier in the story, is directed by those around her, and propelling towards a romantic and idealised view of what is about to happen, Ralph is also seen as nervous, unwilling and far happier with ‘the lads’; it is the lads who move him to tears, the lads who touch him with their surprise party and their wonderful gift. His first loyalties are to his best friend Eddie and, not for the first time in a Yates story, suggest an element of homoeroticism that the story leaves unexplored: ‘Eddie was his best friend’ and ‘Half the fun of every date – even more than half – had been telling Eddie about it afterwards’. Such phrases suggest not just Ralph’s closeness to Eddie but his dependence on him, a closeness, dependence and comfort that we read in opposition to his aloof attitude towards his future bride. Furthermore, Yates slows his narrative to describe with great precision the moment when Eddie presents Ralph with his wedding present in a way that draws quiet attention to the intensity of emotion between these two men; ‘Then the crowd cleaved in half, and Eddie made his way slowly down the middle. His eyes gleamed in a smile of love, and from his bashful hand hung the suitcase’. Reading like a parody of a bridal march, Yates’s description further reminds us of the gaps between his actual bride and his ‘best friend’. But it is not just Ralph against whom we read Grace: her friend and roommate’s snobbery forms another dialectic in this tale as Martha mimics and parodies Ralph’s speech – ‘“Isn’t he funny?” Martha had said after their first date. “He says ‘terlet.’ I didn’t know people really said ‘terlet.’”’ – as well as his cultural background; “Oh, and all those friends of his, his Eddie and his Marty and his George with their mean, ratty little clerks’ lives and their mean, ratty little…”

Yates captures the gap between male and female experience of marriage and courtship and underlies the fear for both genders about the step into the unknown that they are about to take, but it is to the isolate and disempowered that we are drawn. Grace, unaware of the surprise party Eddie has thrown for him, a party which he is desperate to return to, greets Ralph at the door in the expensive negligee she has bought for their honeymoon. Barely even noticing her provocative garb, seductive tone, or the promise of some unencumbered pre-marital sex, that they all imply, Ralph brushes past her: ‘“Hi, baby.” He brushed past her and walked inside. “Guess I’m late, huh? You in bed?”’ His quick-fire snappy dialogue is beautifully contrasted with her languid movements as, mimicking the seduction techniques of Hollywood starlets, ‘She closed the door and leaned against it with both hands holding the doorknob at the small of her back, the way heroines close doors in the movies.’ When Ralph finally notices her negligee, his response to it is characteristically vulgar and further emphasises the lack of any emotional investment in their partnership; ‘“Nice,” he said, feeling the flimsy material between thumb and index finger, like a merchant. “Very nice. Wudga pay fa this, honey?”’

Brilliant, in my view. Is there a better example of such a communication gap in the writing of, or about, the 1950s? Let me know….


Yates and women

Posted in Debatable issues on April 23, 2009 by kateonyates

Sorry I have been quiet for so long; just too much going on. However, let’s get down to business now…..I would welcome your thoughts on Yates’s portrayal of women. I will have a go at considering this myself but feel free to chip in, criticize and/or argue with my observations.

Yates’s writing displays a prescient awareness of gender politics but, as with all his political commentary, his expression of this consciousness is fused into his broader narratives. In his early work, work written up to and including Revolutionary Road‘s publication in 1961, Yates’s depiction of the struggles men, and more particularly women, encounter, both within and outside the home, prefigure some of the concerns adopted by the second wave of feminism.  Although Yates’s work was not propelled by an interest in sexual politics, he wrote about what he knew and observed, thus producing insights that now seem ahead of their time and at cross-purposes with how America wanted to see itself.  Although he was not alone in doing this, the issues he drew attention to did not become part of mainstream thinking until after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 – even if, as several contemporary social historians suggest, the ideas Friedan included in her book had been around long before 1963; Friedan gave voice and recognition, so they now argue, to attitudes already quite established. Yates’s early work, written during the mid-fifties (as all but one of the stories in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness were), seems to suggest our contemporary historians are right; the ideas were around and Yates picked up on them, incorporating many quite radical ideas into his fiction.

In his later work, he went on to develop his investigation into how women inhabit a proscribed space in life.  The Easter Parade (1976), his fourth novel, suggests his increasing awareness of this issue as his story is centred on the struggles of his female protagonist, Emily Grimes, and her older sister Sarah.  Both sisters try to become writers and for different reasons fail in this ambition.  Since the only consolation Yates ever seems to find in life is in writing, it seems doubly significant that these women fail in their ambition to be writers. Being prevented from writing, as Sarah is, would seem to be tantamount to stealing the soul of an individual in Yates’s eyes, stealing not just their imaginative potential but the dreams that give them hope.

In the course of his narrative Yates suggests how men, threatened by female ambition, hold back the women they live with.  At the same time, Yates also weaves into this novel his awareness of domestic violence, suggesting an understanding of the vulnerability of women within marriage that should be noted.  Furthermore, Yates’s inclusion of abortion in several stories, notably Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, suggests attentiveness to, and sensitivity towards, the political debate about the rights of women.  However, I do not, and could not, argue that Yates was a proto-feminist: he was not.  There are bad young mothers in his fiction too – look at ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’. There is a real split between Yates’s intellectual appreciation of how life is peculiarly difficult for women within marriages that constrain them or diminish them and his emotional distaste for anything that smacks of a political move to address those issues.  Blake Bailey draws some attention to Yates’s feelings on the subject, when, in the early 1970s, his second wife Martha was thinking of leaving him:

Largely to spare his feelings, she’d spoken in rather vague terms about wanting to “find herself,” and Yates concluded that she’d become a “womens’-libbing bitch” as he sometimes put it.  He couldn’t speak calmly on the subject; partly, perhaps, because his mother’s “independence” had caused him so much grief, Yates’s hatred for all “feminist horseshit” bordered on the pathological. (Bailey, p.429)

And then, of course, there are all the failing older women of his fiction. Coming from his emotional dislike and resentment of his own mother, the portraits of these women – Pookie, Gloria Drake et al – they seem to dominate but shouldn’t obscure what he is also saying about the politics of womanhood.

A Special Providence

Posted in Debatable issues on March 11, 2009 by kateonyates

Of all Yates’s autobiographically-led works, this novel must surely be his roman a clef. Bob Prentice, his thinly disguised alter-ego, makes the transition from adolescence to manhood via the grim experience of trying to stay alive, and sometimes fighting, during the end of the Second World War, in ways that seem to mirror exactly what Yates himself went through. That probably explains both why he hated it – and he really did hate it – and why it had to be written. He had surprised himself, I think, with what he produced in Revolutionary Road and hadn’t, as most writers seem to do with their first novel,  expunged his own demons. So ASP allows him to do that but he wanted to bury it. Monica Yates told me this: ‘I’m with all the people that think that he and everyone else was unfairly hard on A Special Providence – that’s a pretty good one too’ and went on to tell me that her brother-in-law dared once to praise it to RY. He was not pleased! He likened it to preferring a rat on a leash over a greyhound. Interesting.

Re-reading this novel has been fascinating. No, it’s not as good as Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade but there are some very, very good bits. The war writing is so vivid and so honest. Prentice stumbles about in a fog of ignorance and illness in ways that not only mirror Yates’s own youth and tubercular struggles but must mirror those of so many other young men, drafted abroad after only six weeks training and still unsure which end of  a gun to hold. His desperate desire to find friends, while only further annoying all those around him, his clumsiness and lack of natural athleticism, his thoughts about his Mum (though always aware of how irritating she is), and the visceral sense of how grim and frightening the whole experience was and how alone he was with his fear, is all so realistically and, as I said, honestly, conveyed. He doesn’t write about big battles, huge vaguely honourable duties to eliminate the enemy: he writes about little skirmishes – of which there must have been hundreds of thousands – when you could barely tell who was friend and who was foe. It’s the minutiae of war not the grand picture.

Where this book is weaker is in the lack of a control, a sense of control we see in most of his other fiction. He overuses the movie-metaphor for instance, making it stand out as a tool for his art, rather than as he did in RR, or in his short stories, allowing it to blend organically with the experience being described.

Libby Purves

Posted in Debatable issues, Uncategorized on February 9, 2009 by kateonyates

There is something breathtakingly arrogant about Libby Purves’s piece in today’s Times. I refer you to this link for the whole piece:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/libby_purves/article5689514.ece

What shocks me is her absolute certainty that no one could have noticed Yates’s prescience but her. Ms Purves, he didn’t just anticipate the digital revolution but the whole sorry business of  engulfing materialism, the obsession with celebrity and, in so many ways, the equal rights of women. Have a read!

‘Well, it was probably just about worth making, and deserves its prizes. America in the Obama era – rediscovering its sense of hopeful revolution – may find it too dated to bother with. But for me the eye-opening moment was one that has not been noticed, not even (I suspect) by the film-makers. As the despairing wife plans her last act, she decides for once to be nice to Frank over breakfast. She makes scrambled egg and asks about his job. So he tries to explain the nature of these “business machines” his office sells – early computers – and on a napkin draws the vacuum tubes that lie at their heart. She feigns interest and tells him, insincerely, to be proud of his work.

But I sat bolt upright in the cinema seat and thought “Yess!” Because the huge unseen irony in the film is this: Frank’s dull commercial world was actually playing midwife to a revolution that would change the lives of millions of Western women who feel just as fed up, imprisoned and prone to Parisian fantasies as April did in 1955. Poor petulant kid, she was just born too early for the PC, the Mac, and the Internet. She could not have foreseen (who did?) that because of rapid development funded by companies like her husband’s, the computer would soon evolve from being a “business machine”, fall into the hands of fascinated hobbyists and inventive geeks, and thence move into the social mainstream. In the past ten years in particular home computers have been passionately embraced by women just like April, with no technical or scientific interest whatsoever.’

Perhaps I am being arrogant myself but it is galling to have someone clearly new to Yates suggest that he was extraordinary in ways that only she can see. I suggest you read some more Yates, LP.

America: is it a classless society?

Posted in Debatable issues on January 29, 2009 by kateonyates

‘Ideas in America spread very fast because Americans are of one mind, and they are of one mind because they are, in their consciousness at least, of one class. It is this feeling of classlessness, ahistoric though it be, that brings about the marvelous homogeneity of the American mind. And of the American emotion. The American feels – just “human.” He has arrived, in his mind, at a state of classlessness, i.e. of humanity, and so is touched off by those sentiments only that are universal, uniform, “human.”‘

I read this today in an essay – ‘Americanism as Surrogate Socialism’ – by someone called Leon Samson. I’m not sure when it was written but I would guess the early 70’s since the book it’s in was published in 1974. I just wondered what you American readers make of that? Is it true now? Was it ever an accurate depiction of how Americans see themselves? I’d appreciate your comments because it’s hard to judge the veracity of such claims from this distance (time and geography!).

The reason for asking is this: Yates was very clear about class divisions and would have agreed that Americans in the 50’s and 60’s were denying the facts about social stratification. I am using this essay, along with a number of others, to substantiate my claims about what was really going on.