Literary Twitter Memes

Twitter memes are catching on like crazy. People love to do things like “Follow Friday,” where on Fridays you start following new people and you tweet about it. (Note: please don’t follow me just because it’s Friday. Follow me because you can’t bear to go another day without reading my random brain farts.)

I’m thinking we need to up the ante a bit. How about literary Twitter memes? Days of the week in which you tweet in the style of a famous writer!

For example we could have Martin Amis Mondays, where you take inordinate pleasure in using obscure and arcane vocabulary.

Benthamitically rethinking Twitter's pareidolia. Vermiculating toward recrudescent blog seems dotardic yet agonismically ablutious. FTW!

Or how about Shakespeare Saturdays, when all your tweets are in iambic pantameter?

To cook this night requires oneself to shop. But nay the call of Pizza Hut is nigh!

Or we could keep it simple with Hemingway Wednesdays, when you use short, declarative sentences, and every word is pure and true.

She gave me a pie. The pie was good.

Woo hoo! Twitter for people who like to read!

Reading in Circles

A few years ago I read the V.S. Naipaul novel Half a Life. It was my first Naipaul. I was never really sure what was going on, but I enjoyed his prose style, and it was somewhat light and comic while still being (ahem) literary.

Last week I picked up W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. It was my first Maugham. I was always pretty sure of what was going on, and I really enjoyed his prose style. It managed to be both stuffy and breezy at the same time, which is quite the achievement. I think the key is to write about stuffy people in a breezy way. To wit:

Antoine, the manservant, brought in a tray with an array of bottles, and Isabel, always tactful, knowing that nine men out of ten are convinced they can mix a better cocktail than any woman (and they are right), asked me to shake a couple. I poured out the gin and the Noilly-Prat and added the dash of absythe that transforms a dry martini from a nondescript drink to one for which the gods of Olympus would undoubtedly have abandoned their home-brewed nectar, a beverage that I have always thought must have been rather like Coca-Cola.

The Razor’s Edge left quite an impression, which is nothing unusual, as it seems to have captured the imaginations of several generations of young (or young at heart) and restless men who yearn for something different than the accept path through life. It’s been adapted for film a few times, most notably in 1984 when Bill Murray took the lead in what was his first dramatic (which is to say, non-comedic) role. That film owes its existence to Ghost Busters — or perhaps its the other way around. As the story goes, Murray would only accept the Ghost Busters role if the studio ponied up the cash to make The Razor’s Edge. Ghost Busters, as we know, was a huge success. Not so The Razor’s Edge; it brought in only $6 million at the box office, on a production budget of $12 million. The failure prompted Murray to take a four year hiatus from the movies.

Back to the books. Finishing the Maugham novel, I picked up another Naipaul — The Enigma of Arrival. Clearly this Naipaul was not like the last. After 13 pages describing the scenery during a long muddy walk in the English countryside I put it down. (At least I didn’t throw it across the room.) Later in the day I was poking around and reading up on Maugham and The Razor’s Edge and I found out that Naipaul hated Maugham; hated him enough that he wrote a novel satirizing The Razor’s Edge, in which the lead character — something of a misfit and a failure — is named after Maugham (Willie Somerset Chandran) because the character’s father had met Maugham when he (the father) was young and enduring a vow of silence in an ashram. You guessed it — that novel was Half a Life.

Suddenly the first Naipaul made a whole lot more sense. Also, I found myself wishing Naipaul had spent more time being funny and less time wandering those muddy paths. Say goodbye to Naipaul (who, by the way, is a righteous prick in real life).

All that to say, I read the Naipaul, not knowing it had anything to do with the Maugham, and I liked it. Then I read the Maugham, not knowing it had anything to do with the Naipaul, and I really liked it. Then I started reading the Naipaul that had nothing to do with anything (aside from muddy paths) and I didn’t like it.

So the lesson is to read more Maugham and less Naipaul. Except now I’m reading a lesser known Orwell. (And I’m dying with pleasure on every paragraph. Who knew Orwell could be so funny?)

Further reading:

Revolutionary Road Movie

vintage richard yates cover revolutionary roadIf you don’t know by now that Revolutionary Road was my favorite of all the books I read last year, then you’re just not paying attention. But as I’ve said before, I have my doubts about the film version, directed by Sam Mendes (of American Beauty), which opens in Montreal any day now.

I’m doubtful because the book was such a writerly novel; as much, or more, about the telling as about the story itself. Not that cinema can’t achieve the same level of art and craft in its narrative, but doing it that way generally doesn’t sell a lot of extra tickets, and with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead roles, there are some big salaries to cover.

However, I’ve seen a few reviews that indicate the film may indeed be somewhat true to the grindingly anxious subtext and nuance that we find in Richard Yates’s book.  But first, Adelle Waldman, writing in The New Republic, provides us with a latter-day review of the novel, reminding us of what’s really going on in the book. Her review’s blurb says “Revolutionary Road, considered the original anti-suburban novel, isn’t actually anti-suburbs–but something far more devastating than that.”

…if Mendes’s new film is to do Revolutionary Road justice, it will transcend the easy anti-suburban categorization. While Yates’s depiction of suburban life is nightmarish enough to exceed the worst fears of Jane Jacobs’s devotees, Revolutionary Road is far more than a complacent takedown of the ‘burbs. It is in fact less an anti-suburban novel than a novel about people who blame their unhappiness on the suburbs.

Katrina Onstad, reviewing the film on, had similar things to say about the book:

… Yates tells the story of a married couple living miserably in the suburbs, but they’ve imported their own pain and dysfunction from the city.

And about the movie:

…their fights are colossal and verbally lacerating, with each party projecting their own failures onto the other. Yates’ clear, colloquial language gets a full workout in these devastating rounds, which measure just how low lovers can go.

There’s more:

Both the book and film take place on the eve of second wave feminism, and April’s rudderless, identity-free existence doesn’t have a name yet; it will take Betty Friedan, in 1963, to identify the plague of discontent felling housewives in The Feminine Mystique. April’s misery may quietly exist in the shadow of what’s coming next, but Mendes doesn’t delve deep into the kind of broad social satire of television’s Mad Men, where housewives regularly disintegrate. There, our pleasure is in watching the racist, sexist characters march obliviously towards the precipice of the late ’60s.

Revolutionary Road is not as moored to its historical moment; there’s actually a timelessness to the psychological portraits Mendes paints. We watch the lit fuse that is Frank and April’s relationship, wondering just how many compromises they can make, how cornered they have to feel before the inevitable explosion.

OK, I’m convinced enough to give it a go. Don’t let me down, Sam Mendes!