Sunday, September 7, 2014

In praise of John O’Hara, an apparently forgotten American writer who could write the pants of many past and present

I think I’ve mentioned the American writer John O’Hara in this blog before, or perhaps I haven’t. But I am about to do so now.

I had never before heard of him until somewhere I saw praised a novel called Appointment In Samara. I don’t know where I saw it praised or even how long ago, but, as I do all too often, I was enthused to buy it, logged on Amazon (brickbats available at all good independent bookshop for that particular internet service) and bought myself a copy. It arrived and then I promptly forgot about it and it languished on my bookshelf for, well, I don’t know how long. If I could remember when I first heard of it, I could, of course, tell you. But I can’t.

Last July I made my, now habitual, trip to South-West France to stay with my aunt – strictly, my stepmother’s sister, but I am one of those who likes to extend family as far and as often as possible) to be her ‘walker’ on visits to the range of concerts held at that time of year in the Bordeaux area. And while I was packing, I looked around for two books to take with me. At the time I was re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States (which I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone for a very lucid and very useful counterweight to the widespread notion of ‘the Free World’ and how we are all immensely lucky to be living in it, if, of course, we are, and which is, rather predictably hated and po-poed by neo-cons of every stripe) and packed that.

Then I went to my bookshelf and again came across Appointment In Samara, and that, too, went into my bag. As it was I didn’t even open the history book, but read, not quite at one sitting, but at several long sittings, Appointment. And it is very good indeed. I often protest, and not with false modesty, that I am not at all well-read. For a man of my pretensions I am, in fact, abysmally badly-read (I’m assuming that phrase, too, gets a hyphen if it’s cousin does). But I do have very definite ideas on who are good writers and they are not overly conventional. For example, and despite his lack of ‘serious subject matter’, as far as I am concerned the late Elmore Leonard was an exceptionally good American writer. What he could do with words and sentences, which is, after all, partly what ‘writing’ is about, is remarkable.

I realise, being by my own admission, not ‘well-read’, I am on thin ice in my comments, so please bear in mind that I am aware of it. So, for example, quite a few of the world’s most recent novelists writing in English whose work I have attempted to read did not strike me in the slightest as being anything out of the ordinary. Take Martin Amis: I tried him, didn’t get far and gave up. Perhaps , given the hoohah about him in the Eighties – and he was very much an Eighties writer now rather living off past glories (and a new set of teeth, I understand) – I should have persevered. But I didn’t and I take the view that a writer should somehow persuade you to persevere. Amis didn’t.

Then there is Mr Will Self (whose name I thought, when I first came across it, was intended to be some kind of post-ironic, post-modern gibe at modern narcissism, where ‘modern’ holds true of each and every age since the dawn of time, whereas, in fact, ‘Self’ really is his surname): he gave me the distinct impression that by his use of extremely unusual words he was mainly doing nothing but showing off. Look up each and every ‘big’ word he uses and most certainly it is being used appositely. But why not keep it simple? Why, apparently, try to remind folk that they aren’t quite as bright as you are, or, at least, you think you are? Null points for Mr Self (who has, though, unsurprisingly, carved out quite a lucrative existence for himself among the mediocracy, with regular spots on Radio 4, columns in The Observer and as what is sadly often called a ‘social commentator’.

As I am often referred to as ‘Honest Pat’, I do feel obliged to admit that when I have heard a ten-minute piece by Mr Self on Radio 4, I found myself almost always agreeing with him, his intellectually overwrought expression notwithstanding, and that admission comes, as you will most certainly believe, through very gritted teeth.

As for contemporary American writers, I am on even thinner ice. Radio 4 runs its Book At Bedtime programme throughout the week, and a recent book serialised was the most recent by Donna Tartt. Perhaps something is lost in the process of adaptation, but I could not help thinking: she’s a big noise in Yanke literary circles? Really? Why? If some of her good writing had survived the adaptation, she’s not, in my book at least, at all. Good. Then there’s this the apparently current U.S. preoccupation with writing the ‘big novel’, with the suggestion that if it doesn’t come in at at least 600 pages, it’s crap. But let me repeat, there could be – and most probably is, given what I am about to write about John O’Hara – a greats deal I am missing.

. . .

All of the above notwithstanding, quite some time ago I became aware of what I regard as a virtue of ‘American writing’ which does not seem to be shared by British writers. I can, offhand, not think of any other way of putting it but to describe their writing as ‘looser’, and I really do not mean that in any derogatory sense. They seem less contrained, more fluid and fluent. But having said that and given my admission – it’s Honest Pat, remember – I shall say no more, because all I have to go on is the pitiful amount I have so far read. We, or at least, most of us have heard of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Roth and the other one, whose name I can’t remember. So why does no one, it would seem, talk about O’Hara any more?

After reading Appointment In Samara and after finding out that a great many – around 400 – of his short stories had been published in The New Yorker (more gnashing of teeth by the neo-cons I should imagine, but let’s let that go for now), I bought a volume of his ‘New York’ short stories and very much like those I then read. And I also bought a copy of his second novel Butterfield 8 (Butterfield 8, if you’re a purist).

I finished reading it today and then did what I have previously done with other novels: I immediately started reading it again from the beginning and found that it was even better. I think that stems from the fact that once you have read a novel (and for me reading a novel is as much about ‘the writing’ as it is about anything else) you are more acquainted with it and can savour and appreciate aspects of it which earlier, at the first reading, were not quite as apparent. In the case of Butterfield 8 (OK, you purists Butterfield 8), the dialogue became livelier, in a sense more natural and, although very good at first reading, even better.

I gather O’Hara was respected for his naturalistic dialogue. But once you have read a novel, you – if it is a good novel, which Butterfield 8 is (and I’ll now dispense with the joke about purists) – you know the ‘shape’ and have an overview. Before you read it, you didn’t have that.

Reading O’Hara took a little getting used to. As a Brit and as a Brit who earns his daily crust working as a sub-editor (U.S. copy editor) I am sadly inclined to try to say what has to be said most effectively in the fewest number of words. (The ‘fewest number of words’ is a result of words costing money. That’s why all too often the ‘thats’ are removed from a piece because although they might be useful they are often not really necessary.) Then there’s what non-Brits might regard as Brit tight-aresedness (which is one way of putting it) .

For better or worse we are rather more rigid than non-Brits, often in our writing, hence my admiration for American writers who are good but ‘looser’. So when I first began reading O’Hara’s Appointment In Samara, I would be pulled up short by what might be regarded as oddities in his prose. But this was just a result of my training. Writers can, well all is said and done, write just how they want to, grammar or no grammar: what is important is the end result, not obeying what are at the end of the day merely conventional rulse.

For example, for us sub-editors it is something of a no-no to use the same word twice in the same sentence and we’ll strive to find an alterantive. For a writer, on the other hand, using that same word not just twice but three, four or five times, or however often she or he wants to might well be making a certain point. It’s often puzzled me that we will listen to pieces of music again and again and again, very often in the case of pop songs but also some jazz, rather more rarely with classical pieces, but watching a film again or reading a novel again, as soon as we have seen the film or read the novel, is regarded as, well, rather odd. People ask: why do you want to read it again? You’ve only just read it. Well, above is my answer: the first time is to get to know the novel – and surely to goodness most of us can agree that a novel is more than ‘the story’ – you can now really read it.

Years ago, when I was still at school and a spotty adolescent growing up, I had just one classical LP (older folk will know what that is, younger folk must be told it was the precursor of CDs). It was a recording, by whom I really can’t remember, of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies. And I listened to it again and again and again. So now when I listen to it, I am at the point where I know what this passage is leading to.

There are other pieces and other books which I know as well. My favourite author is Evelyn Waugh, and although I haven’t read all his work (the short stories are very poor) I have read all his novels many times, and each time I get that same feeling of expecation: this bit is just so good. Has no one reading this never read a paragraph again because it is simply so well written. Well, I have, and reading novels again – or watching a film again or listening to a particular recording of a piece of music again, whether pop, jazz or classical – holds the same pleasure.

. . .

I first heard of Butterfield 8 as the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey. Ironically Taylor won her first Oscar for her role even though she hated the film. I saw it a few years ago and thought it was so-so. I have now read the novel on which it was – very loosely – based and although I am fully aware of the dyspeptic pseudo morality Hollywood had made its own since the Hays Act, think the film is – by comparison – abysmal.

Furthermore O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 is crying out to be made into a film again, if for no other reason that the corruped morality and the perverted notions of marriage and family it describes are as prevalent today. In many other ways a new version would be a very different film and I suspect could only be made by an independet filmmaker. And if you don’t understand any of that, read the book and I’m sure you would then agree with me.

No comments:

Post a Comment