I’d hoped Revolutionary Road would win the Oscar for Best Picture. That’s not because I was overwhelmed by it. I wasn’t. Sam Mendes has made a moving film, and Kate Winslet puts in a terrific performance. But that’s about all.
Frames: (top and above) Revolutionary Road reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet after a decade.
The reason why I really wanted Revolutionary Road to win (it wasn’t even nominated in the end) was that it might have done something for the reputation of Richard Yates, the novelist (now dead for 17 years) on whose 1961 masterpiece the film is based.
You do know what a successful movie does for the book on which it is based, don’t you? You needn’t go far. Just look at Vikas Swarup and his gripping but forgettable and long-forgotten book, Q&A—now, of course, found in bookstores (if all the copies have not been sold out) as Slumdog Millionaire.
Revolutionary Road was published when Yates was 35. It was his first novel. On the face of it, it is the heart-rending story of how the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple living in a western Connecticut suburb, messily fall apart.
It is unremittingly, unapologetically bleak and nihilistic, dealing with the themes that are at the heart of all of Yates’ work: delusion, deception, thwarted ambition, claustrophobia, broken dreams and the shards of shattered lives. Now, to tie in with the movie, all of Yates’ work has been re-issued by Vintage in the UK. All the books are available in India.
Revolutionary Road is Yates’ finest novel, although The Easter Parade comes close, but to get a measure of just how fine it is, it needs to be put in context.
Kurt Vonnegut called it “The Great Gatsby of my time”. Richard Ford wrote in 2001 in an influential essay on the 40th anniversary of the novel’s publication: “To invoke it enacts a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.” And it was the basis on which David Hare said Yates, more than Saul Bellow, John Updike or Philip Roth, “belongs with (F. Scott) Fitzgerald and (Ernest) Hemingway as the three unarguably great American novelists of the 20th century”.
As with all writers whose greatest book is their first, Yates was as much made as unmade by Revolutionary Road. “His later fiction,” the critic James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, outlining a view of Yates that is not quite accepted by his admirers, “was compulsive but not compelling, necessary to him but not to his readers, who would always chase the fire of his first novel in the embers of its successors.”
In spite of that (and it is unfair to forget Yates’ stories, which alone ought to have guaranteed him a place in American letters’ hall of fame), Yates has always had his fans. It’s a heavy hitters’ club: William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Barnes, Nick Hornby, Richard Ford and Joan Didion are among its card-carrying members.
Born in 1926 in upstate New York, Yates’ childhood was defined by the sort of misery and loneliness that underscores his work. The impulse of fiction, he once said, is always autobiographical, although the facts never are.
Yates’ parents were divorced. His mother—alcoholic, unstable and in love with the notion of bohemia—wanted to be a sculptor but never really fulfilled her ambition. She moved home disorientingly often. A Tragic Honesty, Blake Bailey’s moving biography of Yates, describes how Yates remembered waking up with his mother’s vomit on the pillow next to his.
Yates served in the US army during World War II. He then worked as a publicity writer for the Remington Rand Corporation. He married twice; both marriages broke up. He had three daughters, the relationship with whom figures again and again in his work.
While in his job at Remington—and while becoming a full-blown alcoholic—he wrote Revolutionary Road. He left his job soon after, but remained resolutely devoted to the drinking. And he continued to write.
But as The New Yorker kept refusing his stories for three decades, as popular acclaim eluded him and was granted to his peers, he worked, briefly, as a speechwriter for slain US politician Bobby Kennedy and taught in writing schools.
Towards the end of his life, living out alone—to borrow from T.S. Eliot—the burnt out ends of his smoky days—in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he was known to suck alternately on his oxygen mask and his cigarette.
When he died broken and embittered in 1992, his work—and his reputation—had been consigned to the cobwebbed recesses of remainderdom. It is hard to tell precisely why this happened. But it is likely that literary trends and public mood left Yates behind.
The avant-garde writing and postmodern high jinks of later decades overtook his despair-filled realism. And at a time when the hope of the great American dream being realized by living the great American life to its fullest was incandescent, his cynicism and unabashed nihilism did not tap into the public mood.
If Updike, who mined the same territory of suburban foibles and love, was the theme’s lyric poet, Yates was its beady-eyed doomsayer. That did not seem particularly alluring.
But genius tends to get its due—even if sometimes it takes very long. Ford was critical in starting a revival of sorts with his extraordinarily eloquent essay on Revolutionary Road in The New York Times Book Review in 2001. “We marvel at (the novel’s) consummate writerliness, its almost simple durability as a purely made thing of words that defeats all attempts at classification. Realism, naturalism, social satire, the standard critical bracketry—all go begging before this splendid book.”
Word spread, and other renowned writers—some of them reading Yates for the first time—weighed in. Within a couple of years, Methuen had brought out in paperback some of Yates’ work, including Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade.
When you watch the film, don’t watch it to get a sense of what Yates’ writing could offer. With an unblinking eye that missed nothing, an ear that was always alert to the cadences of speech and a restrained-yet-lyrical, artfully artless style, Yates is impossible to do justice to in a film. As the poet Nick Laird points out, “the stuff leaks subtlety in its transference” from page to screen.
Here, for instance, is a passage from one of his best stories, Saying Goodbye to Sally. As the story opens, Jack Fields, 34, wrung out by the writing of his first novel, divorced and with two daughters, living on his own in a filthy flat, remembers how, on a visit, one of his daughters tearfully refused to take a shower after finding cockroaches in the shower stall.
“… the thought of her standing blind in there, behind the mildewed plastic curtain, hurrying, trying not to shift her feet, near the treacherously swarming drain as she soaped and rinsed herself, made him weak with remorse.”
Now how do you turn that into film?
You probably can’t, and so the movie is no measure of the book’s greatness. “To write so well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy,” American novelist Stewart O’Nan wrote of Yates. At least now, with the high-profile movie (never mind that it hadn’t a chance of winning Best Picture) and the much-publicized re-issue of the books from Vintage, Yates’ work is, with luck, finally set to reach a wider audience. If that were to happen, it would be a true celebration of Yates’ legacy.
Revolutionary Road releases in theatres on 6 March.
Soumya Bhattacharya is resident editor of Hindustan Times,Mumbai.
He writes a books blog, Page Turner, on www.blogs.hindustantimes.com/page-turner.
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