Nathanael West at rest. This is a picture of Nat in the summer of 1931 at Viele Pond when he was at work on Miss Lonelyhearts (published in 1933). Nathaniel Rich at The Daily Beast just described the novel as "essential" to understanding America and The American Dream. Rich is writing a monthly piece on important American novels and what they say about us. Read more on Rich and West below.
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WHAT DID THEY SAY:
Joe Winkler wrote today:
"Now Joe Woodward in his choppy, but ultimately compelling biography of West...makes a good case for the widespread contemporary relevance of West."
Winkler finds me "astute" and complains the book "opens too well."
The enterprise of translation has always interested me. As a young reader, of course, I read the canonized foreign “classics” of my time: the Russians, the French, the Spanish, the Central and South Americans. I read more Europeans than anything. I read no Asian literature. I read no African literature. Well, very, very little.
As I grew into a young writer, I was exposed to more literature in other languages—largely, it seemed, because my teachers found in foreign literature new literary forms to share. It seemed to all of us young writers that our contemporaries in other countries were somehow freer to experiment with plot and character, with lyric language than Americans.
Just this week, the 2012 fiction long list (25 titles) of the Best Translated Book Awards was announced. It includes books from 14 countries and 12 languages. The awards program is organized by “Three Percent,” a part of the University of Rochester translation program and Open Letter Press, also associated with the university. The finalists in fiction will be announced on April 10th in conjunction with the poetry finalists. The winners in both categories will be celebrated at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City....
I'm pleased (actually beside myself) to report that Jay Parini, the noted writer and critic and editor of both The Norton Anthology of Autobiography and The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature has written a beautiful review in the February 2012 issue of Literary Review, London.
Jay Parini says of ALIVE INSIDE THE WRECK:
“In this fresh, elegant biography by Joe Woodward—the first in four decades—West comes alive, a strange young man on the prowl, a crazy fool, a fantasist.
“Alive Inside the Wreck seems to imitate, to a degree, the prose of West, with its short sentences and its neon-lit realism…Some of the criticism on display is quite remarkable, as when Woodward describes The Day of the Locust as “ a novel of displacement, of displaced people.
“This is a remarkably good and succinct biography, well worth reading. It adds considerably to our understanding of West, taking on the fabled machinery of Hollywood itself, which often seems more like a troubled state of mind than an actual place or industry.”
"Old age in America is a humorless state of spent energies—a time-desert laced with lost economic and political power and long hours in medical waiting rooms skimming back issues of National Geographic. Old age in America is a commercial loop stuck on the pros and cons of Medicare Part B and unmeasured time in wall-papered kitchens trying to get child-proof caps off orange prescription bottles. Old age in America is simply the loss of youth.
The American canon on old age is as unreliable and overstuffed as America itself. It does not contain the truth. Rarely, save an occasional AARP advertisement in a magazine or television pitch for “Boost,” the energy drink, do “old people” appear in media at all. When they do appear, they are most often interested in “eating right” and “exercising” and playing ball with their grandchildren in comfortable shoes and ironed khakis. There must be more!
The novel, right up to the end, was called The Cheated by West. It wasn't perfect, he realized, but nothing else seemed as true and right.
Certainly "cheated" fit Faye Greener. Faye, his heroine-grotesque, takes up the whole of chapter 3 and prepares us for one of the magnificent sequences in the book--Claude Estee's party.
"She was a tall girl with wide, straight shoulders and long, swordlike legs. Her neck was long, too, and columnar. Her face was much fuller than the rest of her body would lead you to expect and much larger. It was a moon face, wide at the cheek bones and narrow at the chin and brow. She wore her 'platinum' hair long, letting it fall almost to her shoulders in back...
"She was supposed to look drunk and she did, but not with alcohol.
"Her invitation wasn't to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn't exactly rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken.
"He managed to laugh at his language, but it wasn't a real laugh and nothing was destroyed by it."
On December 22, 1940 at five minutes to three, Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney were in a car accident in the middle of the California desert. We know the time because the Highway Patrol recovered Eileen's broken watch at the scene.
They had been married less than year. West had completed two masterworks, Miss Lonelyhearts and, recently, The Day of the Locust. He was at work on his fifth novel, for which Random House had paid him a modest advance of $250.00.
They had been happy. They had been.
I begin his biography, ALIVE INSIDE THE WRECK, this way:
"The accident happened at five minutes to three, two days before Christmas: December 22, 1940. Rain puddles stood in the dips of the road from a morning storm. Broken thunderclouds lingered over the flat California desert. Nathanael West was on his way home.
"The Woody station wagon held West's new wife Eileen and their liver-colored pointer, Julie. As he crossed the intersection where Route 111 runs into Interstate 80, West and Eileen collided with the Dowless Family--a husband and wife and two year-old daughter. West was traveling north out of Mexico after a weekend hunting trip. His car was full of dead quail and duck, the legal limit. Four shotguns rattled loose on the back seat."