Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Bonfire of the Vanities - coming to this blog

Tom Wolfe likes to introduce his novels with a sort of "making of" Introduction. I noticed he did so with "I am Charlotte Simmons"; and now I discover that, about twenty years before, he did the same with "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

The Introduction to "The Bonfire of the Vanities" is a lovely literary essay, the sort of thing that arouses serious writers (whom Tom Wolfe defines as those who aim for literary prestige). It is rich with historical context from the world of fiction, from as far back the nineteenth century to the 1980s. It is also an argument for something.

Wolfe argues that novel writing must rely on reporting skills. A serious writer must be able to document - carefully - the world he wishes his work to inhabit. He has to interview, live in, make friends with, that world. Wolfe compares realism to electricity; you can't go back on it, you can't do without it. Realism is essential for fiction, he argues.

His point seems true; part of The Wire's immense TV success is that its creator immersed himself in the inner-workings of Baltimore, Maryland. Indeed, David Simon was a reporter for a local Baltimore paper for many years.

Some nuggets:

  • In 1969, Tom Wolfe sought to write a novel about New York - that irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening. He thought it the most obvious idea an American writer could have.

  • 1960s America was a time of immense change. He kept waiting for novels about those changes. Nothing.

  • By the time 1979 swung around, and still no grand novel on New York had come out, Wolfe began to prepare for writing that book himself.

  • The reason why no novels where forthcoming was complicated. Most writers were experimenting with different forms of fiction. The realism school was deemed to have been 'over'.

  • Extraordinary and abundant news coverage challenged fiction writers. There was no way they could replicate that realism. The news was full of detail, full of things even a fictional novelist would be at loss to match for symbolism and surprise.

  • Reporting is the most vaulable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.

  • Wolfe sought to document the influence of society on even the most personal aspects of the life of an individual. It strikes me as folly to believe that you can portray the individual in the city today without also portraying the city itself.

  • I doubt that there is a writer over forty who does not realise in his heart of hearts that literary genius, in prose, consists of proportions more on the the order of 65 percent material and 35 percent the talent in his brain.

  • Between 1981-1985, Tom Wolfe gathered material by visiting neighborhoods and making friends with people he would never have encountered. The novel was published in 1987 to widespread acclaim; it was often described as 'prophetic'.

Hola: While in London, my friend avantcaire set up this book-reading-circle of sorts; to my lot fell the honour of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" - all 740 pages of it. My task is to read it, and send it on to the next person in the ring. Wish me luck!

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