About a month ago, I began a three-part review of Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates. Part One dealt with essays by Oates about the “Writing Life.” We now turn to “Part Two, Classics” which deals with reviews of classic authors Oates selected for inclusion in this magnificent work.
A review of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead starts off this section. Middlemarch is one of my most loved stories of the 19th century. One of my original ideas for grad school centered on women’s British novels including George Eliot, the Brontës, and Jane Austen. Mead’s work involves a little known genre, the bibliomemoir. I have a couple of these in my collection and they are always enjoyable excursions through literary fiction backed up by a non-fiction memoir. U and I by Nicholson Baker examines the author’s connection to John Updike. Sharing points of intersection with these works is a real rush.
Oates discusses an author I recently discovered who has captured my imagination. Georges Simenon, born 1903 and died 1989, has me scrambling to find more of his work. He has written nearly 400 titles, including seventy-fife showcasing the detective, Inspector Maigret. Oates points out that his novellas have given birth to the genre. She writes, “A “simenon” is a sparely constructed novella” by the phenomenal Belgian-born Georges Simenon” (108). I add to my collection by accidentally stumbling on a book here and there. I am afraid a thorough search my just bankrupt my book budget.
In “Two American Prose Masters: John Updike, Ralph Ellison” Oates examines the work of my number one favorite author, John Updike. She describes his work as, “brilliantly condensed, intensely lyric homage to the voice of another American contemporary, J. D. Salinger,” in a story “most anthologized, as it is likely the Updike story most readily accessible to young readers” (117). In my literature classes, I always compare this story, “A&P” to a wonderful James Joyce story, “Araby.” Both stories demonstrate a young boys coming of age in difficult situations. Updike is an outstanding and prolific short story writer, and I cannot recommend him more highly.
In “A Visit with Dorris Lessing” – another of my favorite authors – enlightened me as to the inner workings of Doris’s mind and how she constructed her writings. She had an interesting life, having been born in Iran, and traveling in Africa and London. Oates writes, “Doris Lessing is direct, womanly, very charming. She wears her long, graying black hair drawn into a bun at the back of her head; her face is slender and attractive” (122). Oates admits she “had been reading and admiring for so long. Meeting her at last I felt almost faint – certainly unreal – turning transparent myself in the presence of this totally defined, self-confident, gracious woman” (122). I can honestly report I have felt that same tingling when in the presence of authors I love and admire.
Other works in this section include Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, and “The King of the Weird”: H. P. Lovecraft, whom Oates describes as “The American writer of the 20th century most frequently compared to Poe, in the quality of his art […], its thematic preoccupations […] and its critical and commercial reception during the writer’s truncated lifetime […] is H.P. Lovecraft (74). Even my students, who are horror fans, appreciate his work.
There is so much more to Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates than I can ever hope to reveal in a brief review. However, anyone interested in writing, reading, and collecting will find this volume most enjoyable. Stay tuned for Part Three.