John Irving and his writing

This morning I read the essay linked to below, at John Irving’s facebook page and was surprised to see it had been published in 1980. It was the mention of one of my favourite Irving novels that caught my eye, THE WATER METHOD MAN:

It’s been 45 years since John Irving published THE WATER METHOD MAN. While his second novel is regarded as a purely comic tale, and John’s current project is a darker contemplation of life’s disruptive forces, the two novels bear some resemblance to one another.

John Irving is once again experimenting with framed narratives and writing about the evolution of a writer—like Bogus Trumper, one who writes screenplays. This time, we see the main character —Adam Brewster—mature from childhood and early adolescence to become a writer like Garp, or Ruth Cole, or Juan Diego, as if writing were an inevitability given the fateful circumstances of his life. And, along the way, despite the darkness, there are points of humor. John’s work in progress may ultimately be his funniest novel since THE WATER METHOD MAN.

And a link to the essay published all those years ago, 3 BY IRVING by Terrence Des Pres, a text credited by Irving as “the most insightful thesis on his writing.” It contains some fabulous insights into and perspectives on fiction writing, particularly his. How he works, how he circles.

I do feel his fiction went off the boil for me, but maybe I had changed, maybe his work is still as vibrant and compassionate (a word that keeps recurring in the essay) and funny as it ever was. (although I have to say, the character name Bogus Trumper is genius but Adam Brewster? Ordinary).

Anyway, I thought it a fascinating read, this morning. It helped restore the juice that I will need to push on to the next project. It has some great quotes like:


Superior fiction asks three things of the novelist: Vigorous feeling for life as we live it. Then imaginative force, strong enough to subvert and rebuild unhindered. And then–but this is rare and so essential that we might call it the “reality principle” of fiction– shrewd sense to keep the first two locked in stubborn love with each other.


Irving’s grasp on fact is firm, yet not so cramped as to dampen his delight in wild fabulation. To manage this balance with compassion and comic liberty is chief among his strengths. Not fact but fact perceived is fiction’s rightful domain, and Irving has been quick to take this special license to its limit. Rampant invention is central to his art, and one of the finest pleasures to be got from reading his novels resides in the multiplicity of styles, the range of forms and abrupt imaginative turns to be found in each book. Irving’s multiple manner, if I may call it such, his will to come at the world from different directions, is one of the outstanding traits of Garp; but this remarkable flair for confluence–stories inside stories, genres circumventing genres–is already handled with mastery in Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, and with a freedom almost wanton in The Water-Method Man, which appeared in 1972. Only The 158-Pound Marriage departs from mixed form; published in 1974, it is as lean and concentrated as a mine shaft. But in every case Irving’s habit of originality provokes surprise and enjoyment.


Getting ready to fly the old coop

Friday week I jet off (read: become paralysed stuffed in small almost-reclining seat within long metal tube) to London and beyond. My preparations have consisted of making sure I have warm clothes to take and even more importantly, comfortable shoes (remember the LA-NYC Blister Saga?) My blister saga was caused last time by me flying business class on my friend’s travel benefits. One of the requirements is that you have to dress corporate. Only full-paying business customers can wear shorts and t-shirt and bling (as I saw on the leg LA-New York) or jeans and loafers and open necked shirt (as I saw LA-SYD). But this time I’m travelling economy (read: on my own dime) so I can wear what I like. I’m considering a slouch pant (I’m kidding myself; they are track pants) but in an interesting fabric and colour. I’ll probs wear my new black runners too. I know my feet’ll swell and I might struggle to get them on at the end, but I’ll be wearing my anti-DVT hose for good measure so that will help with stopping the sausaging of my feet and ankles. (Usually I have very svelte ankles and I’m pretty happy with them I have to say.)

But in addition to all this stuff, I’m preparing with my reading. I’m re-reading some of John Irving books (he has Vienna in many of them; at the moment I’m reading a little-known one of his – and possibly my favourite – called The Water-Method Man*. It’s about a man and his relationships, and how he fucks them all up. The title refers to a urological problem he has. His urethra is a ‘narrow, winding road’ as described by his urologist. One of the options of management is to drink lots of water and pee after sex. Another option is to stop having sex. A third is to treat with antibiotics when the problem arises, and the fourth is to have surgery. The main character tries the water method but then, later on, when it doesn’t really work, he opts for surgery.)

John Irving was the first writer I read,  when I was in my late teens/early twenties, who I just fell in love with and realised I had to buy all his books and read them all. (I’ve since stopped that, once I hit his middle of career books). But with those early books it was total, absolute adoration and even now I will fight you to the death about him. You’ll say: but he’s commercial. His latest stuff is shit. Nothing good since x, y, or z. And I’ll say: maybe, but he is an amazing storyteller, with incredible characters, and such imagination. Pathos and humour. And daring.

I think I’ve said it before, but for me, reading The World According to Garp was the first time I really got what a novel could be. Garp wasn’t my first book love, though. My first adult novel love was Wuthering Heights, but Garp was different. Garp was funny AND sad, and had a central character who was very human, hurtful to others, but so loveable. The other thing was Irving’s secondary and even tertiary characters: he populates his novels with people who are startlingly original and so entertaining. Much later I learned that Irving is a big Dickens fan, and this made sense to me. I haven’t read more than a couple of Dickens novels, but both writers have these characters that become like people you have really known in real life.

I plan to take with me Anna Funder’s Stasiland, which is non-fiction, and which will cover Budapest and Prague, and Berlin too. I’m not bothering with an in-situ London read (although maybe I’ll take a Dickens. One I haven’t read yet). I might be too busy, but it is true that no matter how busy, I like a novel on the go. If I take an Irving with me, it should be Setting Free the Bears, his first book, which is about the liberation of all the animals in Vienna’s zoo, but it’s really not as enchanting as his second (Water-Method) or other early ones. I’m halfway through a re-read of Bears, but put it down to pick up Water-Method Man.


So, that’s reading. All accommodation is booked, and train travel and so on. After a week in London I fly to Budapest to meet my daughter Lily, and from there we train to our other cities. It’s going to be cold so we are packing all sorts of thick winter clothing, which means less room in the cases for shopping. I don’t want to shop much but perhaps some boots/shoes in Vienna (we’ve been told about an amazing boot/shoe shop) and maybe a woollen jacket in London.


In London (or outside of it, in Cheltenham, near the Cotswolds) I’m staying with an OLD friend, an English woman I met here in Melbourne years ago, when we were early twenties. We met while both working at a restaurant, the Island Trader, on Warrigal Road Ashwood (or was it Burwood?) We had to wear sarongs and fake flowers clipped into our hair. Also a lei (fake, natch) which allowed skeezy male customers to make their skeezy jokes. I am the only person in my family who worked there (3 of us siblings) who didn’t get fired. And who spent time in all the possible work roles (apart from management): waitress, bar, food prep. I’m not sure why I’m a little proud of this. Anyway, I’ll catch up with Erica, and that will be great. I’d thought about a side-trip to Haworth (Bronte country, see above) to make it even more of a literary pilgrimage, but it’s pretty far and it’s going to be bad cold weather. I saw a friend’s photos of Haworth and the moors on facebook which made me very wistful. I shall just have to make sure the next time I’m there is summer/autumn so I can do those sorts of things.


In Prague will be the Great Reunion with M and J. We were all learning Turkish together in Istanbul in 1994. All married to Turkish men, we bonded big time. Maggie is from Montreal and Julia originally from Slovakia, but now living in Prague. I haven’t seen Maggie since I took Lily there when she was 3 or 4 (we did a side trip from Istanbul where we were living 1999/2000) and Julia I haven’t seen since those times, in 1994. It will be fantastic to see them. We’re planning to go to the opera here as well. I don’t like opera but Lily does, so, you know. Self-sacrifice and all that. I can cope.


Berlin is the place I think I’m most excited about. I’ve found ‘unter-welten’ tours where you can go into bunkers etc. Lily is very interested in all the war stuff, the history, as well as art. And the food as well. We can’t wait for the different local food. We watched Das Boot over two nights in preparation for this, as well as The Reader. Das Boot was the better movie.


We have two days in London before we fly back out. We plan to do a couple of galleries/museums that she won’t have managed to get to in her week there before we meet up, and I won’t have either. And we’ll have a ‘nice meal’ somewhere on the last night. Suggestions welcome. Even though I lived in London way back, I din’t like it and didn’t explore it at all. What an idiot but I suppose I had no money. Also I was only there for four months.


When we get back it’s action stations. Lily will have hopefully enrolled in uni while away. She got her score on Sunday and did very very well, more than enough for her to get into the course she wants (Arts) at her preferred uni. So she’ll be doing uni stuff, maybe moving into college, buying books etc etc. And my first week back I have an important meeting that I have to try to not be crazy with jetlag for. Exciting times.


* If I ever did a post about ‘The Best Books You’ve Never Heard Of’ this would be on that list, along with a book called Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.