I was reading a review before of a book I’d like to read. Other Men’s Daughters is a re-release of a novel originally written in 1974 by one Richard Stern. It was controversial then, but praised for the quality of the writing. In the review, it is presented as an intelligent and insightful piece of work.
Stern died, aged 84, a few years ago. This little tidbit is casually reported in the review, but to me, reading seems most relevant. I have not read the novel, but in reading the review of it the novel seemed true to another time, now past. It’s not that the themes were no longer relevant – stories such as this continue in life. Rather it focussed on something in such a way that is no longer true to this time. Perhaps more serious than others, the book appeared a part of the Roth and Updike style of writing about relationships and sex. What were probing questions then now appear settled or discarded arguments.
Updike in recent years has been decried by some contemporary critics, with the inference being that his writing about sex was archaic, juvenile and even sexist. The new guys know better. And Roth has given up writing altogether. Needless to say, I am a great admirer of Updike’s stories (not so much his novels), which are beautiful things; and have read most of Roth’s oeuvre, and think him a master. Literature should be timeless, but clearly, there are trends that come and go, and times – and mores – that are described, then lapse. Is it just me, but are Updike and Roth old-fashioned now? Could there be an Updike or Roth – or indeed a Stern – these days?
I wondered this as I read the review, doubting that such a book would be written now, or even if anyone would be much interested in it now if it were – except, perhaps, to question and vilify any uncomfortable aspects of political incorrectness.
At the back of my mind is Tom Petty. Tom Petty died yesterday at age 66. He is another of those artists I grew up listening to. He is another thread from the soundtrack of my life, unravelled. And in fact, his era had passed too, though he still recorded and toured. He was mainstream once, though still critically acclaimed, his music was no longer part of the rotation, and his name no longer resonant.
It seems to me that as we pass through time we carry our own time with us. We learn to look a bit differently perhaps, our eyes take on new lens, but by and large, our perspective remains as it was when it was formed – in my argument, through our late teens and early twenties. It’s the burgeoning stage of our life full of discovery, sensation and rugged education. It can be modified, refined, it may even mellow, and rarely it may be inverted – but it is the same thing in different ways.
What it means for people like me is that I can look upon many things today and find myself weighing them against things I knew before. Nothing is entirely fresh because it is another representation of what I have known before, though the comparison is often puzzling. It means that the things that were important to you before remain true in you, even if they are no longer in vogue. Very little becomes irrelevant with the passing of time, regardless of what some critics would tell you.
That’s why a book like this resonates with me, because it was true when I was made. That’s why Tom Petty means something, never mind he hardly gets played anymore. None of this makes me old-fashioned or retro, it simply means I can see things from more than one angle, and with a lifetime of context.