The World According to Garp – John Irving

I have to admit, I had been a little bit afraid whether I still liked John Irving’s books. I read a lot of them back in my twenties and except the story with that mad water drinker I really worshipped them, especially Owen Meany, an All-Time Favorite of mine, and The Hotel New Hampshire, of course. Then I decided to ration his remaining novels and because of that clever decision I ended up reading none of his books for nearly ten oder fifteen years up to now.

Honestly, what have I been thinking???

Before I picked up Garp which rested on my bookshelf for decades I really was afraid that I had grown out of Irving’s books somehow and that they wouldn’t mean the same to me any more.
Thank God, I was wrong! 🙂

When I reached a particular part almost at the beginning of the book, where young Garp tries to catch some troublesome pigeons and thereby almost falls through the rotten gutter of a school building’s roof, the suspense at one point discharges and the relief really made me laugh out loud. The passage where Dean Bodger catches a dead pigeon which he mistook for the falling boy and shouts: „I’ve got you son!“ – Isn’t that absolutely gorgeous? Just imagine the scene in your head! 🙂

I always thought one of John Irving’s major strengths is creating scenes with a lot of situational humour. He builds up a particular setting and an atmosphere and with very little side remarks he gets you literally visualising the scene. You have it all in front of your eyes. Then he inserts only one little sentence more, preferably some very dry humour, and it simply breaks out of you.

What I also love about John Irving is the stunning complexity of his stories. He really has some imagination! And it doesn’t seem to stop when you look at the number of his published novels so far. With Garp John Irving tells the story of a boy growing up into a man raising his own family. Garp is brought up by his single mom Jenny. His father, a certain Sergeant Garp, had been badly wounded as a turret gunner in WW 2. Garp is the only remnant that is left of the Sergeant, to the utmost liking of Garp’s mother who had been interested in a child but certainly not in a husband to come with it. This becomes especially clear in her later book:

‚In this dirty-minded world,‘ Jenny wrote, ‚you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore – or fast on your way to become one or the other.‘ […] ‚Then I wanted a baby, but I didn’t want to have to share my body or my life to have one,‘ Jenny wrote. (154f)

I leave it for you to find out how she eventually managed to get her baby. 😉
Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother, comes from a rich family in the shoewear business. Her way in life (good education, meeting a respectable man, getting married, bearing children) is entirely designated for her by her family. But inspite of this predescribed future, she decided to cut her own path. She becomes a nurse, first at a Boston hospital and after she gave birth to Garp, as a school nurse at an Ivy League Private Boy School in New England. In this distinguished place called Steering, Garp grows up and gets his education.

After his graduation he and his mother move to Vienna where Garp who has decided to become a writer is supposed to absorb the spirit of a lively and artistically influenced place. But after WW 2, Vienna isn’t that kind of city anymore. It is in the progress of falling apart. Nevertheless, Garp likes to be there, especially the slow pace of the city helps him to notice things that might be useful for him as a writer:

It was holding still for him. Life seemed to be holding still for him. (153)

In Vienna he starts to write his first short story The Pension Grillparzer. At some point in the book John Irving swaps the stories and presents the reader with extracts from Garp’s novel. For me it was an instant hook and I was almost disappointed when John Irving got back to Garp’s life in Vienna.

In many passages of the book the process of writing is thoroughly reflected. I liked that very much. For example this question is brought up: When most stories are mainly about the recurring topics as life, death, love etc. what makes a novel good and what makes it bad writing? John Irving argues that the difference lies in a writer’s capability to get the readers’ interest even with stories or characters in which or with whom nothing much happens. Take as an example the character Oblomow created by the Russian writer Iwan Gontscharow. Oblomow is the textbook example for procrastination and idleness and there is nothing much happening regarding the course of action. Nevertheless Gontscharow gets you interested in his character. And that’s exactly what good writing is able to do. That is what I had in mind when I wrote about Anna Seghers‘ Überfahrt.

Let me get back to my initial worry…

I love him – I love him – I love him ! 🙂

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