‘Something Marvellous to Tell’

Every eight or nine years over the past four decades John Updike has published a collection of reviews, essays, sketches, memoirs, and miscellaneous prose. These volumes are substantial affairs—some of them run to eight or nine hundred pages—and for most writers the work that has gone into them would represent a full-time job. For Updike, however, they are a sideline. The pieces they contain were written in intervals snatched from a career primarily devoted to fiction (more than twenty novels, a dozen collections of short stories), and one in which he has also found time for poetry (six volumes), art criticism, children’s books, and more besides.

His fluency hasn’t always been accounted one of his virtues. A few ill-disposed critics have positively held it against him, as though it carried an automatic taint of superficiality. But such a view is absurd. In literature, quantity tells us nothing in itself about quality. Hacks pour out words; so do many literary masters.

What is true, on the other hand, is that the sheer volume of Updike’s output can lead to his work as essayist and reviewer being taken for granted. He is always there, one feels—a sensible and dependable reporter, a familiar and reassuring fixture on the literary scene. But his criticism is more distinguished than that makes it sound, and a good deal more interesting.

The qualities that lend his criticism its interest defy easy summary (which is another reason why it enjoys less standing than it should). Like every writer, he has his predilections and preoccupations, but he doesn’t try to hammer them into an ideology. There is no Updike doctrine for disciples to latch on to, still less an Updike critical method. Indeed, he might have set out to illustrate T.S. Eliot’s dictum that for a critic, “the only method is to be very intelligent.” He tackles each job as it comes, with wit and insight. He starts trains of thought, and expands detailed observations into large truths. He is a master of the arresting phrase and the illuminating definition, as adept at conveying the feel of a book as he is at summarizing its contents.

His new collection, Due Considerations, brings together work that has appeared in the years since 1999. This is a period during which he turned seventy (he is now seventy-six), and in his introduction he allows himself a reference to “the dwindling powers of old age.” You don’t feel that using the phrase costs him much, however, since he can hardly fail to be aware that there is no sign of diminished energy in the book itself. Unless you count the fact that it is shorter than the two mammoth collections which preceded it—and even then, as Updike somewhat ruefully reports, by not nearly as much as he had expected. Once he began sorting out his material, he writes, “there was no escaping the accumulated weight of my daily exertions.”

The book has the same breadth as its predecessors, too. Updike offers us his…

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