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Off-Centaur

The Centaur

by John Updike
Knopf, $4.00

This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features. The title, grindingly reinforced by the tasteful Hellenic fragment on the cover, sounds the warning note of “significance” and the severe intention is further signaled by a dark quotation from Karl Barth on the title page: something about man being “a creature on the boundary between heaven and earth.” As if one were not tuned by this time to the “universal” wave length, there follows on the next page, before our story really begins, a précis of the myth of Chiron, the weary centaur who sacrifices his immortality as an atonement for Prometheus. Then, lest we forget, the author has appended, at the suggestion of his wife, an index of the mythical references which crop up throughout the text. Nearly three pages are devoted to this catalogue, which instead of being explanatory is more in the nature of a score card. The nymphs and deities are simply listed, in alphabetical order, along with their page references. Achilles scores three appearances, Adonis five, Argus runs neck and neck with Daedalus with four references, while up in the big league, Aphrodite, Zeus, and Pandora get ten or eleven mentions each. The novel itself ends with an untranslated, five- line quote in Greek. The work collapses finally under this freight of classical reference.

Human affairs, of course, cast allegorical shadows. Gods and nymphs are vivid ciphers which do dramatize some of the more permanent themes of mortal business. We all of us, at one time or another, approximate in our behavior and in our predicaments, to one or other of these mythical stereotypes. Suggestions of this dualism can sometimes intensify fiction by projecting it into an immortal perspective, letting the reader in on a dramatic irony where the characters, unknown to themselves, are worked, like marionettes, by the ideal forms of which they themselves are simply flawed and provisional replicas. So far so good; the trick calls for tact and finesse, though. If the allegorical theme is announced too clearly the irony becomes monotonous and the art gives way to pedantry. Exactly what has happened in The Centaur. It is interesting in this respect to contrast the work with two successful novels with which it shares certain issues.

The Centaur is a portrait, not just of Chiron, the schoolteacher, wearied by domestic and professional struggles, but also of his son, an artist, who recalls three ice-bound days of his Pennsylvania childhood. In this sense it is another Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Updike’s didactic allegory suffers by contrast with the delicacy with which Joyce uses the myth of Daedalus. Stephen’s mythical role is deftly introduced by Joyce in the final paragraph of the book, with an image of the winged craftsman, phantasmal almost, which lingers in the mind, subtly and retroactively illuminating all that has gone before. Updike’s quotations, his pretentious index, and interpolated episodes of mythical narrative simply provide an irritating distraction.

The other book with which his suffers by illustrative comparison is Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which also treats the theme of the reciprocity of psychic energy between father and son. Bellow’s novel is resonant with intimations of immortality, but in firm subordination to the dense bulk of the two main characters around whom Bellow merely puffs a hint of eternity. A gleam of sunlight, refracted through a glass of water, casts an image which seems, in passing, to be the imprint of an angel’s mouth. Such fleeting innuendoes, confidently occasional, are quite enough to indicate the larger scale against which the human events are set.

The fact is that Updike does himself a great disservice by enameling his tale with the elaborate reference. At the center of all that wearisome pedantry he has a neglected germ of literary imagination. The father is carefully and sympathetically observed with a shambling heroism, fatigued and gullible, which is nicely set off against the irritable fondness of his son. He has chosen however to inflate this compact moral set-up, blowing it up into a volume which is out of proportion to its weight. It finally becomes flounderingly portentous and pompously intoned, like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.

The book is still further damaged by the necessity which Updike makes out of his own virtue. His sly adjectival prose creates an extraordinary surface effect. This is what I think is called sensitive writing. It certainly shows nimble, almost feline, accuracy of physical perception, capturing in a few supple lines the essence of certain observations.

I say that he has made a necessity out of his own virtue, but perhaps I should say virtuosity, since it is his enslavement of his own bravura skill which finally disqualifies this novel from genuine literary consideration. He is hung up on his own sensitivity and unable to drive his story on with the narrative urgency of genuine literary work. There is a term, used in physiological optics, which perfectly illustrates this defect. The “critical flicker fusion frequency” is the rate at which a sequence of still pictures must pass before the eye before they eventually fuse into a moving progress. There is, I believe a counterpart in literature: call it a “literary fusion frequency,” a critical tempo without which we, as readers, merely receive a show of beautiful still frames. And this is where Updike has failed. The first half of this book is so heavily cargoed with physical effects that it can never get up the necessary speed. Then, quite suddenly, towards the middle, the projector becomes synchronized and the figures begin to move with convincing fluency and a genuine sense of motive. This middle sequence, taken up with the father and son snow-bound in a small Pennsylvania town, abruptly jerks into motion and the characters seem to move against a landscape of physical detail which is in relieving proportion to the human figures in the foreground. This passage is startling in its quality, standing out from the smooth pretentiousness of everything with which it is surrounded. Without this relief the novel is just a counterpart of Sundays and Cybèle, a tidbit for Bosley Crowther.

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