• Email
  • Print

Top of the Class

I

John Updike hardly seems able to write a sentence, for any occasion, that doesn’t have a shapely, rhythmical balance to it, yet there is something shapeless and directionless about Hugging the Shore. Many collections of reviews seem scattered until the author’s aims become apparent, and in reading these literary reviews we do learn what Updike’s tastes and prejudices are. But I put the book down with a frustrated and almost angry feeling that I had been in the company of a brilliant person who is running on automatic.

Hugging the Shore is dissatisfying, but it is phenomenal, too. It has the heft of a Bible, and it has a Biblical diversity of subjects and insights. It is packed with phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that give us a handle on books and authors we haven’t read or heard of, or that bring back well-known books and authors in refreshed, new ways. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is described as “an Oedipal triangle passingly invaded by a goldenhaired loser.” Randall Jarrell’s children’s books “have a sinister stir about them, the breath of true forlornness felt by children.” John Cheever’s “instinctive belief in the purity and glory of Creation brings with it an inevitable sensitivity to corruption; like Hawthorne, he is a poet of the poisoned.” About Maurice Blanchot’s novel Death Sentence: “It is as if Jesus Christ, years later, were writing, in the affectless voice of the hero of Camus’s Stranger, His own troubled, ‘indeterminate’ Gospel.”

Hugging the Shore includes humor pieces, sports and travel reporting, essays on such subjects as a small-town police force and New England churches, and, in an appendix, a sort of patchwork autobiography, composed of interviews, testimonies before panels, and introductions to books of his that have been reissued. The bulk of the collection, though, is a section, made up of nearly a hundred reviews, introductions, and essays prepared from talks, that Updike calls “Other People’s Books.” In these pieces, written over the past eight years, primarily for The New Yorker, he covers—to give a rough idea—classic nineteenth-century figures (Flaubert, Hawthorne), and twentieth-century authors, some established (Joyce, Auden, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, Nabokov, Isak Dinesen), some only beginning to be better known (Henry Green, Bruno Schulz, Flann O’Brien). There are sections on Japanese, Indian, and African fiction writers and on travel writers and historians of Asia and Africa. He reviews experimental French novelists (Raymond Queneau, Robert Pinget), new German and Eastern European fiction (Peter Handke, Milan Kundera), and contemporary British and American novelists (Kingsley Amis, Don DeLillo, Christina Stead, Ann Beattie). And there are pieces here on European and American essayists, sociologists, memoirists, historians, scientists, theologians, and anthologists of folk and fairy tales—reviews of James Boswell, Isaiah Berlin, M.F.K. Fisher, Carl Sagan, E.B. White, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Doris Day is here, too. Updike, who says that the singer and actress is one of his idols, reviews her autobiography, and talks with admiration about her hardy professionalism. There’s a spooky blandness to his voice in this review, as if he were speaking while hypnotized. His tone is rosy and smiling, but his words describe a dogged person who didn’t let the many batterings that she sustained in her private life interfere with a rigidly craftsmanlike approach to her work. Though Updike points out that many of her costars think she’s sexy, he never says, or even implies, if and how she’s sexy to him. His attitude recalls that of a boy who proudly and willfully aligns himself with someone he senses needs defending. He seems drawn to her because she gives him a chance to be her protector.

Updike’s image of Doris Day as a spunky workhorse is very similar to the one he gives us of himself as a critic. Making one astute distinction after another about the work of so many novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers seems to quench a perfectionist’s desire on his part to get it right, but he himself rarely seems to be fazed by the activity, and that may be why his criticism produces in the reader an airy, irritating sense of unlimited mental energy that is still waiting to be used on something. Updike seems to stand before us, at the end of each review, a smiling, likable man, his chores over for the day, ready for the next activity.

Updike apparently wants this breezy, effortless effect. He calls book reviewing his “improvised sub-career,” and he has always worked to have us see how unimportant it is to him. He gave his first collection of reviews, parodies, magazine columns, and odd essays the defiantly bland title “Assorted Prose” (1965). Entitling his second “Picked-Up Pieces” (1975)—it is composed primarily of reviews—he implied that his criticism was an ironic joke, and the book’s jacket cover, which he designed, was part of the joke. It is a black-and-white photo of the author standing before a street of good-sized clapboard houses. With a trace of a smile on his lips, and wearing a casual outfit of a crewneck sweater on top of a turtleneck, he holds what appear to be leaves, or maybe candy wrappers, in his cupped hand. The title and the jacket say that he’s not doing anything serious—he’s just a fellow out for a walk, picking up stuff, cleaning the neighborhood. The idea is mildly witty, but odd; in Updike’s determination that we see his reviewing as only an inconsequential chore he makes his book seem to be more about himself, though not in a way that’s clear, than about the subjects of his articles.

With the title “Hugging the Shore,” Updike says more emphatically that his criticism means little to him; and, again, in an effort to make light of it, he turns himself into the star of the proceedings. This jacket cover is also an informal black-and-white photograph of the author—this time he’s wearing Bermuda shorts and sitting in a rowboat, with sea grasses, a shoreline, and a house behind him. In a contorted foreword, he tells us that he, too, finds the idea of hugging the shore tame and unappetizing. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing the open sea,” he says, and goes on,

One misses, hugging the shore, the halting mimetic prose of fiction, which seeks to sink itself in the mind of a character or the texture of a moment. What we love about fiction writers is their willingness to dare this submergence, to give up, in behalf of brute reality, the voice of a wise and presentable man. The critic comes to us in suit and tie. He is a gentleman. He is right. A pox on him, as Goethe said.

If the message isn’t clear that criticism is a waste of time for a real guy, he adds that, “as it happened…the payment for a monthly review roughly balanced a monthly alimony payment that was mine to make.”

Updike flashes so many masks before his face that we barely know what he stands for. It’s hard to take what he says about criticism literally; surely he believes that a critic can make as big and daring a leap in his work as a novelist can, and that, while some critics do speak as “wise and presentable” minds, some novelists and poets do, too. Updike’s real point, I think, has less to do with criticism versus fiction than with the way he wants to be seen. He’d like to make himself look weak, and us feel sorry for him, since he has lost so much time toiling in the supposedly unchallenging and thankless role of a reviewer. There’s a suggestion that we are to feel guilty, too, since presumably he has been toiling for our benefit. But then, not wanting us to be discomforted, or to think that he actually might be a timid man in a suit and tie, he tells us that he was only passing as a critic—he did it for the money.

This disembodied, playacting note appears in virtually everything Updike does. He always seems to want to get inside the skin of failure, and write from there; but he also wants us to know that the voice we’re hearing isn’t that of the real John Updike—he has shouldered this role only for the moment, for his and our good. He floats above his images of defeat, whether his tone is comic, as in his stories about the blocked writer Henry Bech, or whether his approach is more realistic, as in his attempts to see things from the angle of a small-city, ordinary American lug in his novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, and of a frustrated and impassive third world leader in his novel The Coup. There is something ungrounded even in Updike’s novels and stories about suburban married life and child rearing; though the narrator speaks as a man who has weathered every domestic responsibility, he often seems to be, at heart, a passing observer taking notes. Yet, except in the Bech stories, Updike’s tone isn’t crisp and ironic—his underlying mood is too forlorn. Nor does he touch the tragic—his characters are too lightweight for that. What he gets is a hazy mixture of the two. The assumption behind Updike’s dismissive words about criticism is that he lets loose in his own fiction—but he doesn’t. His fictional characters don’t venture into deep waters. Though they’re seemingly free, they act, out of a blend of pride and resignation, as if they were imprisoned.

Updike’s reviews produce the same tethered effect. He shows how criticism can be the record of our most instinctive responses, and yet, whether he knows it or not, he leaves us with the feeling that our choices don’t matter much. Updike’s only real criterion as a reviewer is that a work be true to a kind of inner human realism, or what he calls the “home base of all humanism—the single, simple human life that we all more or less lead, with its crude elementals of nurture and appetite, love and competition, the sunshine of well-being and the inevitable night of death.” It’s hard to argue with this point of view, and he uses it in a flexible way. He can show how a naturalist novel is emotionally phony and unrealistic, and how a seemingly impenetrable work of pure literary experimentation—a novel by, say, Robert Pinget—is, when examined, surprisingly down-to-earth. And at first it’s exciting to read a reviewer who doesn’t treat some writers as sacrosanct, or imply that others are beneath his attention.

Updike’s approach takes us back to some of our earliest, and perhaps most spontaneous, feelings about books. The title, author, number of pages, publisher, and date of publication of each book he reviews are put in small type at the head of the piece; the format recalls book reports done in grade school, and these reviews might be called grade school book reports taken to the heights. They’re also extended and polished versions of the carefree, impulsive, on-the-spot verdicts many of us write in our minds when we browse in a book-store. No critic passes finer, more specific judgments on so many aspects of a book, right down to its merits as a piece of craftsmanship. Yet Updike can’t bring himself to simply dismiss, let alone damn—or lose himself in love of—another writer, and that leaves a neutralized, almost inert, vision of literature.

Updike’s range is encyclopedic, but he has a terrain all his own: the overlapping generations of writers, primarily novelists, who became internationally prominent either in the late Thirties or, more often, after the Second World War—Céline, Borges, Güunter Grass, Nabokov, Muriel Spark, Beckett, Raymond Queneau, Lévi-Strauss, Iris Murdoch, Henry Green, Saul Bellow, Italo Calvino, and others. Updike admires some of these writers a lot, and, in many cases, even in the cases of those he is skeptical of, his running descriptions of the range of their talent and their impact are probably as lively and shrewd as any American critic has produced. But he makes so many delicately shaded, overlapping positive and negative remarks in his analyses of them, and of the older and more recent authors he covers, that virtually everyone comes out with the same weight and consistency. Writing in praise of, say, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or Nabokov’s career, or the letters of Franz Kafka, he wants us to be amazed, or reverent. There is something so glazed and preordained about these pieces, though—they sound so much as if they’re official wrap-ups—that, shortly after having read them, you find it difficult to remember what, exactly, he said.

There is more grit to his writing when he is ambivalent, and he often reviews books that demand a mixed notice: novels by novelists who, in his opinion and by general consent, have done their freshest writing long before; belated translations of, or posthumous collections of previously unpublished work by, esteemed writers. And he’s peerless when, say, reevaluating Colette or Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, or when, analyzing recent Bellow, Grass, Margaret Drabble, Anne Tyler, or Kurt Vonnegut, he makes it clear that the work is the product of a distinguished mind, or has powerful moments, and yet doesn’t tie together as a whole (or when the situation is reversed).

His separate reviews of Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December and of each of four Anne Tyler novels are amazing. Though he is dissatisfied somehow with what they’ve done, he sinks into their novels, recasting and improving them as he goes along. Some of their material is set in the past, but they both write, to a degree, as social historians of the present, and Updike’s reviews, which tie together in the reader’s mind, form a kind of composite three-author portrait of life in America from the mid-Seventies to the early-Eighties. The portrait isn’t really adventurous. Updike shows Bellow’s material as being too sour and inactive, too much about the loneliness of genius, and Tyler’s as being a shade musty and evanescent. Updike seems to see himself in their books, though.

Yet even when he is ambivalent, Updike often doesn’t dig deeply into what bothers him, and his reluctance can be infuriating, because he isn’t timid. And his mind seems more pliant, more able to see into the telltale crevices of things, than, say, Edmund Wilson’s or Alfred Kazin’s. He always wants to convey what the texture of someone’s prose is like, and he isn’t afraid of saying that an aspect of a prominent sociologist’s or historian’s thought is vapid. He’s aware of shortcomings in, say, Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic interpretation of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment; he tells us that Bettelheim’s “enchanting presumption of life as a potentially successful adventure may be itself something of a fairy tale.” But he doesn’t go beyond that perception, which would seem the opening gun of a real analysis of the issues. Wanting primarily to congratulate Bettelheim on his own terms, Updike turns him into a benevolent friend of the family.

Updike’s analyses of Roland Barthes are congratulatory, too, and they also shortchange the subject. Updike is skeptical of the French essayist’s work at first, and he goes furthest into his mixed emotions when he says, of The Pleasure of the Text, “One cannot help but feel that the authors so whimsically cherished are being condescended to and impudently pillaged.” In other reviews over the years, Updike becomes increasingly an admirer, but less concrete; especially in his most recent, 1980, piece, he isn’t evaluating Barthes for us so much as showing us that he can talk Barthes’s language. The effect is of two mandarins overheard at court. In these and other reviews, as in many of his nonliterary essays, grouped in a section called “Persons and Places,” a reader may feel that Updike has put away his dissatisfied self, and that he wants to talk with the voice of an insider, or of a genial, wry, community-minded appreciator, a voice from beyond the fray.

II

One of the most striking lines in Hugging the Shore comes from a review of The Dean’s December: “Bellow believes in the soul; this is one of his links with the ancients, with the great books.” The line makes sense about Bellow and about Updike, too. There is an extra, intangible dimension in all his work, though it may be seen most purely in his short stories. Talking about R.K. Narayan, he says, “a short story, like the flare of a match, brings human faces out of darkness, and reveals depths beyond statistics.” Updike’s stories, both the naturalistic ones and the sermonlike monologues, have that flare. Where they take us, though, is into the darkness. In Updike’s finest moments, we feel the way we do when, in the country, especially in the fall and winter, after being indoors all evening, we go outside and the night sky is unexpectedly clear, starry, and endless—and we see both the beauty of the moment and, in a good way, the smallness of our concerns.

Reading a good amount of Updike’s fiction produces the feeling that he is less a storyteller by temperament than a journal keeper. It is a person’s illuminating or dispiriting moments that he most wants to re-create, and many of his best stories have the confessional, blurting-out drive of a powerful journal entry. He resembles some journal keepers, too, in that he seems to continually describe and analyze those moments because, doing it, he can put off settling some other, larger issue—an issue he knows he will never settle. Updike always asks the right questions, in his reviews as much as in his fiction; yet, perhaps because he feels he cannot bring certain problems to a head, or doesn’t want to, he comes up with answers too quickly.

If readers feel personally close to him, it may be because he seems to be addressing us directly, asking us to witness something for him and thereby give him, for the moment, some relief. In his novels especially, his details are photographically precise, but they’re seethrough details—they seem worked up, like evidence. The real point is almost always one man’s psychic and spiritual dilemma, and we invariably feel that Updike himself is that man. That his stories seem fuller than his novels may be due to the fact that he puts fewer documentary details in his stories—he goes straight for the dilemma.

His preoccupation with himself, though—his keeping himself the biggest figure in his work—has come at a cost: Updike, in his person, has a glamour and an expansiveness that his writing does not. As he has grown older—he is fifty-one—his face has become weathered and massive, and his big frame has filled out. In a documentary shown on TV in July, “What Makes Rabbit Run?” his eyes have the animation, and he moves with the slightly awkward assurance, of a boyish national hero, and, in a way, he is one. He is the spruce young conqueror of our literary life even more now than he was, say, fifteen years ago. Seemingly more prolific than ever, as a novelist, critic, short-story writer, and poet, he personifies artistic energy. Yet his work has become grayer. He has always wanted to describe the muffled and unstated connections between people—how people unconsciously hurt, or draw strength from, each other. In his earlier work, though, particularly in the stories about his parents and grandparents and his home town, the remembered details seemed to come to him faster than he had time to organize them, and his scenes were crowded and brimming. His themes have not changed, but, increasingly now, the details seem arbitrary, and there’s something schematic in the way he shows those muffled connections.

And, preoccupied with his own continually unfinished business, he doesn’t give himself, in his work, to other people. His writing lacks a hero—or a heroine. There is a near-hero: a character whom we take to be the author’s father. (He appears, with a different name each time, in many of the early stories and in the novel The Centaur, where he’s a high school math teacher.) He’s harried, and often maddeningly gullible and self-deprecatory, but, tall and big-boned, he is kind, and a fighter, too. He isn’t someone, though, that the reader fantasizes becoming. Nor do we dream of Updike’s narrator and/or central character, the man who, whether he’s called Orson, or Rob, or John, or Stanley—or Henry Bech, or Richard Maple, the husband in Too Far To Go, or Félix Ellelloû, the central figure in The Coup—we feel is Updike himself. Seen as a boy, an adolescent, a college kid, a young married man, a father, an adulterer, a lover, or a divorced man, he casts a now appreciating, now apprehensive eye at the world; he’s omniscient. At the end, though, he slips out from making a decision about what he has seen and felt. Sometimes a decision has been made for him: Bech finds himself divorced, and is last seen wandering at a fashionable but wearisome New York party; Ellelloû is forced out of the presidency of Kush by a bloodless palace coup, and retires, with his family, to the French Riviera. Yet these, and Updike’s other, men are never really damaged. They are superior, expectant, worried, a little cynical, and a little lost at the beginning, and they haven’t changed much by the end.

They ought to be big; they’re vain, and they preside, uneasily, over their worlds—what happens to the other characters never truly matters. Yet they think of themselves as nothings, and so do we. Women fall for them and there is always a sexual note in the air, but the reader remembers them less as sexy than as men who always have sex on their minds. And while they have jobs, or work at something, they appear to be jobless; they’re waiting for some big thing to happen. We feel we’re supposed to embrace them, because they present themselves to us as sheepish and stricken; but we aren’t given anything to embrace them for.

Updike’s women often seem stronger than his men, yet their strength is seen only in relation to weak men. What’s rock-like about his women is negative things—their misplaced heavy enthusiasm, their obliviousness—that the protagonist thinks about with more anger than he admits to himself. Though Updike’s women are more than cutouts, it’s hard to imagine what they think about when they are offstage; they rarely seem to have independent minds. The one who does—she appears, under different names, in The Centaur, the novel Of the Farm, and in many stories—is always recognizably his mother. With her wary, potentially volatile, yet always lidded power, this character has a real presence. But maybe because we’re never made to like her, we believe that she is a bigger—a more frightening and wracked—person than Updike shows. And Updike’s small children and adolescents, though they say charming and authentically kidlike things, and are alive on the page, are faceless in memory.

There are, of course, vivid individuals in his fiction. His cranks and creeps, who generally dog the central character’s path or embarrass him, are often wonderful. Among the best are the butlerish and manic fuddy-duddy from Oxford in the story “A Madman,” the belligerently profane Gregg in the novel The Poorhouse Fair, the blandly annoying yogi in the story “The Christian Roommates,” and the dank Marvin Federbusch in “Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author,” one of the Bech stories. Updike is clearly drawn to these impulsive, blithely selfish, untormented souls—he gives them the best lines. Unconcerned about looking foolish, they’re the antithesis of his central characters. But he doesn’t linger with them. He seems to see them as unchanging forces, not people who might grow in dimension.

Unwilling to push his central male characters over the edge, Updike is too forgiving toward his other characters—as he is too benign toward the authors he reviews. He’d rather leave everyone shuffling along; maybe they’ll be stronger when they reappear in his next novel or story, or in the next book of theirs he will review. That may be why his endings are more like postponements, and can be abrupt, inconclusive, pat—too sour or too ethereal. His narratives and reviews often have the quality of being visited, at the end, by an angelic outsider or by a wise old King Solomon—a spirit, as it were, who descends for this moment to gently draw the curtains on the stage we’ve been watching or to lift the proceedings to a loftier realm. And possibly because Updike won’t let his fictional subjects fulfill their destinies, his black moods appear in choked-off, harping, and indirect ways. His manner of pointing out the flaws of his characters and of the subjects of his reviews is, in tone, often lordly and unengaged—more condescending than he may realize. It’s as if he felt he was being kind to them by being unengaged.

Certainly no one thing explains the fuzziness at the core of Updike’s work, but in his early stories, especially those set in a small Pennsylvania town, we feel we’re seeing the dilemmas in his own life that first pulled him in opposite directions and left him with his sense of the unresolvable-ness of things. Some of the most intense, packed stories—“The Alligators,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “Flight,” “The Happiest I’ve Been”—involve the courtship rites of teen-agers. The stories aren’t about sex, though. They’re about a character (his name is always different) who courts because he feels he ought to, and who is often most at peace when circumstances let him off the hook. Updike’s young man knows he’s superior to virtually everyone; he’s the kid who gets straight A’s, and he is more perceptive about everything outside school. But, except for his parents, there isn’t anyone in his town, maybe anyone in the whole county, who can appreciate what that means. No, he has to win in the eyes of his classmates, and yet to be average is, in a way, to slum, and the tension in the stories comes from the way the young man keeps being caught by his more popular peers—and by himself—in the act of trying to pass. There is even a moment when, at a luncheonette one snowy day, in “A Sense of Shelter,” he looks around at the kids who are with him in his booth and realizes that, somehow squeezed out of the tables with his fellow seniors, he has settled for being a leader of a band of brainy but childish juniors—kids who are at a loss at parties and would never know what to do after a prom.

There’s a European, nineteenth-century note to Updike’s early Pennsylvania stories. They form one long tale of a provincial teacher’s son, a gifted, questioning, and kind young man, a prince by nature, who grows up knowing that he will never be a true prince and that, no matter how much he accomplishes when he goes away, he will always be the teacher’s son when he comes back to his town. The stories are moving but they aren’t cathartic, because the young man never consciously decides to risk isolation and face the fact of his superiority. We’re never sure which role he most wants. What he settles for is a priestly, in-between role. Though he doesn’t put his future course of action in words, it’s clear that he will leave, and live up to his brilliant promise, but he won’t let himself fly. He’ll be like a man who, ashamed of his inherited riches, develops a limp, when there is actually nothing wrong with his legs, so the world will realize that, in some way, he has paid his dues.

The character’s moment of settling is best seen in “The Happiest I’ve Been.” After a long night of hectic and wearying Christmas-season partying, from house to house, the nineteen-year-old John Nordholm and his friend Neil Hovey finally get going, in the early morning hours, on their long drive to Chicago, where John is going to join his girlfriend. In the very last sentences, John, who’s at the wheel, thinks about the beautiful prospects of his girl waiting for him in Chicago, and of the pleasingly long and empty winter journey stretching out before him. And he realizes how good he has felt when, earlier in that night, two of his peers, in different times and places, have fallen asleep right next to him. He feels honored because, essentially, they have taken him for granted.

The Pennsylvania stories present a picture of an only child who continually watches, and tries to account for, two mighty figures—his mother and father. They are the only people in his numbingly ordinary world who are as sensitive and perceptive as he is. Though he finds his guileless father an embarrassment, and there is always a gulf between him and his mother, he wants to keep them, and their past, on a pedestal, and the reader understands why: if not for his parents, there would be nothing for Updike’s young protagonist to believe in. He seems to make a religion out of being an average kid, even of being a proud son and celebrator of his state of Pennsylvania, because it keeps him, in his mind, from outgrowing his parents; if he outgrew them he’d be truly alone.

III

Updike’s aesthetic—his belief in the “home base of all humanism”—seems to stem from that awareness: the facts of the world have to be honored because otherwise there is nothing. It is as though realism preserves him from a nihilism that he suspects is his truest response. And if he can become edgy and taskmasterish when he’s talking about the “home base of all humanism,” it may be because the idea is possibly something of a myth to him. He sometimes seems to be saying, “I’ve stayed loyal to my belief in the average, I’ve paid my dues to the everyday—so should you.” Updike is at his sharpest when he straightforwardly describes his ambivalent responses. But just as his fiction is often most alive in those moments when one of his embarrassing or babyish individuals takes center stage, so he reveals more of himself when he writes about authors—Herman Melville, Knut Hamsun, William S. Burroughs, in particular—who feel hampered by, or are oblivious of, the “home base” of anything. It’s not that these pieces are his best. Updike doesn’t fight these writers directly; his relationship to them is not as clear as it might be. But, for the reader, there is a welcome friction in Updike’s attempt to make some writers presentable, or to put others in their place. Writing as a defender of the faith, Updike also seems to be looking at men he might have been.

In “Melville’s Withdrawal,” the longest and oddest piece in the book, he tries to make Melville a kind of clubman. Updike wants to tell us that Moby-Dick wasn’t, as a legend has it, a critical or financial failure, and that, contrary to some other myth, Melville didn’t stop writing after it. Analyzing what Melville did write in the remaining thirty-nine years of his life, though, Updike believes that he was “right to withdraw, when he did, from a battle that had become a losing battle.” There is little in Updike’s densely detailed piece that is factually new. What is new is his attempt to pull out the passion and tension from Melville’s life and work. Updike creates a Melville who, though he had little taste for the small change of literary life, was, right through the publication of Moby-Dick, a regular working author, selling his wares in the marketplace like any other.

To prove that his subject was hardly an unappreciated genius, Updike shows how well Moby-Dick was received by reviewers and how reasonably Melville fared through the sale of his books. (Updike even tells us how Melville’s advances and royalties translate into dollars today.) He’d also like us to see that Melville, no longer having anything to say after Moby-Dick, made the right professional move in gradually leaving the literary scene. To illustrate this, Updike makes mincemeat out of most of the good-sized books Melville wrote in the drawn-out final act of his life. Updike pounces on the opportunity of describing what he perceives as the bloated, stagnant, or dry qualities of Pierre and The Confidence-Man; but even “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Billy Budd, which also followed Moby-Dick, are unexciting to him. He tosses bits of textbook praise in their direction.

It’s debatable if Updike finds any of Melville exciting, especially when we learn that Melville’s “favorite pastime,” in his writing, is “woolgathering upon absolute matters in an atmosphere of male companionship.” But Updike’s chief concern isn’t Melville’s writing—it’s Melville’s wounded and groping behavior, which seems to grate on him and which he wants us to see in a new light. He tells us that Melville, when still in his thirties, became obsessed with “greatness, in the sense that Shakespeare and Dante possessed it,” and that he was right to withdraw to his “public silence and private poetry” when his juices presumably ran dry after Moby-Dick, because then, at least, he “preserved his communion with greatness.” By these words, Updike may believe that he has reburied Melville as a pro. But the words are blurry; mightn’t he also be saying that Melville was overly ambitious and that he spent his last thirty-nine years in a sulk?

Knut Hamsun is another undomesticated individualist Updike wants to straighten out. Updike has written more extensively about this novelist (in reviews here and in Picked-Up Pieces) than probably any other American critic. For Updike, as for many of us, Hamsun is as fresh and urgent now as he is known to have been to his original audience. When we read him, nearly all sense of historical time and place disappears; we forget that the setting is Norway in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—we experience his characters’ every wavering impulse, whether cruel or tender, in a magnified way. Yet Updike, who describes this writer so well, always sees a hitch; he invariably shows how Hamsun’s vision is centered too exclusively on fevered, isolated, and unpredictable hobo geniuses. Updike’s point is: can we trust the insights, however liberating, of such adrift and unconnected minds?

In Hugging the Shore, he reviews two of the writer’s later, and not so successful, works, The Wanderer and The Women at the Pump. The review of The Women at the Pump is called “Saddled with the World”; the title comes from a line of Hamsun’s and Updike uses it to describe what he believes was the novelist’s predicament as he aged: to keep writing, he was forced to bring more of the facts of the everyday world into his work, and he wasn’t suited to the task. As Updike presents it, Hamsun couldn’t settle down and tell a sustained story about his “characters and their interwoven lives”—his spirit was too anarchic, footloose, Olympian.

Updike’s feeling about Hamsun is very similar to his feeling about Melville. He isn’t simply saying that their later work is poor. He’s implying that these solitary wanderers received their comeuppance: they became “saddled with the world,” or had to “withdraw,” when they ran out of the egocentric artistic capital of their youth. He may be looking at them with a mixture of wariness and longing, too, because, in their work, and by the example of their lives, they represent a freedom that Updike, in his work, rejects. It is almost as though the three of them were brothers, and he were the proper one, and he felt genuinely sorry for them, and genuinely superior, and he knew, too, that they were getting away with something he couldn’t. Demonstrating how Melville had to withdraw from a “losing battle,” he seems to be reassuring himself that any writer would become a loser if he believed that he was superior to his public—or if he was presumptuous enough to think that if he couldn’t be in Shakespeare’s company he wouldn’t want to be in anyone’s company.

And if Updike appears a bit unsettled by Hamsun it may be because Hamsun’s characters do what Updike’s characters think about doing. Updike’s world is more like Hamsun’s than he may realize. Rabbit Angstrom, at least as he appears in Updike’s first novel about him, Rabbit, Run, has the makings of one of Hamsun’s solitary, cussed, dissatisfied, and tragic rovers. And all of Updike’s men, though they are generally married, are unattached bachelors at heart. Except that, never set free, always selfsaddled to the world, they somehow are never as happy, or able to sink as deeply into their loves, as Hamsun’s men.

Updike makes you want to shake him, because he always seems to be denying a part of himself. You feel that he has it in him to be the romantic monster he disapproves of in others, and that, by a flick of a switch, powerful emotions might pour forth. He says he’s hugging the shore as a critic, and he shows his fictional characters doing the same thing. But whenever his criticism or his fiction has a special bristling energy, his underlying question often seems to be: How do I weigh anchor and get out of here? How does a man break loose? Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t found an answer for this question that his writing has a bottled, untouched quality. Updike found his assured voice, as a critic and fiction writer, when he was fairly young, and that voice hasn’t changed. Nor has it ever seemed quite his own creation. Writing with an eerily developed authority and fluency when he was still in his twenties, Updike could almost have been mimicking the tone of a professional author. In some way, he still mimics. Whether his subject is Roland Barthes or Rabbit Angstrom, he wants to show us that he has mastered the appropriate lingo for the occasion.

Updike has always been celebrated for his language, yet his twining rhythms and shifting textures often seem to be a cover for him. He frequently seems to mean something different from—even the opposite of—what he says. He tells us, in his fiction and reviews, that he has volunteered to be saddled with the world, or to be a kind of lifeguard, patrolling the shore, for us. He wants to be our Lancelot. Yet if we sometimes aren’t sure if we have heard him right, it is possibly because he means what he says only as a gesture—he has given us only half of his thought. A reader may sense that it is up to him to supply the concluding half, and to say, “Please, you don’t have to sacrifice yourself.” Updike’s own story is a stonier, and also a bigger and more anxious, one than any he has yet told. He has shaped a language for himself that doesn’t do justice to his emotions. They are able to come out only between the lines. When John Nordholm drives out of Pennsylvania that morning, in “The Happiest I’ve Been,” he wants to list the reasons why, at that moment, he’s happy. The story’s title, though, and what we hear in his words, suggest that what he is actually talking about, in a kind of code, is his unhappiness.

  • Email
  • Print