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The Downhill Slope

The Afterlife and Other Stories

by John Updike
Knopf, 316 pp., $24.00

A Private View

by Anita Brookner
Random House, 253 pp., $23.00

We are lucky, those of us who are aging in step with such writers as Updike and Brookner, as they chart in their totally different ways the downhill slope. Updike, in his stories especially, has always been acutely aware of mutability, moments inching away, moments of illumination that show gulfs of time before and after. Here we have an Updike afterlife of revisitings, uneasy remarryings, leave-takings, and stock-takings. But though he is concerned with ebbing powers and a contracting world, he of course writes of these with his usual fertile energy. If his last two novels have disappointed some people, when he gets his hands on the short story the master can do no wrong.

For his title story, in one of his rare trips (in the short stories) outside suburban America, Updike takes a couple’s visit to friends who have retired overseas to rural England. The portrayal of the East Anglian scene is as elegant as a Crome watercolor: pale plowed fields, windy skies, Norman churches, and half-timbered village houses. The Egglestons have settled down to parish charity work, riding in the local hunt, painting, birdwatching. They have a whole room of Wellington boots and rakes and shovels and riding crops. But behind the coziness of a charmingly posed new life there is a sense of menace, of things falling and crashing. In the dark their visitor, Carter, nearly falls to his death on the staircase; a gale blows up and throws ancient oaks across the roads. And, from the feeling of an obscure dislocation, a gap between himself and the real world “like the lag built into radio talk shows so that obscenities wouldn’t get on the air,” he knows that he has gone “beyond all that,” to some different area of tired calm where degrees of anger don’t matter.

In “Playing with Dynamite” there is the same juxtaposition of bright present and dark background. Fanshawe has a spry younger wife (as do most of the men in the afterlife) and a crowd of handsome grown children and stepchildren. But he has gone back, or ahead, to the childhood sense that anything might turn into anything else, or turn up somewhere else.

Perhaps an object could travel faster than the speed of light, and we each have an immortal soul. It didn’t, terribly, matter … Living now in death’s immediate neighborhood, he was developing a soldier’s jaunty indifference; if the bathtub in the corner of his eye as he shaved were to take on the form of a polar bear and start mauling him, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Even the end of the world, strange to say, wouldn’t be the end of the world.

He is not sure what, in the confused past, he has been responsible for, what he is innocent or guilty of. A neighbor lies dead next door for days; a bird’s nest gets wantonly thrown away. Long ago, his son broke his leg on the ice because he, his father, was looking at a pretty girl (now he is married to her, and she is brisk and angry). Living in the real world, he sees, always meant playing with dynamite. But as he looks back, “He did not envy those forever-ago people, for whom the world had such a weight of consequence. Like the Titans, they seemed beautiful but sad in their brief heyday, transition figures between chaos and an airier pantheon.” Time and damage go together.

Updike’s aging character always sees, from the rarefied afterlife, layer on layer of composted fragments from the past. “Falling Asleep Up North” might have been called “remembering when it was worthwhile having insomnia.” He remembers lying awake on a horsehair mattress in a Vermont summer house; falling asleep in a parked car full of his children. Children, ski parties, drinks on the porch, women and again women, jostle there densely in the background; but now,

Insomnia is no longer one of my issues… Once in a great while—too rousing a rental video, or a cup of coffee the hostess solemnly swore was decaf—I enter the old terrain, the three o’clock twists, the four o’clock disbelief that this is happening to me. It is thrilling, in a way, like reading Kierkegaard again, or Maritain.

In another story, a man dreams “in the deep colors of true weariness. Electricity wandered through his brain, activating now one set of memory cells and now another.” When he wakes, it is to “the weight, the atrocious weight, of coming again to life.” He is not sure where he is, or when, checks out the objects in the room: “everything seemed still in place, yet something was immensely missing.”

Of course Updike hasn’t stopped sidetracking into fantasy and joke. In “Farrell’s Caddie” another aging American abroad is doing a week’s golfing in Scotland. Instead of a smooth mechanized cart to take his clubs he finds himself accompanied by a wizened local, Sandy. Farrell begins to find his game changing, in accordance with the Celtic wisdom muttered at his side. “Ye want tae geh oover the second boosh fra’ th’ laift,” says Sandy (and similar things, in Updike’s idiosyncratic rendering of the dialect). As the week progresses Sandy becomes a second self to Farrell, and starts to soar into supernatural status. “Dinna stop the cloob” progresses to “Ye’d better be leavin’ ‘er.” Leaving her? “Yer missus. She was never yer type. Tae proper.” Very true of his wife, Farrell reflects. And does he hear “Steer clear o’ th’ Minicorp deal” as they walk to the next tee? What about Irma Finegold in the mergers-and-acquisitions department, she of the vermilion lips and heavy-lidded eyes, Farrell is wondering? “Lookin’ fer a father, the case may be… Take th’ 4-iron. Smooth it on, laddie… An’ ye might be thinkin’ aboot takin’ early retirement. The severance deals won’t be so sweet aye, with th’ coomin’ resaission.”

Another of Updike’s jeux d’esprit takes the case of the Whittiers’ marriage (“The Rumor”). Everyone, it seems, is saying that Frank Whittier has gone off with a young homosexual. The Whittiers are clearly together, so no young seducer appears on the scene, but things start to shift. Women look at Frank differently, Frank looks at men differently. Cracks and secrets threaten. It was, of course, all a mistake:

It was Charlie Whitfield, who used to run that framing shop down on Eighth Street, who left his wife suddenly, with some little Guatemalan boy he was putting through CCNY on the side. They took off for Mexico and left the missus sitting with the shop mortgaged up to its attic and about a hundred prints of wild ducks left unframed.

The rumor vanishes, but Frank… Frank thinks of Hellenic friendship, long lean muscles… And “no more dealing with this pathetic, maddening race of others.”

In Updike’s afterlife, the women of tired men are not the princesses lointaines they used to be in previous books, but the maddening others who are all too much present. Princesses, in the story ironically titled “Tristan and Iseult,” now come as hygienists who service elderly teeth. No longer the inch-by-inch close-ups of sexual meetings; instead, the plastic tray and the saliva ejector, gritty polishings and nimble flossings, a masked and goggled face poised above the helpless patient’s. But even this Iseult is celebrated with Updike’s customary panache, her flesh with “a resilience slightly greater than that of a cigarette pack,” a warmth “a bit less than that of a flashlight face,” and a humidity “even more subtle than that of laundry removed five minutes too soon from the dryer.”

Revisitings, a recurrent theme, evoke the same thickness of description. As often before, we are led obsessively back to the Pennsylvania farmhouse and the narrator’s mother who is, in the flesh or in the spirit, still living there. Old photographs, a chocolate-brown kerosene stove, church pamphlets, ants and silverfish, stacked mail-order catalogs, a broken pane, cases of cat food, a banister with two shapes carpentered into it, one like an arrow and one like a fish—all is lovingly catalogued in a way that makes list-making into almost an art form.

In four of the stories the mother—willful, searching, fierce—appears once again, a ghost who won’t resign from her son’s works. In “His Mother Inside Him” the narrator hears, with annoyance, how he laughs her laugh, comes to look more and more like her in age. Her death has left him with hundreds of virtual snapshots and nowhere to put them, a virtual language and no one to speak it with—“a specialized semiotics, a thousand tiny nuanced understandings.” In “The Brown Chest” are stacked the real photographs; and the school report cards, childish drawings, college diplomas, lace tablecloths, marriage certificates, giant bibles, patent-leather baby shoes. A wedding dress, a coil of clipped hair—the past, with its “sweetish deep cedary smell…cedar and camphor and paper and cloth, the smell of family, family without end.” Sometimes, in the afterlife, you think that the action, “what action there was, it turned out, had been back there.”

Anita Brookner’s A Private View, though it is also about aging, is almost a mirror image of The Afterlife: not just in style—grave where Updike is exuberant, minimalist where he is over-generous—but in its vantage point. Where Updike’s characters are looking back in tiredness on chestfuls of the past, Brookner’s George Bland has reached his sixties with very little past, a suddenly empty present, and a longing to grab a piece of the future before it is too late. There had been no action back there. If Updike sometimes grates, it is by his expansiveness, piling on the showy verbal fireworks; with Brookner, it is by an obsessive narrowness of theme. Her interest has always been in people who, through decency as much as childhood suppression, have stood back and let others push to the front of the queue; and of course in their opposites,the queue-jumpers. Morality is part of the queue-jumping issue, dealing honorably with inherited damage. In most of her fourteen novels the theme has been worked and reworked, without their running out of sub-themes or wit and precision. Brookner could be the Gwen John of the current English novel; like the painter, she has “tone” (as Whistler said of John). There is the sense of a palette of finely related grays—though in fact, contrary to one’s immediate feeling, the word “gray” does not appear on every page.

George Bland, her hero this time (really a hero), would be the first to accuse himself of grayness. Newly retired from office life, unmarried, unexpectedly well-to-do, he suddenly finds himself with immense amounts of time and nothing he wants to do with it. He had “disorderly” parents, who gambled, squabbled, and left depleted funds; no queue-jumper, he quit university and went to work in a cardboard-box factory. There he stayed for forty-four years, rising with the firm and with his own scrupulous qualities to Head of Personnel. What made the dull years bearable, almost happy, was his office friendship with Michael Putnam, who has just died.

Brookner is exceptionally good here, as she was in Latecomers, about two refugees from Germany, at showing deep friendship between two ordinarily heterosexual men. These two had recognized in each other the same “starveling” background, the same badge of survivorship. With the friendship, Bland had felt that a life sentence was lifted. Putnam had kept women at bay by being the office Romeo, Bland by a protracted engagement to a motherly woman, and routine holiday affairs. For retirement they had planned some long-deferred traveling—but quickly and in disbelief, Putnam had died.

What the two men, justifiably, felt they had achieved in life was that “from an initial bedrock of misgiving and suspicion had flowered charity and judicious benevolence and a hardwon fair-mindedness.” And indeed, the difficulty in making us take Bland at his own valuation is that someone so honest and good would not really be dull. He may not be Bond, but he should not have been dubbed Bland by his creator. Cautious he has certainly been; and all, it seems, for nothing. If there is something in common between Brookner’s Bland and Updike’s aging men, it is what Updike calls slippage, a touch of vertigo.

Before the queue-jumper appears on the scene Bland has few prospects but wandering in Brooknerland, between his colorless mansion flat, Selfridges Food Hall, and the London Library (where he feels a little out of place). It is November, of course, with a light rain falling outside. He is not complaining, knows he is lucky to have a home and some money. Shall he perhaps run a bath? But before the bathtub is filled she has made her appearance at his door—a worthy member of Brookner’s Rogues’ Gallery. Katy Gibb is thirtyish, nondescript but capable of weird lurches into glamour, rude, cold, and, it gradually appears, an experienced con artist, who has appropriated a neighbor’s flat. She has arrived from the States, where she was “with Howard Singer.” Howard Singer? Why, he runs one of the most famous stress workshops on the West Coast—Vibrasound, Tantric Massage, Crystal Therapy… “And I suppose the first step is to get in touch with the child inside you?” Bland asks politely. “Within. We say within.”

Brookner has to convince us that the intelligent though so lonely Bland would progress from being amused by and rather sorry for this scrounging waif, to being ready to throw everything over for the sake of marrying her—platonically, at that. He had learned the art of enduring an appalling woman literally at his mother’s knee; and there is a hint that he begins to glimpse a certain erotic glow in the prospect of simultaneously owning and being wrecked by a similar creature. Without ever ceasing to see what she is, he finds her existence pervading every minute of his time, as his mother’s stale cigarette smoke used to pervade his bedroom in boyhood. “What really tempted him—and he was surprised by the force of this temptation—was the idea of jettisoning his careful tedious life and surrendering to the idea of venality, vulgarity.” He wants an afterlife—now—having deferred too long his life itself.

Meanwhile, things come back to him: in dreams, his parents, younger and more innocent; in memory, a conversation with Putnam about fatal passion. “I wouldn’t give a thank you for a fatal passion,” his friend had said. “A fatal passion can turn nasty, you know.” To the reader’s relief, Bland of course does not get the chance to carry through his own doomed project. Having failed to raise the money she wants, Katy disappears. Relief is not what he feels, though—grief instead, and exhaustion, and a knowledge that there is a dimension of feeling that he will now never experience. Would it have been better if he had? The reader is left to be teased by the question. In the darkening tone, the special lacrimae rerum of aging, both these writers have found fresh ironies and fresh iridescences.

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