Facility in art, or the appearance of facility, is nearly always suspect. Trollope lost many readers when he disclosed in an autobiography how easily he wrote his novels. Jack Yeats had to conceal from his clients and critics the speed with which he could dash off a painting. Even Vladimir Nabokov forfeited something of his reputation for literary fastidiousness when in the afterglow of the lavish success of Lolita a series of reissues and new translations of his earlier, Russian, novels—one a year for years, so it seemed—revealed a level of pre-Lolita diligence and productivity that Humbert Humbert would probably have disdained. For some, the ideal is Joyce—ten years on Ulysses, seventeen on Finnegans Wake—or the great but costive Philip Larkin, who in a long poetic career published only four slim volumes of verse.
John Updike may be weary of hearing the size of his literary oeuvre remarked upon, yet he lists in full at the front of every one of his books the immense roll call of its predecessors: twenty novels; seven volumes of poetry, including a Collected Poems; fifteen volumes of short stories, the most recent a loaf-sized collection, The Early Stories, running only to 1975, with a lot more to come; seven substantial volumes of essays and criticism; a play; a memoir; and, lest he should be thought to have neglected any of the literary forms, five books for children. It is true that he has been writing for a long time—he began early, and is seventy-two this year—but all the same, this is a prodigious body of work.
It is hard to know how Updike sees himself as an artist; hard to know, indeed, if he does see himself as an artist, or rather as a sort of literary super-chronicler of his times. The Rabbit series of novels, one for each decade from 1960 to 1990, will be read in afteryears as among the most comprehensive and revealing records of the mores and morals of the second half of the twentieth century—the American twentieth century, that is; Couples is a telling portrait of WASP culture in the 1960s, in all its political conservatism and sexual transgressiveness; A Month of Sundays (1975) and the steely and superb Roger’s Version (1986) explore America’s abiding commitment to the twin faiths of Christianity and technological progress; while practically every piece of fiction he has written, certainly from Couples onward, can be read as an enraptured meditation on sex, mostly clandestine, and on what to him is the mystery of womanhood. As he exclaims in his new novel, Villages—and surely it is Updike himself who is the exclaimant, not his fictional narrator—“How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women!”
He has declared himself a troubadour in the melancholy poetics of adultery, and certainly marital infidelity has never been celebrated with such sad, piercing beauty as it is in Couples, the book which in 1968 brought him a …