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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 views on Iris Murdoch and Isaac Babel, on the sinking of the Lusitania and the career of Coco Chanel. He moves easily from reflecting on Kierkegaard or Piranesi to recalling his attitude toward the cars he owned when he was young. He revisits cherished masters—Proust, say, or Hawthorne—and keeps us up to date about Michel Houellebecq and Jonathan Safran Foer.

In part, this range of subject matter simply reflects the conditions under which he works. Like any literary journalist, he is a generalist, a cabdriver who picks up lots of different fares. But variety, when it is embraced with a sufficient degree of imagination and insight, becomes a positive value in itself. There is an openness to experience in his essays which liberates and exhilarates—especially in contrast to the styles of criticism which prevail elsewhere today.

We live in a world where the study of literature rests to an overwhelming extent where it has rested for a long time, in the hands of academia. Updike is a throwback to an older tradition, that of the unattached man of letters. He doesn’t make a song and dance about being an anomaly. He has a proper respect for genuine scholarship; he recognizes that many literary academics produce work which is far from being academic in the pejorative sense. He is restrained, too, when it comes to lamenting (or lampooning) current critical fashions. Most of what he feels about them has to be deduced from his own very different practice. But just occasionally the effort to hold back is too great.

An especially telling passage, which conjures up a whole world of ill feeling, occurs in the discussion of a group of books published to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Emerson in 2003. The weightiest of them is the work of a professor who has been reading and teaching Emerson for some forty years, and Updike leaves you with the impression that the poor man’s spirit has been broken in the process. It isn’t only that he “rarely pitches his voice above classroom level,” or that he frequently writes as though his audience were confined to specialists. He also gives evidence, Updike says,

of having weathered too many storms of political correctness. He seems, within his discourse, distracted by hectoring students and fractious fellow-faculty.

The quotations from the book which Updike gives underline his point—the nervous reference to “increasing disenchantment with the whole idea of literary canonicity,” for instance. If they were all you had to go by, you might well wonder why Emerson was still worth reading. But fortunately Updike makes good the omission with some concluding reflections of his own which send you back to Emerson the writer and the man, as opposed to Emerson the bundle of sociocultural symptoms.

Dull, jargon-strewn criticism is all around us. One place where it crops up, alas, is in The Cambridge Companion to John Updike, which was published in 2006. In the introduction to that book, for example, we are promised that one of the chapters in it will chart the shift in Updike’s portrayal of American history from “a discourse grounded in naïve facticity to a discourse that, as problematized by postmodern theory, admits to history’s tainted indeterminacy.” You would have thought that if prolonged exposure to Updike did nothing else, it would discourage you from writing like that.

His own critical prose is not merely accessible, but designed to give pleasure. Not through straining after stylistic effects (well, not very often), but through wit, warmth, precision, elegant formulation, and evocative power. Consider, to take a couple of instances from Due Considerations, how much he can pack into a phrase or even a word. What better way of conveying the idealized quality of the hero and heroine in a novel about race relations than to say that they have “a muralistic largeness”? (If there is the ghost of a pun on “moralistic,” it doesn’t distract from the vividness of the metaphor.) And, to move into very different territory, I have often wondered why Jacques-Émile Blanche’s portrait of Proust, which is reproduced in many books about the novelist, is not merely bad, but disturbingly bad. Updike supplies an explanation with a single adjective—“Draculaesque.”

Along with the imaginative freedom of his style, Updike assumes the right to digress. He doesn’t make use of this right whimsically: the formal theme of an essay or review is never lost sight of for long. But he frequently enlarges on his subject matter in ways that no one could readily have foreseen—teasing out implications, searching for parallels, pondering related issues.

It seems unlikely, for instance, that readers of Due Considerations, with all the other topics they have to choose from, are going to feel particularly drawn to his introduction to a new edition of the collection of medieval Welsh tales known as The Mabinogion. But if they skip it, they are going to miss out on some brilliant reflections on the difficulty, when one is faced with any fiction except that of one’s own time, of ascertaining the “appropriate readerly reaction.” How much is a narrative meant to confirm our expectations; how much is it meant to surprise us by deliberately flouting them? Even such comparatively recent innovators as Joyce, Hemingway, and Nabokov fail to elicit the response they once did now that the conventions against which they were reacting no longer carry the same weight. No wonder we feel, reading The Mabinogion, “as if we are dancing with a partner who hears a distinctly different music.”

And yet that doesn’t leave us with nothing to say about it. The piece concludes, after a glance at the tales themselves, with a cluster of further generalizations—dense but stimulating thoughts about the interplay between reality and romance, and the notion that “any narrator begins by believing that he has something marvellous to tell.”

By no means all of Updike’s digressions are pauses for reflection. Many of them are fragments of autobiography. Reminiscences pop up all over the place in his miscellaneous prose—in familiar essays, answers to questionnaires, snapshots of friends, and (not least) his reviews. In this collection, reading a new translation of the Pentateuch awakens memories—vividly conveyed—of Sunday school, “when I seemed to stand on the edge of a brink gazing down at polychrome miniatures of abasement and terror, betrayal and reconciliation.” And in a sequence of more than two hundred pages devoted to current fiction, no passage records such pure enthrallment to the art of storytelling as his sudden recollection of himself as a fourteen-year-old

lying on a red caneback sofa in Pennsylvania eating peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches (a site-specific ethnic treat) and reading one mystery novel after another.

Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner—the names he cites are obvious enough, but you feel he gets pleasure even now just from reeling them off.

Recalling the circumstances under which books were first encountered is an Updike specialty. There is a marvelous essay in an earlier collection, Picked-Up Pieces, which roots his discovery of Proust in his own life (both inner and outer). At first sight it seems as though an essay on The Portrait of a Lady is going to perform an equivalent role in Due Considerations. It, too, looks back to Updike in his early twenties, living with his wife and infant daughter in a modest apartment on Riverside Drive. (He made his first acquaintance with James’s novel and took his first plunge into Proust at much the same time.) But the piece, by Updike’s standards, is a disappointment. The reminiscences, unlike those in the Proust essay, don’t resonate, and one would like to hear more about The Portrait of a Lady itself.

He does make one striking comment, when he suggests that Isabel Archer isn’t a fully realized character: “We are assured of Isabel’s superb qualities more than we are permitted to see her demonstrate them.” But after that, a mood of polite disenchantment more or less takes over, and we are left wondering quite what he thinks about some of the book’s lesser characters (about Ralph Touchett, for instance, who goes unmentioned). It would be interesting to know—more interesting than it is to learn that for the purposes of rereading he took the tattered old Riverside Drive copy with him on a journey to China some forty years later.

Whatever the occasional remembrance of past reading that misfires, as in the James essay, there is something admirable about his insistence on the act of reading as a sensuous or even a sensual experience. “The average book,” he writes, “fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture, whether of cover cloth, glazed jacket, or flexible paperback.” Due Considerations abounds in such reminders of the book as love object, and of the extent to which physical associations can be part of a book’s elemental appeal. Updike is particularly good on the pleasures of anticipation. There is a superb account of the glossy New Yorker Christmas albums of his youth blending into the general promise of the season: “the scent of the fresh binding glue mingled with the resin of the family Christmas tree.”

If anything, he is even more ardent in his defense of the book—the object that fits into your hand—than he was in previous collections. This is plainly in response to the ever-growing encroachment of electronic text delivery. To the traditional claims of the book, he now adds that of “ballast.” Unlike computers, books lend substance to “our fickle and flighty natures”; without them, “we might melt into the airwaves, and be just another set of blips.”

In case this sounds like the special pleading of a professional bookman, one should add that he sees our whole society as undergoing what he calls “the dephysicalization of experience.” A word that was badly needed, “dephysicalization”—and one that Updike doesn’t use in connection with books, incidentally, but in the course of setting out his objections to electronic poker.

He isn’t about to embark on an anti-electronic crusade—and he is too equable to issue sweeping condemnations of the spirit of the age. But some aspects of the age undoubtedly grate on him, and his impatience shows through. It is especially apparent in the numerous reviews of contemporary novels that he reprints—some forty of them in all. This may seem odd, since as a fiction reviewer he is notably hospitable to new work. He has an open mind; he lets writers speak for themselves, and seldom comes down harshly on their faults. There are also present-day novelists for whom his admiration is beyond doubt—Peter Carey, for example. Yet in many other cases he writes with a qualified enthusiasm which implies (to my mind at least) that he could easily return a less favorable verdict if he chose to; while every so often, amid all the courtesies, he will drop a deadly little phrase that gives the game away.

Sometimes the phrase is applied to the novelist being discussed, sometimes to the prevailing climate. “Postmodern verbal foolery” is an example of the first, “today’s easy knowingness and self-protective irony” an example of the second. “Postmodern” is not a label which finds much favor here: we also get “this enervated postmodern era” and “postmodernism’s rampant eclecticism” (an attitude which results, we are told, in the historical past being treated as “an attic full of potentially entertaining trinkets”). “Magic realism” doesn’t seem to work as much magic as it used to, either.

At one point—he is discussing a Kenyan novelist—Updike is driven to complaining about its “unrealities,” while when he says that a contemporary Chinese novelist sets “a groaning table of brutal incident, magic realism, woman-worship, nature description, and far-flung metaphor,” we are far from convinced that the catalog is meant as a compliment.

Looking back on these reviews, Updike wonders whether he hasn’t been unfair to the American novels that came his way—they include work by DeLillo and Doctorow—but actually he can be almost as hard on the foreigners. He is more tactful, no doubt, but the effect can sometimes simply be to make his praise seem more double-edged. In a novel by José Saramago, “the wildly ramifying plot has an improvised air,” which doesn’t sound all that promising. But then the same plot “proves to be tightly knit,” which sounds better. But then the plot also floats “on a bubbling, uninhibited authorial voice of cheerful volatility, brimming with asides and self-corrections.” What Updike doesn’t make clear is whether the volatility ought to make the reader as cheerful as the narrator. Instead, he assures us that Saramago has “the gift of the gab”—except that he makes it sound rather more like the curse of the gab. Of the two short slabs of prose he gives by way of example, one works up, as he explains, to “virtual impenetrability,” and the other to “a joke of sorts.” Of sorts!

Updike’s literary heroes include Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, and Borges. He has never settled for simple realism (if there is such a thing), either as a practitioner or as a critic. But the realist in him has always been at least as strong as the fabulist, and it is hard not to detect in his more recent reviews a deep ambivalence about the lesser varieties of reality-distorting fiction.

Certainly there comes a point at which, for all his playfulness, he feels obliged to insist on the sacredness of facts. “It is alarming to me,” he writes (he has been discussing—very interestingly—his Nixon-era play Buchanan Dying),

that historical novelists openly brag that they have knowingly distorted the record, transposing dates and fudging conversations in the name of some supposed higher truth. But what truth can be higher than what actually did happen, moment by moment, incident by incident?

That is well worth saying, even if it is true that lots of other people could have put it in much the same way. The most earnest sentiments don’t necessarily produce the freshest writing. But there is at least one episode—Updike’s account of a visit to the Venice Biennale in 1999—where moral intensity and literary inspiration coincide. It is the most powerful passage in the book.

Updike had already been in Venice for two weeks, “inspecting church walls and holy images” (and beginning to grow a little weary of them), when he decided to see what the Biennale had to offer. Tramping from one national pavilion to another, he was confronted by artificial fog, electronic numbers, hundreds of tattoos (from Slovakia), unintelligible whispers and showers of magenta dust (from America), the recorded roar of racing cars, photographs taken by a chimpanzee …you know the kind of thing. The Germans had mounted huge videos of nothing in particular; the French had taken apart the floor of their exhibit hall and were showing fragments of it under a grate, ten feet down. “Everywhere,” in short, “abrasive irony and nihilism”; everywhere a frantic search for “an inch of the void, of disgust, of scorn” that hadn’t yet been exposed.

The flavor of the piece is too acrid for satire. Perhaps because of the Venetian setting, I found myself being reminded of Ruskin, in denunciatory mode. Updike’s touch is too light for him to undertake a full-scale Ruskinian harangue, but he comes close.

We are obviously dealing here with something more than a disagreement over artistic fashion. The Biennale episode is embedded in a longish piece entitled “The Future of Faith,” and for Updike the exhibition is above all a showcase for “this age of post-faith.” Whatever is ostensibly on display in the pavilions, they are essentially empty.

One can share his sense of alienation from large tracts of modern life without having to account for it in theological terms. He himself generally keeps religion in the background. But it is always there. When he first tried to read Ulysses as a schoolboy, he recalls, the thing that overwhelmed him was “the whiff of death, of God’s death, that came off those remorseless, closely written pages.” An upbringing that leaves you feeling like that at the age of fifteen is not one that is likely to be readily discarded.

Still, he did edge away from institutionalized religion, and the religious faith that informs Due Considerations isn’t of the kind that fills churches. It is an affair of intuitions and suppositions, of the conviction that there has to be Something (but what is it?) above and beyond the material world. It can leave us feeling that the only thing we know about God is that he is unknowable.

Not surprisingly, Updike is drawn to writers for whom faith hasn’t come easily, if it has come at all. Czesl/aw Milosz commands his respect for writing “as one on the settled far shore of the struggle to believe,” but Updike seems more interested in the struggle than the outcome. He seizes gratefully on Jay Parini’s comment, in his life of Robert Frost, that Frost’s poems “live on that perilous fault line between skepticism and belief.” He responds keenly to the transitory affirmation of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” in which “the solitary atheist breaks through to identification with the masses of past worshippers,” and to the contortions of Thornton Wilder, despising himself in his journals for the “dilettante religiosity” that he can’t abandon.

By contrast, he isn’t much preoccupied with writers who make literature out of straightforward religious doctrine. His sense of what religion means in literature—or of what it means to him—is more diffuse. Describing one of his short stories as religious, he explains that “it tries to evoke that ineluctable strangeness of human existence in which religion takes root.” And in a statement for a symposium on literature and ethics, he defines the writer’s raison d’être as religious—which he equates with “homage to what is and gratitude for being alive, offered up with the directness and innocence of a child’s crayon drawing.”

That last may sound a little too sweet, but he is talking about points of departure rather than termini. It is a long way from a child’s crayon drawing to King Lear or The Brothers Karamazov, but creating such a drawing, or its equivalent, is the necessary start. We are reminded, too, of Updike’s own childhood immersion in graphic art. (He originally wanted to be a cartoonist.) And one of the finest things in Due Considerations is an exquisite account of a work of art which is at once very adult and very childlike—a tiny comic drawing by William Steig of a woman on a rocking chair laughing at the moon while the moon laughs back.

Updike’s essay is a celebration of happiness—happiness in the work itself (which has sexual overtones) and in Steig’s other work, happiness as an aspect of the art of cartooning and as a creative principle. Like most celebrations, this one exaggerates. Steig has a darker side than Updike suggests. So does the history of cartooning. (By chance there is an account elsewhere in the book of cartoons being used as a weapon of persecution—by a Danish magazine which waged a campaign against Kierkegaard in the 1840s.)

But no matter. Updike’s essay isn’t meant to enunciate some final absolute truth. It is simply the energetic statement of a valuable point of view. And so are almost all the other pieces in a collection that is as notable for verve as for many-sidedness.

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