John Updike is obviously too gifted for his work to be treated with anything other than respect; and it was in this spirit that I approached The Music School, a new collection of short stories. Yet, by the time I had finished it, my respect, though only slightly diminished, was mingled with discomfort and even trepidation. Mr. Updike is still making language perform every kind of minor miracle; nevertheless, his glittering talent seems to me on the verge of disequilibrium, being pulled on by several sharply opposed forces. A scrutiny of the jacket and preliminary materials of his book gives a good idea of what these forces are. We see that in 1964 a selection of his earlier stories appeared under the title of Olinger Stories, and this reminds us that one of Mr. Updike’s strengths is to be, like Faulkner, an American regionalist: at the age of thirty-two it was a major achievement to have made Olinger, Pa., a permanent and memorable addition to the literary map. On the back of the jacket we also learn that Pigeon Feathers was praised by Claude Mauriac, a leading theoretician of the nouveau roman (“Coquetteries de style, mais heureuses…”), while on the inside flap we are told that one of the stories in the new book was awarded the O. Henry Prize for 1966. There is no absolute incompatability here, perhaps, but it is reasonable to sense that rather different qualities would appeal to M. Mauriac and the prize judges. At least, I feel that the patience which made Mr. Updike so adept at unraveling the secret patterns of life in Olinger (and in particular which enabled him to write so well about childhood) is in danger of being overthrown by his facility for achieving the sharp, instant effect.
ALL THE STORIES in The Music School appeared originally in The New Yorker, which need not be surprising or disturbing, since Mr. Updike has had a long association with that magazine. And yet I feel we need to know more about the long-term effects of writing for it: the dangers of formula-fiction are often remarked, of course, and they are fairly apparent in Mr. Updike’s book. But there may be more obscure forms of feed-back: a writer’s need to minister to his readers’ supposed preoccupations, and at the same time to be frequently and protestingly signaling that he is cleverer and knows more than they do. We should not expect Mr. Updike to write forever about Olinger, and in this book he shows an understandable need for a change of scene. And yet, in spite of the various settings, there is a sameness about much of the action. The brittleness and self-delusions inherent in suburban marriage are, no doubt, as absorbing for American readers as the anfractuosities of the English class structure are for many British ones; yet both seem somewhat parochial. A more serious defect is the narcissistic quality of Mr. Updike’s language; it has always tended to operate at some distance from what he is writing about, frequently darting off on its own particular flights, though in general the words and the substance have taken an approximately parallel course. But in the new book there are some alarming divergences, and the author takes to preening himself on his verbal wizardry:
A blue jay lights on a twig outside my window. Momentarily sturdy, he stands astraddle, his dingy rump toward me, his head alertly frozen in silhouette, the predatory curve of his beak stamped on a sky almost white about the misting tawny marsh. See him? I do, and snapping the chain of my thought, I have reached through glass and seized him and stamped him on this page. Now he is gone. And yet, there, a few line above, he still is, “astraddle,” his rump “dingy,” his head “alertly frozen.” A curious trick, possibly useless, but mine.
If this is an example of Mr. Updike at his most irritating, let me conclude with another passage that shows him at his best. Here the absolute rightness of the social observation is informed by something like the cold, grave understanding of the French classical moralists:
I have the impression, at any rate, that he, as is often the case with scientists and Midwesterners, had no use for religion, and I saw in him a typical specimen of the new human species that thrives around scientific centers, in an environment of discussion groups, outdoor exercise, and cheerful husbandry. Like those vanished gentlemen whose sexual energy was exclusivly spent in brothels, these men confine their cleverness to their work, which being in one way or another for the government, is usually secret. With their sufficient incomes, large families, Volkswagen buses, hi-fi phonographs, half-remodeled Victorian homes, and harassed, ironical wives, they seem to have solved, or dismissed, the paradox of being a thinking animal and, devoid of guilt, apparently participate not in this century but in the next.
NIGEL DENNIS’S NEW NOVEL, the first since Cards of Identity nearly twelve years ago, confirms the impression left by the earlier book that he is one of the very few British novelists who make any claim to be philosophically interesting (the only other name which comes immediately to mind is William Golding). But whereas Cards of Identity explored the “identity problem” in a spirit of exuberant and farcical inventiveness, the new novel is intensive rather than extensive: a brief, dense, austere narrative, whose imaginative impact is easier to experience than to paraphrase. Any attempt at conventional summary is likely to be not merely inadequate, but actively misleading, since the distinction is all in the rendering. But this, briefly, is what the book is about: in the course of a prolonged war between two unnamed powers an ordinary soldier is captured, and instead of being interned in a prisoner of war camp he is temporarily shut up in a greenhouse attached to a building which houses a minor military administrative unit. The colonel in charge of this unit arbitrarily decides to keep the soldier where he is, and refuses to hand him over to the prison camp authorities. The intermittent row between these two branches of the military bureaucracy forms a smouldering background to the prisoner’s day in the greenhouse. Although he is an object of contention between them, neither side is interested in his personal welfare, and he nearly dies of cold during the winter months. Nevertheless, he is able to survive, as he is at least adequately fed, and he can take exercise in the garden outside. In civilian life his hobby was horticulture, and he starts cultivating, with immense patience, the small plants that he finds in the greenhouse and garden. In time, the prisoner becomes very attached to his place of confinement; a mild, shy man, he has no desire at all to be transferred to the prison camp, for he has come to regard his plants with an intense, protective love. He is thoroughly alarmed when the prisoners in the camp, planning a breakout, start sending him secret messages.
I expect that this outline will already have provoked some predictable responses. Allegorical? Certainly. An Image of the Human Condition? Of course. Kafkaesque? Only up to a point. Where A House in Order differs from more portentous modern fiction about such things as unnamed prisoners shut up at the behest of unknown powers is in not treating the narrative surface as expendable. It is, above all, a superbly written story, with all the qualities of an unusually good thriller. The allegory hints without obtruding, and Mr. Dennis differs from, say, Rex Warner by his awareness of the sensuous details of the visible world. This is particularly true when he writes about the carefully nurtured plants by which the prisoner contrives to keep both his house and his mind in order: it is an index of Mr. Dennis’s power that, although horticulture is a topic that I normally find profoundly tedious, I was fascinated by these descriptions. They have something in common with the painstaking accounts of external objects that we find in the practitioners of the nouveau roman; but whereas the nouveau roman focuses on things, Mr. Dennis directs our attention to a process of growth itself—surely more difficult to do. He is, additionally, a good deal less cold in his attitude to the natural order: the prisoner finds salvation in his involvement with it.
A striking aspect of A House in Order is its rejection of total nightmare. The prisoner does preserve his sanity, and at the end of the novel is restored to his own country and a greenhouse of his own, although he continues to look back nostalgically to the days of his incarceration as to some kind of ideal order. (Possibly this is a sign of British loss of nerve: I can imagine a French or American novelist keeping his prisoner in the greenhouse for good.) The humor which was so pervasive in Cards of Identity is, though subdued, by no means absent from this novel; there are some agreeably farcical moments arising from the prisoner’s determination both to look after his plants and not to make trouble for himself, and from the feuds raging about him in the military establishment. There are many other things that could be said about this beautiful novel, and no mere reviewer can hope to penetrate all—or even most—of its deeper implications; this will be a job for the explicators, and I doubt if it will be long before the first full analysis appears in Modern Fiction Studies, or wherever. In the meantime, though, I can only stress that A House in Order stands out from the run of machinemade novels published recently as a triumph of the imagination.
WITH MISS SAGAN and Mr. Condon we find ourselves in more ordinary territory. A helpful note on the jacket of La Chamade tells us that the title means “the particular role of drums by which the inhabitants of a beseiged city acknowledged their defeat. Sometimes used to signify the wild beating of the human heart.” At first glance this book looks much like Miss Sagan’s previous novels: all whisky and mistresses and fast sports, with lots of heavy-lidded aphorisms: “in Paris no one makes love in the evening any more, everyone is too tired.” Yet if Miss Sagan is in a groove, she moves within it at a fair pace. For one thing, her heroines get older with each book; once she wrote about teenage girls, but now dans le trentiesme an de son age or thereabouts, the heroine, Lucille, is a svelte woman of thirty. At the beginning of the novel she is luxuriously shacked up with Charles Blassans-Lignières, a smooth, kind man of fifty, but she leaves him for a tempestuous affair with Antoine, a young, blond, moody publisher’s editor. But after the onset of boredom and poverty, not to mention an abortion (paid for by Charles), she goes back, with some relief, to the older man. Absurd though much of it is, there is conviction in the book: undoubtedly the author believes in what she is writing, and something of this filters through to the reader. She makes the most of the ambiguity of her title: during Lucille’s frenetic affair with Antoine the heart beats wildly enough, but the drumbeats also reflect the inevitable defeat of youth, and the approach of middle-age, disappointment, death.
MR. CONDON, seeming to write with one eye on Stendhal and the other on the early Aldous Huxley and making a very neat link indeed; has produced an amusing extravaganza about the adventures in Europe in the Twenties of Francis Vollmer, a New York banker, who is cunning, energetic, and pathologically snobbish. He wants above all to establish that he is a member of the British aristocracy, and is conned right and left while he is trying to prove it. I most enjoyed the early chapters, which show Francis, by a deft combination of good luck and unscrupulousness, rising in the banking world; but the whole book is immaculately “entertaining,” if nothing more.
February 9, 1967