Top of the Class

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine


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…

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