Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Reconsidering Updike

Many stirring and provocative reactions to John Updike’s death yesterday at seventy-six. The best, of course, belongs to Patrick Kurp, who adopts a wise autobiographical strategy, laying out the course of his Updike reading. Kurp finally prefers Updike as a critic, describing him as an “indefatigable teacher.” He quotes from essays on Nabokov, Henry Green, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell. One of my favorite passages is when Updike opens an essay on two avant-garde satirists by commenting on the way their books are printed:

Sans-serif type belongs to one of those futures that never occurred. Elegantly simple, jauntily functional, it was everything the Bauhaus thought modernity should be, yet except in posters and telephone books it never really caught on. As with so many oddities a revolution would sweep away, serifs exist for a purpose: they help the eye pick up the shape of the letter. Piquant in little amounts, sans-serif in page-size sheets repels readership as wax paper repels water; it has a sleazy, cloudy look.Updike could not have foreseen another revolution, which swept sans serif back in as the primary typeface of the internet. How many critics, though, would open a review with such a passage? Updike was that old-fashioned creature—a bookman.

Others are equally sober and on point, and not merely because the news of death chastens a prose style. Levi Asher turns out to be an unexpected Updike fan. After a young man’s easy contempt, viewing him as the “smirking epitome of the American literary establishment” and “claim[ing] to dislike him”—such honesty is rare in any critic—Asher came to realize that Updike was among his “very favorite living writers.” He calls Couples the masterpiece, but also singles out for praise Too Far To Go, Marry Me, Gertrude and Claudius, “and his great volumes of generous, gorgeously composed literary criticism.”

The number of critics who expressed reservations about him on the occasion of Updike’s death is striking. Clark DeLeon found him too “suburban,” picturing him as Rob Petrie living in New Rochelle, working at the New Yorker, and “instead of tripping over the ottoman on his way in the door, stumbled into bed with a neighbor’s wife.” Terry Teachout never succeeded in liking Updike’s writing, but friends whose taste he trusted kept telling him he was wrong. In the end he abandoned the effort to correct his own taste, deciding that “Updike was one of those undeniably important artists, like Wagner or Dreiser, to whose virtues [he] would always be deaf.”

Was Updike an undeniably important artist? As Kurp says, he had a “Jamesian fecundity.” (I am reminded of the old joke about Jacob Neusner, who at last count had written or edited over nine hundred and fifty books. A friend calls Neusner on the phone. His wife answers. “Can you hold on a minute?” she asks. “Jake is finishing a book.”) Such fecundity mars a living (or recently dead) writer’s reputation, making it difficult to sort good from mediocre, leading to the temptation, as Teachout found himself doing when it came time to prune back his library, of discarding everything. The shoulder-to-shoulder phalanx of books, published from the beginning by Alfred A. Knopf in a uniform edition, has a sleazy, cloudy look. Perhaps, though, what J. V. Cunningham said of Edwin Arlington Robinson is equally true of Updike: “Though he wrote too much, he wrote much that was distinctive and good, and even in the dull wastes there are fragments.”

Last night, determined to give Updike another try, I picked up a novel that I recalled enjoying when it was first published—The Coup. It was Updike’s attempt to do postcolonial Africa, to be named with Naipaul. I made it as far as a passage that I had scored back in 1978, scribbling in the margin: “This is the kind of thing Updike doesn’t do enough of. His usual shimmering effects are no longer than a phrase, sometimes no more than a word.” The dictator of Kush, Hakim Félix Ellelloû, is reflecting back on the Soviet military advisers who have been posted to his country for the past two years. An analogy occurs to him which is “clarifying”:[W]ith their taut pallor, bristling hair devoid of a trace of a curl, oval eyes, short limbs, and tightly packed bodies whose muscular energy seemed drawn into a knot at the back of their necks, these Russians reminded me of nothing so much as the reckless, distasteful packs of wild swine that when I was a child would come north from the bogs by the river to despoil the vegetable plantings of our village. They had a bristling power and toughness, to be sure, but lacked both the weighty magic of the lion and the hippo and the weightless magic of the gazelle and the shrike, so that the slaughter of one with spears and stones, as he squealed and dodged—the boars were not easy to kill—took place in an incongruous hubbub of laughter. Even in death their eyes kept that rheumy glint whereby the hunted betray the pressures under which they live.Upon rereading it, I could no longer understand what had first impressed me about the passage. I realized that I would have to leave the reconsideration of Updike to others, or to the “test of time.” I rolled over, put out the light, and went to sleep.


Tzvee Zahavy said...

Trivia - Neusner (Jack) and Updike were classmates at Harvard. Updike crafted a character named Neusner in his book Couples as a caricature of the professor.