Monday, February 25, 2013

`The Day Is a Pageant of Clouds'

“Aging calls us outdoors, after the adult indoors of work and love-life and keeping stylish, into the lovely simplicities that we thought we had outgrown as children. We come again to love the plain world, its stone and wood, its air and water….The act of seeing itself is glorious, and of hearing, and feeling and tasting.”

Four years after his death I’m at last reading John Updike’s Self-Consciousness, published in 1989, the year he turned fifty-seven. He was among the first contemporary writers I read with pleasure as a boy, the stories in The Same Door (1959), Pigeon Feathers (1962) and The Music School (1966). Included in the first is a story I’ve probably read thirty or forty times since the first time, around 1967 -- “The Happiest I've Been.” It’s the best fictional treatment I know of the exhilarating free-fall between high school and college, adolescence and faux-adulthood, and contains this lovely sentence:

“The important thing, rather than the subject, was the conversation itself, the quick agreements, the slow nods, the weave of different memories; it was like one of these Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone.”

Updike’s style as he aged grew more opulent and less mortally attached to the world he otherwise lovingly observed. His prose, much noted, came to seem mannered, ornamental without function, and in this his influence on other writers was pernicious. Over-writing is less evident in the early stories. To my taste, his novels are never entirely satisfactory. My favorite is still the first, The Poorhouse Fair (1959). Reading Self-Consciousness, marred though it often is by preciousness, induces in this reader a sense of temporal vertigo. I’m three years old than Updike when he published it, and he spends much time revisiting Shillington, Pa., where he grew up and frequently returned in his imagination. It’s an aging man’s reverie, one I share, and so forgive. Earlier in the paragraph from Self-Consciousness quoted at the top, Updike writes:
“Also like my late Unitarian father-in-law am I now in my amazed, insistent appreciation of the physical world, of this planet with its scenery and weather—that pathetic discovery which the old make that every day and season has its beauty and its uses, that even a walk to the mailbox is a precious experience, that all species of tree and weed have their signature and style and the day is a pageant of clouds.”

[From a reader: "How I adore `The Happiest I've Been.' It's 1960 or '61, I'm out of college a year or so & living in New York City, but now I'm driving across the US with a medical student from California I'm a lot in love with. We've been driving almost without stopping since we left NYC. Now it's dead of night, we're driving around Gary Indiana & I see the fires from the steel mills. He's asleep -- he trusts me to do this spell of driving. I've had a long & happy life with someone else, but I still think that's the happiest I've been."]


Levi Stahl said...

I've never read "The Happiest I've Been," but you've led me to go grab it from the New Yorker archives and take it home with me to read tonight. Looking forward to it!

Phil O. said...

I read this in 1989, at the age of 15 (my first Updike) as an attempt to win favor from my English teacher, whose husband (so she said) played poker with Updike on a regular basis. To my surprise, I liked it! Have not read it since, but clearly remember Updike's ruminations on asthma, psoriasis, etc. The aging stuff was probably over my head then, though.

Up in my attic, I've got my copy of S-C inscribed by Updike for me (assuming my teacher was telling the truth) in May of 1989. I should dig it out and re-read it, inspired by your post.

Rand Careaga said...

I'm approximately your contemporary, I believe. I didn't discover Updike until my early twenties, but was enchanted thereafter. The passage you have cited from "The Happiest I've Been" also drew an approving notice back in the day from Vladimir Nabokov, who was notably sparing in his praise of those American writers jostling for space in American magazines. I'm personally drawn to the closing cadences of that story.

Updike's influence on young writers at the end of his life may have been pernicious (Nabokov certainly ruined me as a prose stylist forty years ago), but I did my own best work in the mid-seventies under the influence of Museums and Women.