Wednesday, January 28, 2009

`Every Sentence Counts'

“The event of the week was my reading of John Updike’s new novel, Rabbit, Run (Knopf). The boy is a genius. Every sentence counts. The story is rather contrived, but one believes every word of it. And the flashes of weather, and of the `American scene’: drugstores, highways, main streets, factories, used car lots! And the passion and the grief! The sex gets out of hand, once in a while; but for the most part he uses the sexual aberrations to striking purpose. And he believes in God (`something there’)! Do get it at once; it’s worth buying – ($4.00).”

That’s from a letter the poet Louise Bogan wrote to her friend Ruth Limmer on Oct. 20, 1960, when Updike was 28 and the author of two novels, a collection of stories and a volume of poems. Bogan has already gleaned some of the essential Updike mannerisms and themes – the too-exquisite prose (“Every sentence counts.”) and “contrived” plots, the eye for detail, the devoted chronicling of American angst and, of course, the sex. But who could have foreseen the “boy’s” longevity and Jamesian fecundity?

I started catching up with Updike about five years after Bogan. What I read first and what I’m guessing will remain the core of his lasting accomplishment are the early stories collected in The Same Door (1959), Pigeon Feathers (1962) and The Music School (1966). In 1972, asked to identify traces of “inspiration” in recent fiction, Nabokov chose “The Happiest I’ve Been” (from The Same Door) and wrote:

“I like so many of Updike’s stories that it was difficult to choose one for demonstration and even more difficult to settle upon its most inspired bit.”

Last night I reread “The Happiest I’ve Been,” one of the best stories I know about the cusp of adulthood, the American limbo between high school and college. The closing lines of the final paragraph still move me:

“There was the quality of the 10 a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility – you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element – and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state – as if you had made your life. And there was knowing that twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me.”

Here is a writer of contradictory gifts – a realist of the Howellsian school chronicling the American middle class, coupled uneasily with a poet of wistful delectation. My honeymoon with Updike lasted about 10 years, during which his books served as markers in my life. The first of his titles I bought in hard cover, at age 16, was Midpoint and Other Poems in April 1969 (cover price: $4.50). I gave Museums and Women (1972) to a girlfriend for her birthday. The last Updike novel I read while it was still new was A Month of Sundays (1975), when I was married to that girlfriend. I’ve read none of his novels after The Coup (1978) and don’t know why precisely. The famous style came to seem tacked-on, an after-thought. His rate of production remained Oatesian but his gift had grown facile and – ever the bright Harvard boy -- too often topical. He never had a late-career blossoming such as his contemporary Philip Roth experienced in the 1990s. Roth wrote his best work after the age of 60, when Updike’s was long past. Is it possible that, despite the sexual notoriety of such books as Couples (1968), Updike is essentially a young person’s writer, and that he exhausted his richest vein of material – his own childhood and young manhood – too early? I worry if some of my sadness at his death is misplaced sadness for my own vanished youth, of which his work was a part.

The best of his reviews are another matter, for in that form he was an indefatigable teacher, an enthusiastic clearing house for world literature. From him I learned of Nabokov, Henry Green, Muriel Spark, Kierkegaard and Witold Gombrowicz – an eclectic grab bag from a literary omnivore whose tastes often surprised you. Updike the reviewer was a generous quoter who suggested that every review contain at least two quotes from the book under consideration – advice I’ve followed. Indulge me in an Updike nonfiction sampler:

On Henry Green:

“Disease is present in his works not only in the specific manifestations that rather comically carry off characters but also in the underlying weakness and, as it were, incurability of the human condition. He saw us, all tenderly, in a desperate Pascalian light.”

On Nabokov, in praise of the class list in Lolita:

“We have sat in those classes, Nabokov had not; yet it was he who put one into literature, along with so many other comic, correct details of his adopted `lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country.’”

On Daniel Fuchs:

“Fuchs resembles Bellow in his admiration of energy, however ill expended. He anticipated Bellow’s rapid easy tumble of imagery and dialogue, with its sometimes breathtakingly fresh adjectives: `this world of celebrity, of fast movement and shiny living’; `the larceny in his eyes, as he devoted himself to the girl, wooing her and getting her rosy [note the deft, generous quoting].’ There is the same acceptance, both offhand and religious, of people as the messy, troublesome spirits they are. Bellow, however, sometimes takes positions, presses a point – Herzog writing all those querulous letters to the mighty – where Fuchs maintains an unblemished cool, an unblinking, unblaming candor and, with all his street smarts, an innocence.”

On William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows:

“The novel is not simply autobiographical; the lies of fiction were employed to get at the nearly unbearable heart truth. Maxwell was ten when the flu seized his family and his mother died; his alter ego in the novel, Bunny, is eight. The subtracted two years sharpen the child’s vulnerability and simplify his picture of events.”

Moments before learning of Updike’s death Tuesday morning I was reading in Borges’ Selected Poems the sonnet “Things” (translated by Stephen Kessler):

“My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.”

Now the poem will be fused in memory with Updike’s death. My guess is that his best work in short fiction and nonfiction “will endure beyond our vanishing.”

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