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Entries in Updike (13)

Monday
Jan162017

The Coup

We Africans like de Gaulle.  He reminds us of the giraffe, of the gods that no longer visit us.

                                                                                                                    Félix Ellelloû

 

Many splendid books have come from the pen of this American writer (who died eight years ago this month), none finer than this monograph on the fictional African kingdom of Kush. The Kush of Félix Ellelloû, our cultured and self-serving narrator, is certainly fictional, although Kush has a real history in the Upper Nile region, a fact which most readers forty years ago would not have bothered to verify (perhaps no better are the readers of today, who would limit their curiosity to the trappings of a single intergalactic search engine). And Ellelloû, “short, prim, and black … produced, in 1933, of the rape of Salu woman by a Nubian raider,” has an almost mystical sense of his value to us and the annals of great men and their evil deeds. His tale is well-known to students of literature: that of the talented, educated, artistic, and yes, at times, brilliant mind who just so happens to have his all his iron fingers in the political cake. Philosopher-kings are what we used to call these individuals (we moved on at some point to the hilariously oxymoronic “enlightened despots”). But by now we have witnessed and shuddered at the fall of so many first-rate minds to the rosy couplets of their own Machiavellian romanticism that we yearn for the simple man whom money and power could never change; indeed, one wonders whether a truly first-rate mind would bother with such stupidities. Then we remember endless legends of great men and women wanting more and, in their avarice, losing their souls. But let us return to our half-Nubian, half-Salu.

The Coup does not boast nor need a discernible plot. It is the memoirs of a great man, now no longer great (usually the only time such individuals can stop to reflect). One might ask whether a reader might expect a violent overthrow of a government in these pages, and the response would simply redirect the reader to the word "memoirs." The only people who write about coups are victims or failed rebels; the results of successful coups are included in the newly amended constitution. Our man in Kush has plans and musings, which usually biomagnify as he meanders the large halls of his few superiors. In addition to the school-mandated French and Arabic and a smattering of other languages for cosmopolitan effect, Ellelloû is distinguished by his mastery of English, acquired stateside at, in no small irony for the era, a certain McCarthy College “deep in the reign of Dwight Eisenhower.” He is at his ministerial best when left to consider in smiling disdain the details of simpler existences. He walks outside and beholds “the clay of the square … accepting yet another day’s merciless brilliance”; the sand around him and one of his mistresses “was strange, black and white like salt and pepper, and at moments seemed an immense print of page too tiny to read”; and a Kush drugstore becomes:

Like a witch’s hut of murky oddments hurled to infinity by omnipresent mirrors, even mirrors overhead, circular suspended convex mirrors which foreshortened into dwarves the slack-faced toubab sons and daughters as they shuffled along these artificially cooled aisles like drugged worshipers selecting a pious trinket or potion from the garish variety of aids to self-worship.

He is a proud Muslim and husband to four wives. He has served in the army and attained the rank of Colonel, a title which seems to merge into his surname. He cavorts with an array of operatives, agents, visitors, and government officials with the hackneyed sarcasm of the majority of raconteurs forced to chat with lesser lights and surprised when, on occasion, one of these dim bulbs actually says something worth remembering. He thinks constantly and aloud about God and hopes the favor is returned. By his own humble estimation, he has much in common with his Creator:

What can be purer than non-existence? What more soothing and scourging? Allah’s option is to exist or not; mine, to worship or not. No fervor overtops that which arises from contact with the Absolute, though the contact be all one way. The wall of pale-blue tiles echoed the repose and equilibrium within me, a silence never heard in the lands of doubt and mockery.

An option is one way of looking at it. And these lands of doubt and mockery? We only hear about them when Ellelloû needs a strawman for his Marxist rhetoric, which is scattershot and insincere, and somehow not in conflict with his faith.

For all his faults, Ellelloû (likely patterned after this leader, Updike's exact coeval on a six-month delay) has more than glorious talent wasted on totalitarian aims. He can also triage any group of frauds, con artists, and aspiring thinkers into the necessary pigeonholes. One such figure is his professor at the Government department of McCarthy College, Frederic Craven:

In that sinister way of American intellectual men, he had grown handsomer with age, his boyishly gaunt figure filling out without ceasing to be essentially youthful; kept tendony by tennis and tan by sailing through September on the cerulean, polluted surface of Lake Timmebago, he had created in time a kind of vertical harem of undergraduate mistresses, whom graduation disposed of without his even having to provide a dismissive dowry.

Small, prim, dark Ellelloû finds his counterpart across the seas, a man whose teaching load includes “U.S. vs. USSR: Two Wayward Children of the Enlightenment,” a man who insists on addressing Ellelloû as “Hakim Félix” as if he were a Russian boyar. Why then are we not surprised that it is Ellelloû, not his instructor, who seems to be the congenial man of letters we trust with our imaginations? “I hope,” says the young African, “you will forward my parting regards to Mrs. Craven,” to which Updike rejoins one of the finest lines in English literature. There is also the matter of that titular putsch. But I think you know how that will end.

Thursday
Aug112016

Bech in Czech

Nineteen years ago I took advantage of a scantness of interest among my fellow grad students and began learning this language. That same year I devoted five glorious weeks to Czech grammar, Prague cobblestones, and a host of books that could only really be read at high summer, when the sun set reluctantly and the clear paved streets reflected the immaculate evenings of our eternity. And an early autumn later – the thirtieth anniversary of this watershed – roaming around this bookstore, I happened upon a copy of this "quasi-novel" whose first tale generously blends fact into its fiction.

Our protagonist is the mildly esteemed Henry Bech, a Jew, a sexagenarian, and, if he were to have died upon arriving in 1986 Prague, an odd practicant of twentieth-century American literature. Bech has had one recent and now-failed marriage, written many books including one bestseller, and bumbled about various parts of the world for book signings and conferences in that mediocre and inoffensive way unique to minor writers. Why is Bech a minor writer? Because he cannot relate in the least to the famous quote by this Argentine about the writer of genius and being right? Because he believes "the purpose of the writer is to amuse himself, to indulge himself, [and] to get his books into print with as little editorial smudging as he can"? Perhaps because each of his novels, by his own attestation, feeds off a trend of the time, or at least an historically successful trend that allows it to appear timely and topical? Without fear of perjury, it can be said that all these factors apply to one degree or another. When Bech meets a Czech man of letters once tortured and jailed for writing "like Saki, arch harmless little things," he can "think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant." When he considers his own works, he finds them all as plain and aseptic as his own life. Therein lies no danger, no regret, no anxiety. His books all linger untouched on shelves, like dust and termites  or, for that matter, Bech himself. For that reason Bech becomes quite excited, if that is really the right word, about his visit to the American Ambassador and his trophy wife only a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution.

The plot unravels as do so many works of Updike's: by a permanent discomfort between life's givers and life's takers. While Bech is most certainly the giver – he has committed his every moment to inscribing the world with its little tragedies – the Ambassador belongs to that boisterous back-slapping network of executives and executors from which many political appointments are drawn. Normally one might scoff at a businessman's ability to run an embassy since an embassy is neither moneymaking nor subject to the same elastic mobility that defines the private sector. But this Ambassador has one distinct qualification for the job: he speaks Czech, albeit humorously, a remnant of his childhood. Those who delve into the relationship between historical fact and the lilac bubble of fiction will surely note that the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s was indeed a businessman of Czech descent. In the story, the conceit allows for one very telling circumstance: Henry Bech, an emotional and absent-minded intellectual, if a bit ignorant about medieval Europe, often finds himself at the linguistic mercy of a man whom his liberal sensibilities would never allow him to approach. Bech is also the guest of the Ambassador's dishy blonde wife, and their conversations, awkward owing to her attractiveness and Bech's lack of sexual gumption, indicate that money really does make some people happy. The Ambassador, "an exceptionally short and peppy man," takes Bech to a Jewish cemetery, where his ebullient manners lead both his wife and his distinguished guest to blush. And we also get at some of Bech's malaise:

For a Jew, to move through post-war Europe is to move through hordes of ghosts, vast animated crowds that, since 1945, are not there, not there at all up in smoke. The feathery touch of the mysteriously absent is felt on all sides. In the center of old Prague the clock of the Jewish Town Hall .... still runs backwards, to the amusement of tourists from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Later, Bech will address a student forum of eager English-speaking fans and learn that they do not value his longest and most difficult novel because, well, it is too greatly about his ethnicity and less about the rest of the world. An undertaker will also remind him, in what might easily have been a chat in Soviet Russia, that Kafka was not Czech, at least not by the strict Socialist categories that some people recall all too easily.

As Bech at Bay progresses – the five parts thrive alone, yet form an oddly cohesive whole – a startling announcement is made about our protagonist's career. The announcement is stunning because hitherto few had really heard of Henry Bech, and his general anonymity was for him more soothing than a symbol of frustration. His Czech book signings are characterized by long, unpronounceable names laden with every diacritic imaginable, and he dreams of moments when everyone in this small and delicate country could simply read his books in the original English, write him loving fan mail, and dispense with this whole Iron Curtain charade. A charade because everyone knew that hope and freedom would eventually triumph, that the whole wall would crumble and be trampled underfoot, and that once-proscribed writers would regain their rightful spots within the Czech canon. One fan, of Roma stock, even gives him a copy of a tome from samizdat:

It felt lighter, placed in Bech's hands, that he had expected from the thickness of it. Only the right-hand pages held words; the left-hand held mirrored ghosts of words, the other side showing through. He had been returned to some archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.   

Bech falls in love with the book without being able to read a word, and even lusts briefly after this young gypsy, the opposite of another lust, the Ambassador's leggy wife. The only difference between this Bech, now sixty-three and hardly spry, and a younger Bech is in physical prowess since Bech has never been one to collect women like a philatelist pursues stamps. "To live a week with Henry Bech is to fall in love with him," says the Ambassador's wife. What a shame no one ever grants him that much time.

Wednesday
May112016

Brother Grasshopper

Why do some only children slosh through their childhood and even a significant portion of their adult life longing for siblings? Loneliness, curiosity, having someone with whom to conspire and share the blame and memories and more practical tasks as age overcomes our elders – these are some of the most common reasons. Numerous movements, most of which are vulgar excuses for mass thought and uniform foolishness, have encouraged us to form brotherhoods and sisterhoods and generally hoodwink ourselves into believing we all have natural bonds. We may be human and equal in dignity; but the individual must triumph if he is to fulfill his potential, the goal, admitted or otherwise, of every living being. It is natural for us to love our parents and children, and it is also natural, in a somewhat different way, to love our spouse who is our counterpart, our witness, our shade. But our siblings? Do we not have friends who grant us almost all the benefits of sibship and far less of the grief? We do; but as those who have brothers and sisters may tell you, nothing can flow in your veins quite like blood. A soft introduction to the hard truths of a story in this collection.

The only child in question is Fred Emmet, a good egg who will have a torrential affair with a woman he will decide is not worth the price of bourgeois happiness. Even much later in life, we learn how much he regretted choosing children, familiar flesh, and peace over passion:

A decade later, he still missed the woman he had given up – dreamed of her in amazing, all-but-forgotten detail. He would never love anyone that much again. He had come to see that the heart, like a rubber ball, loses bounce, and eventually goes dead.

This doesn't sound terribly much like a family father of three who consecrates his precious days to the furtive accumulation of riches (Fred "was, like many only children, naturally meticulous and secretive, and it warmed him to think his growing personal wealth was cunningly hidden"). But adultery is a continent on Updike's earth, and adultery is nothing more than the power of suggestion. So while we may adduce a few wonderful things about Fred, about the new life he begins fresh out of Harvard with a nice, sweet girl called Betsy, about his real estate dealings and the satisfaction he derives from such games, we note that the most distinctive thing about Fred is his suggestibility, which means there is nothing distinct about Fred at all. He is the perfect sinner, the plain and Philistine mind who looks forward to forming better habits while secretly envying the possessions and values of others. And the main target of his envy is the brother he never had, a lanky and befuddled man by the name of Carlyle Saughterfield.

Some biographer may have found the original Carlyle Saughterfield, but you and I know that such a being could not possibly have existed. Fred meets the brother he never really wanted when the latter is finishing Harvard Business School, a dangerous place with dangerous friends if you are not, shall we say, of the right mindset. At that time Carlyle was "exotic and intimidating, a grown man with his own car, a green Studebaker convertible, and confident access to the skills and equipment of expensive sports like sailing, skiing, climbing, and hunting." Readers of these pages will know precisely what I think of "expensive sports" and their purveyors; but more fundamentally, one should ask why such people cannot read a book or watch a film for their adventure – and when you can answer that question with confidence, you will have solved one of life's greatest mysteries. Yet as we witness the slow demise of Carlyle – few have seeds within them that are so self-destructive – we note an inconsistency. At first blush, our praying mantis of a businessman does expensive things with expensive people (Updike's definition of business, "putting on a suit in the morning, working for other men, travelling in airplanes to meet with more men in suits," may never be topped). But as his life and faint grasp on reality both elude him, he engages in things that no sane man of affairs would ever contemplate, including, of course, investments of the high-risk, low-yield category that continue to attract the gullible and ignorant. Soon he bears an uncanny resemblance to the titular orthopteran:

Carlyle's weakness, perhaps, was his artistic side. His Harvard major had been not economics but fine arts; he took photographs and bought expensive art books so big no shelves could hold them .... He became a partner in an avant-garde furniture store in the Back Bay .... The store did well .... but Carlyle got bored, and became a partner in a Los Angeles firm that manufactured kinetic gadgets of Plexiglas and chemical fluids. This firm went bust, but not before Carlyle fell in fatal love with California – its spaghetti of flowing thruways, its pink and palmy sprawl, its endless sunshine and perilous sense of being on the edge .... As his children grew and his hair thinned, Carlyle himself seemed increasingly on the edge – on the edge of the stock market, on the edge of the movie industry, on the edge of some unspecified breakthrough.

We may recur to Fred's rather plebeian observation that "all these upper-class skills involved danger," or maybe we need not do so. Carlyle, who ends up marrying Betsy's sister Germaine, has mistaken the adventure of the body for that of the soul; but it is the soul of Carlyle that should test and imperil itself, not his physical person, wallet, or taste.

The years "in parallel" pass, two brothers-in-lie married to two very true sisters. Carlyle's promise, however, as an older sibling, as someone whose every gesture spelled "power and entitlement," as the embodiment of modern manhood, is never fulfilled because such a promise, in most, is a sham. Many facets of Carlyle, "a tall, bony New Englander with a careless, potent manner," lure Fred into contemplating such nonsense, even things that first seem like shortcomings:

His voice, husky and hard to hear, as if strained through something like baleen, was the one weak thing about him; but even this impressed Fred. Back in New Jersey, the big men, gangsters and police chiefs and Knights of Columbus, spoke softly, forcing others to listen.

But Fred does not listen. The calculating, somewhat venal part of him recognizes that Carlyle Saughterfield will die a failure, if only because the goals he establishes for himself are both vague and unreasonable. At some point in our story it becomes clear that Fred is determined not to be a failure, and his recipe for success is to be in every way his brother-in-law's foil. Indeed, once flush with funds from a series of inheritances, a Carlyle of waning affluence asks his brother-in-law for a loan in a roundabout way and gets just as indirect a refusal. And it is here that we ponder another power among siblings, that of the "brusque restoration to one's true measure," because "as an only child, Fred had never been made to confront his limits." No one possessed the threat of revealing, from the deepest part of his childhood, his most embarrassing moments, a tool siblings and enemies have in common. The same biographer might note that Updike was also an only child, also married right after Harvard, also had three children and then divorced his first wife, and also was a prolific producer in his chosen profession. But there remains no one on earth who can tell us about all the quirks, eccentricities, and fears of the young Updike. Perhaps because those will turn out to be the most common things about him. 

Friday
Mar112016

The Afterlife

There is an old literary conceit, as old as the hills, in which the protagonist rumbles through a series of inexplicable obstacles that seem to be at once completely unrelated and complicit in some hideous pattern. What he finds at the end of his search is that both these observations are perfectly true. And they are true because our lives are both episodic and often interpretable only upon death – or thereafter, if you believe that there is a thereafter – and our protagonist is dead. The theme is so common (I will not spoil a handful of stories and films that employ this device) that it may be easy to conclude that hell comprises not ever realizing that life has ended, eternal suffering as to why we cannot just die, why people no longer take any interest in you, and why what mattered before now has little to no meaning. A subtler reader, of course, might understand that those who do not live by moral principles will not be able to distinguish life from death even while still obligate aerobes. Perhaps the only difference is the level of acceptance we attach to them, which brings us to the eponymous story in this collection.

We are introduced to the Billingses, Jane and Carter, by way of the exploits of their friends. Now in their fifties and rather immune to the hubbub and locomotion of youth, Jane and Carter cast a weary look at their contemporaries and find that everyone is doing something that they are not: one couple is split by adultery and a subsequent living arrangement that raises a  few eyebrows; another pair is exposed as embezzlers and smug embezzlers at that (as if, over time, there could be any other kind); but we are bound by numerical convention, and it is the third couple that will raze all other plot lines. This third couple are the Egglestons, Lucy and Frank, who decide that instead of waiting for retirement and a brooding dream of moving to England, they will come to it. They dispense with job, house, and responsibilities that have cost them half their lives and depart to this county along the North Sea which has big blue skies. Just like, apparently, the big blue skies Frank would have gazed upon had he taken the corporate suggestion of moving to Texas. 

It will take three years for Jane and Carter to rouse themselves from the changes that are not nearly as shocking as they might seem and book two plane tickets to that most-often visited of European destinations for Americans. What they cannot help are their expectations. Frank has become heavier, rosier, and more deferential in that bluff English fashion; Lucy, on the other hand, has taken on a different hue altogether:

Her pleasant plain looks, rather lost in the old crowd of heavily groomed suburban wives, had bloomed in this climate; her manner, as she showed them the house and their room upstairs, seemed to Carter somehow blushing, bridal.

This passage is abetted by a long sequence on the staircase at night in which Carter, unable to orient himself properly in an older English home where everything seems to be "on the left," nearly kills himself. He is saved, it appears, by "something – someone, he felt – [that] hit him a solid blow in the exact center of his chest, right on the sternum." That something turns out to be the oval knob of a newel post, an object on which he could have just as easily maimed himself – but at this point Carter is unconcerned. His expectations have not been met because he did not really know what to think of the Old World, of its narrow quarters and quaint habits, of its air, its trees, and the numerous species that obtain special attention throughout the story. One segment involves a heron roving the neighboring duke's lands which Lucy and Frank "have never been able to spot." Lucy promises it found, yet the carnivore only appears upon Carter's premonition:

But the grey heron was not showing himself, though they trod the margin of the woods for what seemed half a mile .... At last their hostess halted. She announced, "We'd better get on with it – what a disappointment," and led them back to the car. As they drew close to the glittering, pleated, roaring weir, Carter had the sudden distinct feeling that he should look behind him. And there was the heron, sailing out of the woods towards them, against the wind, held, indeed, motionless within the wind, standing in midair with his six-foot wing-spread – an angel.

It may or may not be important that Carter, who shares a name with the man who located the most famous tomb of modern times, feels the need to turn back and encounter a bird so closely related to an avifauna of Egyptian mythology (naturalists will undoubtedly object to such fuzzy classification, and I am always a factioneer of naturalists). It may be simpler to aver that Americans immigrating to England because of the lack of culture in their homeland, a very common and unfortunately not spurious assertion, will never discover the nest of the grey heron, that noble and incredibly inventive bird, just as they will never ingress the soul of – and I think we all know where such platitudes lead.

While the playground of Updike's imagination is almost invariably American suburbia, England, site of a glorious year abroad, appears now and then like a lily cast afloat upon a pond's gently detonating surface. The name Billings is American enough – it is, after all, the largest city in the fourth largest U.S. state – but in the language of the invaders of Norfolk, invaders who came in savage waves about a thousand years ago, the word means "twin." In fact, a famous tale in the tradition of the "North Folk" has Billings hiding out in some reeds waiting for his beloved (there is also another famous story about a woman that belongs to him, ostensibly his daughter, but that is a tale for another day). Why would twins have anything to do with a plain plot of fiftyish friends trying to be youthful and active and above all, still friends? Let's just say that death and life have many things in common.

Friday
Dec182015

A Month of Sundays

Women are cellos, fellows the bows.

For what is the body but a swamp in which the spirit drowns?  And what is marriage, that supposedly seamless circle, but a deep well up out of which the man and woman stare at the impossible sun, the distant bright disc, of freedom?

                                                                                                                 Tom Marshfield

There is a fine quote from an old film which will be admitted here in paraphrase to ward off the Google hounds: there is a time to frolic, and a time not to frolic, and this is not one of those times. Readers of these pages know there are works that make it here and many, many more that do not, for a variety of criteria, the simplest of which is that they do not induce the back-chilling aesthetic bliss necessary to be memorialized. For reasons that will become abundantly clear, this novel is really neither one of those works, in no small part because it is hardly a novel at all.

We begin – I take that back, we do not really begin anywhere at all. Our narrator, who introduces himself through the generally dishonest tactic of self-deprecation and martyrdom, has been shipped to a rehabilitation clinic somewhere amidst the sands of the American Southwest. He is a wiry, nervous Anglo-Saxon in his early forties (in the opening chapter he declares himself, "41 this April, 5'10", 158 lbs"), apart from his calvity almost feminine in his shape and shadow, a father of two and in principle – in fact, very much in principle – a married man of the cloth. We do not yet know the crimes that precipitated his commitment, but they will be revealed by the man itself with glee bordering on malice.  He looks around his sanitarium, for that is indeed where he is housed, if a nice sanitarium with golf and tennis available to its inmates, that is, its guests, and rightly contemplates what on earth or beyond he could have in common with this pack of rats and their keepers. His description early on affords us a hint or two:

All middle-aged men, we sit each at our table ... suppressing nervous gossip among the silverware. I feel we are a 'batch,' more or less recently arrived. We are pale. We are stolid. We are dazed. The staff, who peek and move about as if preparatory to an ambush, appear part twanging, leathery Caucasians, their blue eyes bleached to match the alkaline sky and the seat of their jeans, and the rest nubile aborigines whose silent tread and stiff black hair uneasily consort with the frilled pistachio uniforms the waitresses perforce wear.

The era, in case it mattered to you, is late Nixon, a time of paranoia and penitence and a convenient excuse for our narrator's tone. Soon it becomes evident that he has been confined for a month owing to an acute case of satyromania, which may conjure up a picture of a man-goat in our beclouded minds, but which could make for some interesting insights on what has led our man of God to become a man of the insatiable flesh. The Reverend Marshfield cannot really tell us why; but at least we may empathize with his diminishing faith in his own convictions (hearing out a sobbing parishioner he deems, "but as an act of fraternity amidst children descended from, if not one Father, then one molecular accident"). He feels enslaved by his chosen path, which at once must have been chosen for him by some Other force and must not have been. His wife Jane, herself the daughter of a clergyman by the name of Chillingworth, his two teenage boys, his weekly sermons, the lonely, broken women who sit through those sermons and gaze unknowingly at a spry, sexually perverse minister and suggest with their bodies' lack of movement the consent Tom seeks with his roving, raving mind, his sporadic visits to his father deep in the throes of dementia – all this conspires to drive our holy man away from both the Holy and mankind for all its flaws and stigmas. His solution, at least for the lower half of his mortal frame, is a wonderland where everything that should not be is, and everything that should be is not. And not surprisingly, the heroine of this land is a single mom by the name of Alicia Crick.

Alicia is also the musical director at Tom's small church, and on Sundays they are united if not in common purpose then in melody. When Jane and Tom were courting, he saw his future wife "walk[ing] a cloistered path to me, [and] it was as if a lone white rose were arriving by telegraph," a Beatrician image for those who believe in beatitudes. Not so much with Alicia, whose "jaw wore a curious, arrogant, cheap, arrested set, as if about to chew gum." Jane is portrayed as equally lithe and fragile as her husband, even if her husband's fragility is only manifest in the cavities of his conscience. Mrs. Crick, however, possessed "small ... smartly tipped breasts," a "comfortably thick" waist, "homely" and "well-used looking" feet, and "active hands, all muscle and bone." Mrs. Crick swiftly turns out to be such a "revelation" in bed – our novel is saturated (Tom might say satyr-ate-it, and be almost funny) with puns and footnotes on puns, and puns on footnotes – that life with the "good wife's administration sex," that "solemn, once-a-week business, ritualized and worrisomely hushed," becomes absolutely unbearable. One evening, the horrible truth descends upon Tom like the rain upon a lost hitchhiker along a lonesome midnight road:  

My porch. My door. My stairs. Again the staircase rose before me, shadow-striped, to suggest the great brown back of a slave; this time the presentiment so forcibly suggested to me my own captivity, within a God I mocked, within a life I abhorred, within a cavernous unnameable sense of misplacement and wrongdoing, that I dragged my body heavy as if wrapped in chains step by step upward.

We will not say much more on the matter except that Alicia, bless her soul, is acquired and discarded early on in our fragmentary flashbacks, and cannot be considered happy about such a reversal of fortune. And so Tom begins his real journey, his journey back to Alicia that merely re-captions his journey back to his lost youth of irresponsibility. This involves prurience to a degree found only in erotic trash, cussing of the kind found only in popular trash, and an apotheosis from both of these hellish straits through the occasional visits to his Alzheimer-ridden father, who alternatively does not remember Tom, or confuses him with his brother, thus erasing Tom's childhood and innocence in one fell swoop. Without first, of course, causing him and us a great deal more grief.

As a stunning exception to the vast majority of his peers, Updike was very public about his religion and religiousness, even if he migrated congregations more than once. Consequently, he was essentially obliged to make any protagonist clergyman a skeptic (what then would be the fun if not?) to avoid the execrable label of zealot. At some point I remember reading that Updike was Hawthorne's literary descendant (the ballad of Tom Marshfield begins what would be known to Updikeans as “The Scarlet Letter Trilogy"). In hindsight this claim seems less far-fetched, although Updike was far more prodigious than any other serious author and Hawthorne was, like so many, rather fussy about his prints. The problem with such productivity is not leaving yourself enough time to reflect and reconsider, and there is also such a thing as leaving yourself too much time. So does a novel like A Month of Sundays get nearly ignored by posterity by virtue of its rambling, pointless beauty – the rambling, pointless beauty of life itself – a novel, admittedly, in binding and bookstore category alone?  There are overwritten and overwrought passages, surely, and sometimes one wishes there were fewer (occasionally they begin to crowd against our sunset), and the book cannot be read in one or two sittings. It is more properly a patch of poems, a purple, thriving, majestic patch, with real genius, a rarity in our era of half-baked hallucination and urban rage. Consider: "From the far end of the house sounded the electric sloshing of television's swill";  "That money, green and golden money which instinctively seeks the light"; "I loved shedding each grade as I ascended through school"; "Children returning from school shout in the acoustic wet street"; and Frankie, one of Tom's conquests, long since rich but undersexed, "lets out ... a giggle even older than the mink" (this same woman would later be "feeding mosquitoes on the nectar in her veins [and] admiring [her husband's] dragonlike skill at igniting brickets," perhaps the novel's most sensational passage). Only the artistically obtuse would complain that there is no plot, structure, or even point to Tom's peregrinations, apart from the very acceptable excuse of wanting to create more purple patches. And maybe like Alicia, we won't mind the hypocrisy, just the unhappiness.

Wednesday
Jun172015

The Journey to the Dead

There are many things to admire about this prolific author, not the least of which are his attempts to embellish what has already been written by writing it again, this time with more perspective. Readers familiar with his massive oeuvre of novels, short stories, poetry, and reviews would probably concur that for all his cosmopolitan education, Updike was very repetitive and very American. And what, pray tell, might "very American" mean? Americans are an interesting breed in that they do not share a common history, nor for that matter a common faith, package of interests, or definition of nation or patriotism. Unfortunately such a lack of commonalities often leads them and those who vaunt their culture to glorify the baser aspects of existence, the easy bourgeois pleasures of money, material wealth, and commercial success. Some would even go so far as to aver that typical American culture begins and ends on the sets and director's chairs of Hollywood. A fair claim, but incomplete. However much one wishes to and should criticize their subsequent treatment of the natives, the first American settlers came for political and religious reasons, mostly as a consequence of this movement. Their goals were isolation, revitalizing their community in these new surroundings, and basking in the sunshine of a world that still had fresh and untampered pockets in which the persecuted could roam. There is something artistically reclusive about such an approach: the return to nature, the inculcation of basic human values, the emphasis on self-reliance and propriety, the softness of familial bliss. Of course, not of all these things happened as planned (never mind the relations with said natives), and the conservative factions that obtained in many places were quite the antithesis of artistic liberty. Still, the austerity of their basic ideals lives on in many of their descendents, which might be one of the more typically American topoi from which Updike drew his inspiration. And one topos that can never be exhausted because it can never be understood is the subject of a fine story in this collection.

Martin Fredericks has recently divorced after spending half his life unmarried and the other half with a wife to whom he rarely speaks. He is past the midpoint of life's career and unpleasant thoughts jactitate within him, not really regrets but rather hints of disorder, infirmity, and confusion. The slow march of death he sees embodied in a friend of his wife's, a woman he knew from college called Arlene Quint. For the totality of the story, Arlene will be his portal to another angle of why we are alive and what happens to us when our spirit leaves, but she will not do it out of magnanimity. No, Arlene's main preoccupation is life itself – making the most of it, ignoring her age and past (she has "a certain air of benign defiance"), and pretending that it is all still in front of her like a grassy lea atop a distant hillock:

Her happiness glowed through her not quite healthy skin and her legs kept kicking friskily – the drumstick-shaped calves, the little round-toed Capezio flats. Those shoes dated her; Fredericks's former wife, too, had worn ballerina shoes in all weathers, in rain or snow, as if life at any moment might become a dance.

The two of them, both divorced although Martin already has another, unnamed partner, meet after many years and begin to explore their past through the common medium of Martin's wife Harriet. In time, Martin learns that Arlene is sick; she has had many valiant battles with cancer and seems to have gained some dominion over the disease. But as this is a story about death we expect and are quickly confronted with a relapse (indeed, the very first paragraph has Harriet asking Martin to drive her to the hospital).

Martin then mulls what death has meant to him in his fifty-odd years of sentience: he thinks of another friend who passed away a few years ago and held a farewell party of sorts; of the depictions of the moribund in two great classical works that remind him of his college days; of what he himself would be like as he lay dying. He deposits Arlene at the hospital where "from behind, she seemed, with her little suitcase and bulky coat, an immigrant, just arrived," and spends the rest of the story calling her and paying occasional visits to her artsy loft apartment. Arlene may have been attractive at one point in the not-so-distant past; but her condition, the weird infidelity of cavorting with an old friend of his wife's, and the overall necessity of moving on collectively prevent Martin from performing what might be done in other, lesser works. Yet they seem to have a good time together, perhaps mostly out of mutual solitude:

The sun of youth dappled their reminiscences, as Arlene stiffly adjusted her legs on the sofa from time to time and Fredericks sank lower into the chair and into alcoholic benignity, and the sky with its traveling clouds sank into evening blue.

Little by little, Martin learns about some of his wife's indiscretions as a much younger woman and is puzzled not by their occurrence but why they seem to mean nothing to him, why his memories are constantly warped to meet the needs of his current state of mind. He continues to chatter on with Arlene despite the vacillations in her health until one day, particularly worn out, she informs him that, "I just can't do Harriet for you today" – at which point our story takes a drastic turn.

Connoisseurs of Updike's works will have seen, heard, and touched the details of this story many times before –though never quite in this morbid combination that, upon closer scrutiny, offers us quietude and redemption. Martin may have been oblivious to much of life before befriending someone whose hours were numbered, yet such is the slow progression of the scythe. Throughout a lifetime esoteric elements of our consciousness dive and surface often at random, and when we come to the end, to a summary of what has passed and a glimpse of what might come, we will dwell on the small discoveries that made us realize how many layers of truth this reality possesses. Perhaps we are nothing more than evolved amoebae; but before the bourdons wail we need to close our minds to certain tasks that will never be completed, certain people we will surely never see again, and certain accomplishments that will be mummified with us as darkness gains. Some people, even heroes, however, will just close their eyes and hope that they wake up.

Monday
Jan122015

Home

There is something about being a rootless cosmopolitan that makes those with undebatable homes and homelands shake their heads. Doesn't everyone need a home? Isn't a well-run, caring family the only proven way to remain happy all your life? The answer to both these questions is probably yes, but we should ask ourselves why that is. Postwar Western Europe emitted a romantic glow about it because the worst had been endured and now Europe was moving towards being a conglomerate of languages and nations that shared more or less the same recent history. That feeling – which could sublimate into heaven on earth as easily as it could lapse into kitsch – is what some of us call home, an affinity with a time and place, with wondrous memories coalescing into a crystal castle (for some of us, without a moat or drawbridge). Home is, in short, where you are unquestioned and unadorned, a full composite of all your selves, past, present, and future without the slightest fraudulence or embellishment. An appropriate segue to a work from this collection.

Our time is the 1950s and our hero is Robert, a young American father of humble origins. As the story opens Robert is standing upon an ocean liner deck tacitly resigned to having to behold, for the first time in a year, that unusual and iconic symbol of America that bears the simple name of Liberty. It was a fast, unforgettable year at this university, much like, we suppose, the year the story's author spent across the pond before embarking on one of the most productive careers in the history of American literature. Robert's wife Joanne gave birth to their daughter Corinne in a noisy, efficient ward whose curators had asked "healthy women ... to have their babies at home"; in a way, Joanne and Robert are the tired and weary who have headed the wrong direction. Joanne would cry a lot that fateful day, and "the welfare state ... [would] clasp her to its drab and ample bosom," and Robert, too, would cry, but the baby was perfectly healthy and soon enough his year away from all the parochial shabbiness that makes every ambitious youth cringe was over. Now he has two months, July and August, to split between his parents, whom we will get to know, and Joanne's family, who doesn't really matter anyway since Joanne's musings of what is truly home have been long since overtaken by an infant's constant needs. Robert gazes upon his parents and finds his mother little changed ("her face was wide, kind, flushed, tense, and touching – the face of a woman whose country has never quite decided what to do with its women"); no, it is the other parent that catches his eye:

It was his father who struck him as new, as a potential revelation. There had been nothing like him in Europe. Old, incredibly old he had had all sixteen remaining teeth pulled while Robert was away, and his face seemed jaundiced with pain and partially collapsed he still stood perfectly erect, like a child that has just learned to stand, his hands held limply, forward from his body, at the level of his belt .... His father was always so conspicuous. He was so tall that he had been chosen, on the occasion of another return from Europe, to be Uncle Sam and lead their town's Victory Parade in the autumn of 1945.

It would not be hasty to conclude that the "potential revelation" here is of a future self that does not appeal to Robert one bit; yet a careful reader will notice the juxtaposed "Europe" and "old" and wonder whether Robert views such a revelation as a choice or fate, which he might wisely interpret as the sum of all choices. He will later recall, as they all drive off towards his parents' semi-rustic Pennsylvania house, that "in the year past, his mother's letters had often seemed enigmatic and full of pale, foreign matter," a sentiment we might indeed expect from a small-town boy lifted and placed for a year at one of the greatest centers of learning in modern times. What do we not expect, however, is the brief melodrama that ensues during that car ride westward, along the emerald expanse that was once the only reality our protagonist knew – and curious readers will already have decided whether to pursue that lonely vehicle on its lonely path.

Reading Updike, who died six years ago this month, I am reminded each time I return to his lush and prodigious oeuvre, requires a lot of patience because his beginnings are invariably mild. His characters do not burst onto the scene; in fact, if there's any bursting to do, it is more often than not implosive. A slow accumulation of evidence, usually daily minutia or the blandest of dialogues, leads to subtle portraits, not of people we might happen to know (the calling card of second-rate literature), but of deep sensations and thoughts that we either know from life experience or through the enjoyment of books, film, music, and painting in other words, the summits of artistic bliss. A sampling will suffice:  "Ah, the dear rosy English; he began, with a soft reversal of blood, to feel homesick for them"; "Shaken by more and more widely spaced spasms of sobbing, [Corinne] mercifully dragged her injury with her into the burrow of sleep"; "His father nodded, swallowing a fact"; "He released, like an ancillary legal argument, another spasm of lavatory-wall words"; and getting out of the car, Robert "felt his slender height, encased in his black English suit, unfold like an elegant and surprising weapon." Those who accuse Updike of being overly prolific – his fifty-two years of literary activity yielded just as many tomes – are simply greedy for the ease with which he constructs his microcosms. Moreover, the egregiously silly notion that Updike's works are somehow less profound because of his tendency to repeat motifs, symbols, and storylines is best countered by what this author (charged with the same crimes) said about genius and copying. And what about Robert and those "folds of familiarity" he comes to espy as the lonely vehicle passes emerald field after emerald field? Let's just say he will never forget that summer month. 

Thursday
Dec112014

Bech presides

It is one of the petty conventions of petty critics that all authors have a nemesis. This shadow, this alter ego, this deranged double has met with the cackling approval of the psychobabble circuit, a hippodrome that is thankfully no longer very hip (it has been replaced with insecure, ignorant, and resentful termites, but these bugs can be safely crushed underfoot). What does a nemesis say about us? To the computerized mind, apparently everything; but to a first-rate writer, to the nimble-witted and light-pawed genius who playfully eludes the symbol hunters, the only nemesis is the critic who insists on reading a book with his cookie-cutter and scalpel, instead of attempting to understand artistic brilliance on its own terms. If you think a great artist is a tyrant, you should turn in your passport and voting card and proceed to the bleakest wilderness, where you can impose your dim drivel upon oblivious caterpillars and tree bark. And while the author of this quasi-novel is most certainly a genius, we may reserve judgment on the faculties of his much-ballyhooed protagonist.    

Some of us remember Henry Bech as the quiet, plain divorcé who just happens to be a major American novelist in the way that, for better or worse, there must be at all times some major American novelists. Will posterity smile upon Travel Light or When the Saints? Will Think Big, one of the silliest idioms in the English language, sustain its readership over the centuries? Those critics who deem Bech to be merely a Jewish variant of Updike impose untruths (as a banal example, Bech is notoriously unfecund, Updike amazingly prolific); those who admit that Bech is a rather unpleasant fellow of middling talent, even if his thoughts, which Updike generously disclosed, indicate a wide streak of genius, are not wrong so much as wrong-headed; and those who wish to localize a moral message amidst Bech's sleepy sins miss the point, set, and match. If all great literary works are moral, it is because amidst their layers of aesthetic bliss, stylistic triumphs, and sparkling insights into the human soul, they know right from wrong; this does not and cannot mean that their characters will always act morally. How do we, the readers, know that it, the work in question, knows right from wrong? One passage from the plight of Henry Bech may help illuminate our plan:

Not that Bech had ever liked Izzy's stuff. In fact, at bottom, he didn't like any of his contemporaries' work. It would have been unnatural to: they were all on the same sinking raft, competing for dwindling review space and demographic attention. Those that didn't appear, like John Irving and John Fowles, garrulously, Dickensianly reactionary in method seemed, like John Hawkes and John Barth, smugly, hermetically experimental. O'Hara, Hersey, Cheever, Updike – suburbanites all living safe while art's inner city disintegrated. And that was just the Johns. Bech would not have minded if all other writers vanished, leaving him alone on a desert planet with a billion English-language readers. Being thus unique was not a prospect that daunted him as he sat warming his cold inspirations, like a chicken brooding glass eggs, in the lonely loft, off lower Broadway, to which he had moved when his suburban marriage to his longtime mistress's sister had finally been dissolved. Solipsism was the writerly condition; why not make it statistical? Certainly the evaporation of Izzy Thornbush was a pleasing fancy .... Izzy, the former artificer, maker of hazy verbal Pyramids, need build no more; a magnificently kept man, he need oversee only the elaborate buttressing of his crumbling reputation.

Who is Izzy Thornbush, you may ask? The man himself might not be able to tell you; on the dotted line, as they say, he is another Jewish writer, but one "stocked with not just highbrow erudition but low mercantile cunning," which should tell you exactly what types of works he tends to produce. In stark contrast to the reclusive Bech, Izzy is loudly selfish and hormonal; he married a plastic heiress of plasticine temperament so that he can be fêted in the grandest manner (celebrations for writers, it seems, are inversely proportional to their talents); and as the world turns, so spins Izzy Thornbush, who has never met an idea or movement or theory that he didn't like. If all this suggests the very opposite of Henry Bech, Bech would agree. But like the discerning reader, he would not care a hoot.

Does the pentarchy of Bech at Bay really make a novel, quasi or otherwise? The five not-so-easy pieces will be treated on these pages as separate entities, because "Bech presides" has as much in common with the first part of the quasiness as it does with, say, a guidebook to Prague. Yes, the plot concerns an organization called the Forty, which gathers and compresses writers and other artists like a bunch of daisies, an organization which our Bech (the title cannot lie) will gavel into session. Will he bring doom to this dilapidated institution, a hangover from days when people thought books important and writers noble? Dear reader, why would such minutia concern you? Especially when you can just sample the snippets of ecstasy from Bech's humble agenda, most of which concern fellow scribes: "The famously tall one and the famously short one, who insisted on huddling tête-à-tête like the letter 'f' ligatured to the letter 'i'; "This, again, took them to a level of seriousness where neither was quite prepared to breathe"; "This browsing was selfish and superstitious: he was looking for clues that would help him turn his own peculiar world into words, and he resisted submitting for long to another's spell"; "The fascinating face, which, like a plate of nouvelle cuisine, was bigger than it needed to be to contain what was on it"; "Izzy came up to them, bringing the fresh air of familiar rudeness"; "That dazzling WASP blankness which comes of never having been persecuted and scorned." All we need, Bech seems to imply, is a few good books and our souls, miserable bogs, would be cleansed; indeed, very early on in his term, the president of the Forty lectures the other members (who are not the Thirty-Nine; they were more like the Eight) about "the artistic spirit, the appetite for truth and beauty." Who can deny such truths? Should we then be surprised when Bech scans a host's shelves for one of his books, whose "spines [he knew] better than his past mistresses' faces"? Too many questions for a single writer, I am afraid, which is why we have wonderful organizations like the Forty: to provide a cacophony of pretentious rhubarb before it all dies out, sound, fury, glory, and the rapture of youth unregained, Henry Bech's youth and everyone else's. Because Henry Bech has long since determined that the only thing which separates him from the rest of humanity is that instinctive search, the first time he sets foot in any house, for a bookshelf.       

Friday
Nov072014

The Rumor

We possess a most malevolent habit of claiming to know more than we really do, a habit so developed that it has engendered the cult of lying, of deception, of chicanery. Why is lying so attractive? Because in many ways it is easier than the truth. The truth in its common form has limitations: colors, dimensions, dates, surfaces.  Something happened to a specific someone at a specific time and place, and to be good and faithful reporters, we must have the precise combination of these details or confront a quick barrage of no-confidence votes. And although a certain type of mind, usually a bit dry, is most adept at bringing us the latest bulletins and in-depth coverage, it takes entirely another spirit to concoct and embellish. I suppose you can say that fiction has never actually hurt anyone, except when it bleeds into the vastness we call real life. Which brings us to a story from this collection.

Their names are Frank and Sharon Whittier, which given some revelations towards the end, should count as humorous and ironic – but let's not spoil all the fun. They have known each other since childhood, almost an eternity; they have three children; they moved in the tumultuous 1970s from "the comfortable riverine smugness of semi-Southern, puritanical Cincinnati" to New York, "this capital of dreadful freedom"; they are gainfully employed as the owners of a small art gallery on West 57th Street; and, most importantly as our story opens, they seem to have survived the self-aggrandizing and gaudy decadence that was the nineteen-eighties. They would be called high school sweethearts by a reporter if it weren't for the fact that we have no immediate evidence of the image that such a moniker generally bestows – the homecoming dances, the varsity jackets, the necking behind the gym or a locker door, the earth-shattering loss of innocence. All we have is their marriage date, Frank's fear of being drafted, and their shared interest in the humanities. Offspring bound them more closely together, as did work, and life trod on in unobtrusive fashion until one day, after about twenty years of husbandship and wifeship had sailed along, Sharon gets word that Frank has a gay lover.

The source of this rumor is Avis, one of Frank's former adulteresses – a can of worms that is thankfully kept shut. Avis is a "second-wave appropriationist who ma[kes] colored Xeroxes of masterpieces out of art books," then does something rather terrible to them with her bodily fluids. She first heard of Frank's secret life from two other members of that powerful subculture that had patiently waited its turn and was now demanding that the term "equal rights" be extended to those young men in tight jeans and somewhat feminine demeanors. Yet Frank had spent twenty years as a confirmed and shackled heterosexual without having ever suggested that what he endured every day was just that, enduring, and not enjoying. A discovery of this nature, especially given the pretentious and trashy informant (Frank apparently had a rash of flings, but Avis was particularly abrasive), tends to diminish the credibility of the accusation. Sharon questions Frank, who answers in a manner she finds studied, whereupon she remembers his womanly fastidiousness about his weight. For the time being, this minor revision is sufficient to admit society-wide subterfuge:

In the days that followed, now that Sharon was alert to the rumor's vaporous presence, she imagined it everywhere – on the poised young faces of their staff, in the delicate negotiatory accents of their artists' agents, in the heartier tones of their repeat customers, even in the gruff, self-preoccupied ramblings of the artists themselves. People seemed startled when she and Frank entered a room together: the desk receptionist and the security guard in their gallery halted their daily morning banter, and the waiters in their pet restaurant, over on 59th Street, appeared especially effusive and attentive. Handshakes lasted a second too long; women embraced her with an extra squeeze; she felt herself ensnared in a net of unspoken pity.

There is much in what follows about being the proverbial last person to know; there is also a generous helping of ambiguity that has always served as a topic for art because unlike ethnicity, age, or gender, sexual orientation can be successfully and continually suppressed for an entire life. How often have we seen film or literary characters act in an unusual and initially inexplicable way, only to have it all sobbingly confessed in the end as another case of fear and loathing? Too many, I suppose; not that such methods are ineffectual in heightening awareness and perhaps making us ponder the eccentricities of neighbors and old friends – but here we stray onto territory that should remain ungrazed.

To opine that the story adheres to a formula would be unfair. Where its tension flutters is precisely those passages in which Sharon's conscience becomes our lodestar. I will not go so far as to say that a betrayed wife's mind is a dull rock of presumption, but I think you know what I mean. The cuckolded husband and his enraged quest for knowledge is old hat even though newer additions to the canon are invariably distinguished not only by a vivid imagination, but one positively grotesque. Such is not Sharon's problem. Even when she computes the hours whiled away apart, the grooming, the lecherous looks exchanged between Frank and strangers, the "buttery, reedy tone of voice that might signal an invisible sex change" (a marvelous description), she still arrives at the same prime number. He simply cannot be something he has always been and something that he might very well be, because one life effaces the other. What can be said, however, is that there is only really one artistic exit from this conundrum, and it is the one taken by Updike. Anything less would have acceded to hideous plot devices and conspiracy at its most macabre. And what wagging tongues could possibly find all that interesting?                 

Tuesday
Jun032014

The Persistence of Desire

One of the oldest narrative clichés, and perhaps the most bittersweet, is that of the ex-lovers' reencounter. The scene is not hard to imagine: Paris; autumn; late afternoon or early evening; a café half-empty and half-asleep; a large cup of steaming coffee, perhaps an ashtray stabbed to death; and upon the awning, pellets of rain messaging your most intimate thoughts. You have been away from the one you loved – the only one to whom that amazing verb has ever truly applied – for a couple of years, but somehow a part of you has remained with that person, you are not quite sure what part. Since your torrid months together you have considered her a little more than occasionally, yet your impression is that these considerations have been dwindling and will soon approach zero (zero would mean it never happened, which would be the worst of all fates). Your hand slides along the bumps of your leather tote and you recall when your hand used to caress her hip, as if to ask for her consent, and you decide with a heavy heart to gesture for the check. As you look up to find the garçon, your eyes – which have never stopped lingering on every doorway, every passing cab, every theater crowd – fall to someone who cannot be what she is indeed. You may ask yourself how destiny could have orchestrated such a moment; then again, you may be scared to think that you'll have nothing to say. You move towards her, as you always have been, and she moves towards you, or at least you think she does, and once identities are confirmed other facts must be verified as well. Most of us do have a little speech rehearsed, having practiced a few million times in our heads, and yet speeches have that unfortunate way of sounding as rehearsed as you make them. For a number of reasons, however, this brief description should not detract from our reading of a story in this superb collection.       

Our protagonist is Clyde Behn, a name that suggests a brewer or a rugby player, not a silly, sensitive family man with chronic twittering of the eyelid. We find Behn at the offices of an ophthalmologist called Pennypacker (no more needs to be said) as well as in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis. The thing is, although Clyde has "middle-aged eyes," he is still quite a young man, maybe short of thirty-five, as evidenced by the fact that Pennypacker has been his "aloof administrator of expensive humiliations" ever since he can remember. His trip back to his hometown flickers with old indigenous memories, precisely the ones you hope to relive by chance, meaning that you have actually made a conscious decision to increase their probability by coming home. It is quite possible that Behn does not see things as such – he doesn't see well to begin with, a point Pennypacker will underscore in more than one way – but let us not hastily omit Clyde's past in favor of his present.

While waiting in one of those anodyne waiting rooms that seem to presage only death and pain, Clyde reads that "the cells of the normal human body are replaced in toto every seven years" (a figure that coincides nicely with that popular barometer of adulterous impulses, the seven-year itch). The woman he has been waiting for is Janet, who dutifully appears in time before his appointment as to allow for more than a bit of casual conversation. She is a plump, pleasant woman now married to a career serviceman and freshly returned from several years in Germany. After an awkward exchange, he sketches for himself her husband's portrait:

Clyde had never met him, but having now seen Janet again, he felt he knew him well – a slight, literal fellow, to judge from the shallowness of the marks he had left on her. He would wear eyebrow-style glasses, be a griper, have some quite negotiable talent, like playing the clarinet or drawing political cartoons, and now be starting up a drab avenue of business. Selling insurance, most likely. Poor Janet, Clyde felt: except for the interval of himself – his splendid, perishable self – she would never see the light.

You will be hard-pressed to find a better summation of all jilted lovers at all times than this last sentence. Clyde makes his move, desperate yet sincere, and gathers a hoard of mixed signals for later decryption. Finally he is granted access to Pennypacker, "a tall, stooped man with mottled cheekbones and an air of suppressed anger," and, for once, takes a close look at his tormentor:

Pennypacker moved to the left eye and drew ever closer. The distance between the doctor's eyes and the corners of his mouth was very long; the emotional impression of his face close up was like that of those first photographs taken from rockets, in which the earth's curvature was made apparent.

There is more to Pennypacker than this; but Clyde, perhaps adhering to staunch habit, refuses to see what else he might learn from one visit to an eye doctor since, of course, he has already found the reencounter he had long sought.

Until his death five years ago, Updike was probably the greatest living American writer for a good three decades. His greatness is overshadowed by his voluminous production, usually indicative of mediocrity, and by his unflappable desire to be American and nothing less or more (one supposes that most writers of his talent would have erred towards the more). That is not so much a criticism as a compliment: only an American could have written about suburbia and the desires that bubble beneath its bourgeois sheen, and only a great writer could have chronicled such mundane crimes in a style both riveting and complex. So when a meticulous, professional Pennypacker "insolently raked the lights back and forth across Clyde's face," and his patient becomes "blind in a world of light, [afraid] that Pennypacker was inspecting the floor of his soul," we smile and wonder about that purportedly happy soul that has little if any happiness to share with the two people from his old life. We smile again when Pennypacker asks him whether he was "using his eyes a great deal," to which Clyde replies, "no more than I ever did." And we haven't even mentioned Clyde's eyelashes.

Tuesday
Aug072012

Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car

It seemed to me for this sunset hour that the world is our bride, given to us to love, and the terror and joy of the marriage is that we bring to it a nature not our bride's.

                                                                                                                          David Kern

We ask ourselves countless questions as we slip into sleep – whether we are alone in the universe, whether we are loved, whether our dreams shall be fulfilled, whether there is any redemption for those who suffer, as well as far more banal inquiries – but there is really only one question.  It has been phrased in myriad ways, and cannot be made any simpler than this formula: Is the truth good?  If the truth is good, then many different things can be explained, and many different understandings of the world can coalesce into a single understanding, one ultimately benevolent and conciliatory which opens its wings as widely and warmly as the our galaxies' blackest night is suffocating and cold.  If the truth is good, then we can be both true and good, because we can embrace the best of news (news, after all, is supposed to impart the truth and little else).  We can become the ideal world we have always imagined – yes, even the most gnarled cynics among us R.E.M. cycle into greener pastures – and therewith make the most of our current earthbound dilemmas.  We also note that we have defined neither truth nor good.  Such entries, you see, are best left to each of us to determine, because some purportedly brave souls – I might prefix a far less flattering modifier – claim that eternal darkness does not scare them in any way.  Who's afraid of nothingness and extinction?  Perhaps the narrator of the unusual foursome of tales found in this fine collection.

Our protagonist is David Kern, an important name for an allegedly unimportant writer.  A likely member of the Pennsylvania Dutch, Kern is a German core or nucleus, the center of it all.  When he travels he misses his "wife's body, that weight of pure emotion" beside him, and is "enough of a father to feel lost out of [his] nest of little rustling souls."  From his first observations, on the "bare earth that has been smoothed and packed firm by the passage of human feet," we learn nothing except perhaps the most important fact of someone's life: namely, that he is a God-fearing man, a fact he will later deny, if indirectly.  His faith, or what he has come to understand as his faith – faith being the most personalized experience someone can have – occupies our second tale, which brandishes its gerundial title with some skepticism.  Yet the whole process of attending to one's faith, literally and figuratively, offers some distinct advantages:

It is the most available democratic experience.  We vote less than once a year.  Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal arithmetic of equality: one equals one equals one.

How soon after this communion does David Kern, a believer who outwardly plays the lapsed Christian, "hasten home ... to assume the disguise – sweaters and suntans – of a non-churchgoer"?  Later events, in the fourth and vastly superior part of this uneven quartet about one soul, suggest that David Kern is entrenched in what we may term nostalgic faith.  Nostalgic faith is the crutch of the romantic doubter, a belief in the past, a belief in all the love we have given and received in our time on earth, a belief that we cope with being a worthless link on an eternal chain of death by loving what we have as intensely and honestly as we can.  Yet a profound defeatism shadows such sentiments.  When he tells his wife that after a few centuries their "names would be forgotten," their "nation would be a myth," and their "continent [would be] an ocean," we wonder why we even bother to love.  When, much later on, he drives his beloved titular vehicle essentially into hyperspace, losing all sense and sensation, we pity a soul that has replaced an awe for what our world is with an awe for what our world is not.  Never is it implied, however, that Kern might have resigned himself to being merely a conduit, to living life so as to report it, in a beautified and much-manipulated form, on the typed page.  Something of his faith persists, even if it has devolved into an adoration of nature's vicissitudes and a tepid acceptance of our own.

Updike is twentieth-century America's greatest literary genius, and there really shouldn't be a debate (we will excuse those who name this author instead, but he was not, strictly speaking, "made in America").  Those who tell you otherwise are either envious – Updike's easy and prolific output leads the average, bloated mind to recur blubberingly to its own platitudes – or simply swine before his purling streams.  Not all his works make our "scalp freeze" (a description he bestows, unfortunately, upon a jazz piece), and the winsome if somewhat trite narrative about a road-killed feline is impaired by the same pathos common to all works which try to pawn off animal misery as a metaphor for our own.  It is better simply to list the passages that really do run up our spine: "There was a strong sepia flavor of early Christianity"; "There was not that swishing company of headlights that along an American road throws us into repeated relief"; "They served me with that swift grace that comes in a country where food is still one of the pleasures"; "I was patriotically thrilled by Alton's straight broad streets and superb equipment of institutions"; "the new doctor's office ... was furnished with a certain raw sophistication [as] rippling music leaked from the walls, which were hung with semi-professional oils"; "The grinning girl was lost in this onslaught of praise and clung to the shreds of her routine."  Many other pleasures obtain, especially when David goes to visit his terminally ill father and is told by his mother, before anything more than niceties are exchanged, that the old man has lost his faith.  The few minutes they have together, interrupted only by a well-meaning young woman from a Lutheran congregation, are supposed to be allotted either to the transmission of final secrets or wisdoms or to a prolonged and miserable farewell.  Neither one takes place because David, a believer by disposition, has thought too much about the one thing in life that, in its totality, exceeds human reason, even if a very religious person will assure you (and be correct) that there is nothing more reasonable than faith.  That is why at one point he sees a "catastrophe" hidden behind "each face," and why at another, he perceives the appropriateness of being a "stranger in church."  And what about the truth and the good?  Let's just say David has gone through enough of one to recognize the other.

Monday
Aug162010

Still Life

Some if not most of us are irksome creatures, bound for whatever reason to our petty habits and beliefs, unwilling to expand our small-mindedess because of fear.  What do we fear exactly?  I suppose we fear failure or dissatisfaction; but on a more profound level we fear success and happiness as they are both so readily whittled away by time.  The old adage about loving and losing does not apply, since we would rather not have anything to lose.  One may deem this world view cowardly or overly practical, it matters little.  You and I know many among us who endorse this behavior in themselves and, ultimately, also in others.  We acknowledge this truth, and nevertheless enjoy this fantastic story in this collection.

Our hero is Leonard Hartz, a perfect name for an almost perfect soul.  As our story opens we are given not his past, simply his future: he has arrived at the Constable school, one of the three British art institutions covered by the G.I. Bill, and we remember the middle of the century yet see Leonard's idealism unshattered.  Perhaps this is just as well; there are probably enough stories about weary and damaged soldiers.  He enrolls to "draw the antiques," recognizes one masterpiece from a similar shape depicted on the pencils he uses, and finds startling beauty in these wordless daily exercises, as if he were meditating with a paintbrush.  Three of the other four Americans at the school are married and happy in their little nests, to which Leonard is initially invited, but there is only so much fun to be had with a bachelor guest.  So he retreats to his easel under the tutelage of a stuffy old aesthete by the name of Seabright.  Seabright appreciates him in his droll way, but does not think as much of Robin, "a tall English girl ... with a pertness that sat somewhat askew on her mature body."  Soon Leonard and Robin begin their relationship in that most common fashion, commiseration, and just as rapidly realize that they do not fit all that well in each other’s worlds:

Their subsequent conversations sustained this discouraging quality, of two creatures thrown together in the same language exchanging, across a distance wider than it seemed, miscalculated signals.  He felt she quite misjudged his earnestness and would have been astonished to learn how deeply and solidly she had been placed in his heart, affording a fulcrum by which he lifted the great dead mass of his spare time, which now seemed almost lighter than air, a haze of quixotic expectations, imagined murmurs, easy undressings, and tourist delights.  He believed he was coming to love England.

Was Leonard perchance not involved in the European campaign?  Did he come to love England because he had never been anywhere near it before, or has he erased what he knew of Europe in those dark days?  We never get questions much less answers about the subject and all the better so: Leonard is discovering beauty in its most basic manifestations – in woman and in the creative sensation we call art.

Their courtship is deterred by Seabright's decision to promote the duo to still life, a reward merited by Leonard but not by Robin – and both of them know it.  An added complication, and one dealt with so expertly that there does not seem to be another possible resolution, arises in the form of Jack Fredericks.  Jack takes to Robin as gigolos simply must because they always feel it is their hidebound duty to make eyes at a lovely woman.  Leonard only accentuates Jack's attractiveness by being aware of it, and we assume the arc of the story will be an untender one.  We are, wonderful to relate, quite wrong.  And for a few moments we do indeed catch a glimpse of a prior Leonard:

Jack lay down on the shallow ledge designed to set off the exhibits, in a place just behind the table supporting the still life, and smiled up quizzically at the faces of the painters.  He meant to look debonair, but in the lambent atmosphere he looked ponderous, with all that leather and wool.  The impression of mass was so intense Leonard feared he might move and break one of the casts.  Leonard had not noticed on the street how big his fellow West Virginian had grown.  The weight was mostly in flesh: broad beefy hands folded on his vest, corpulent legs uneasily crossed on the cold stone floor.

We can imagine Leonard in high school where Jack was a year younger and not "really in the same social class"; where Jack could be nice enough in snatches so as to reinforce the hope within the idealistic and trusting Leonard that all men are inherently good.  Childhood teaches us that bullies will use kindness as a gift to dissolve momentarily their victims' resentment, but this is all a tactic to coerce the victims, now mocked anew, to blame themselves for their ills.  We see all this flash behind these two characters like a stage illumination, and so we are hardly surprised when Jack decides to "audit" the class and then offer to paint Robin.  In the nude, of course, because anything less would again offend that most inviolable gigolo code.

Updike has so many wondrous stories but Still Life remains one of his very, very best.  The finest scenes describe the awkward courtship of these two fluttering souls, their opinions on other people (but never themselves), their odd discussion towards the end of the story when Leonard comes back from an unannounced trip – unannounced at least to Robin, but whom else could he possibly tell of his travels? – and the vicissitudes of trying to copy works of infinite genius (when Leonard considers buying Jamaican walnuts for their still life class, Robin replies, "All those horrid little wrinkles, we'd be at it forever").  A whimsical attempt at meeting each other halfway through the cinematic medium of a "delicately tinted Japanese love tale, so queerly stained with murders" only results in increased discomfort for both parties, so they give up trying to have a regular romance and instead focus on the world of art, as represented by the redoubtable Seabright:

Lesson by lesson, Leonard was drawn into Seabright's world, a tender, subdued world founded on violet, and where violet – pronounced "vaalet" – at the faintest touch of a shadow, at the slightest hesitation of red or blue, rose to the surface, shyly vibrant. 

Robin does not or cannot endure such a realm, and that is sufficient to convince Leonard of their incompatibility.  Yet he also suspects that this incompatibility may exist between him and almost everyone else in the world, and he and we both know why.  He contemplates their co-existence with more than a wistful sigh: 

After lunch they began to mark with charcoal their newly bought canvases, which smelled of glue and green wood.  To have her, some distance from his side, echoing his task, and to know that her eyes concentrated into the same set of shapes, which after a little concentration took on an unnatural intensity, like fruit in Paradise, curiously enlarged his sense of his physical size; he seemed to tower above the flagstones, and his voice, in responding to her erratic exclamations and complaints, struck into his ears with grave finality, as if his words were being incised into the air.

It is at times insurmountably difficult for those committed to art's grandeur to lead a normal life replete with normal events and normal joys.  Try as he might, Leonard cannot shake his interior shades and sunsets, the whispered glories of memories to come, or the intoxication of creative achievement.  He should never have to do so, even if it costs him a girl or two.  And especially if he and those girls are as different, say, as apples and oranges.