On Reading John Updike


I know, it's Easter and I should be doing Easter things, but after the greeting, there seemed to be very little to say on the matter that isn't better said elsewhere. And so I'm back to report on my latest reading and after some rumination may have thoughts about this season to share.

I've been reading John Updike again. This time the most recent collection of his nonfiction. I find him much less an icon of the degeneration of literature in his nonfictional avatar; however, one does get the idea that he values his opinion far beyond its actual worth. Reading through this collection it seems to collect every scrap of written material beyond his grocery lists and put them out there for all to read. Everything from a note to a magazine about a scene with a kiss to a short list of books to read about lust.

As usual, I'm interested by the sensibility behind the words. Updike is, without doubt, a cultivated and intensely interested man. He reviews a wide swath of what would be considered by most literature. He has neither the expansiveness nor the generosity of spirit of a Michael Dirda. But then a novelist as reviewer or critic enters the arena with an axe to grind and much of what he does in the way of review will represent that.

However, one great thing about Updike is that almost all of his reviews are at least mostly favorable. I think I read somewhere that he doesn't like to review a book if he didn't care for it. As a result, you get some luminous glimpses into the reading life of John Updike and into his very peculiar readings of some great books. Additionally, you get a sense of Updike's aesthetic--what might be better termed the aesthetic of the priapic. I note this because of one comment he makes in a review of Colm Toibin's The Master. He is gently chiding Toibin's implicit (and explicit) criticism of Henry James's "refusal" to come out of the closet. Updike points out that James lived during a time of bachelor uncles and unmarried men and that then, unlike now, not everything was centered around sex--there was a life beyond. This is almost hilarious, as Updike is one of two or three writers who have spent their entire careers convincing the rest of the world that everything does revolve around sex. While I find his brand generally less objectionable than Philip Roth's, I find it perhaps more destructive because it is powered by a sensibility infinitely more refined and more genteel than that of Mr. Roth. His prose can be fluid and enormously powerful, particularly in its description of the natural world. But. . . ultimately most of his stories center around his obsession and his obsession with getting everyone else to buy into his obsession.

All that said, reading through this massive tome is an exposure to a great many books and authors I might otherwise not encounter. There are introductions to great works of literature--most interesting here on some comments on Portrait of a Lady, which, to my way of thinking, presents things almost exactly the wrong way around. But then, that's one of the great things about a work of literature--it has as many readings as it has careful and sensible readers. And reading here some of Updikes comments, I discovered about the book something I was unaware of reading it myself--a view of it from another country.

The rewards of reading Updike are many. He does read good books. He reads good books well and tells you things about them that make you want to read them. The reader of Updike may not always agree with his conclusions or his reasoning, but will almost always enjoy hearing from a person whose own work is remarkable and whose comments on the works of others are generous, insightful, and informed by a sensibility that is congenial and warm.

While I'll never hear about Agatha Christie while reading Updike, I will hear about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers of this ilk. And I will hear about them from a point of view that is both alien and intensely interesting.

While I contend that John Updike is one of the few who have done more than his fair share in leading us to where we are in the arts and in society (I don't see him so much a chronicler as a pusher), and while I am often mystified with his typfication as a "christian" author, I find that I almost always enjoy myself in his company--most particularly in his company as he is talking about things that interest us both--books and the world of literature.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 24, 2008 7:25 AM.

No Coincidence-More Faulknerian Ruminations was the previous entry in this blog.

Permettez-moi de vous presenter. . . is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll