[7 March 2012]
With John Updike’s 2009 death we lost another old-fashioned intellect, another widely interested, deeply educated writer who moved effortlessly between genres, fluently penning fiction, essays, poetry, and criticism. Editor Christopher Carduff writes of Updike’s work: “No living critic can approach its style, its special mixture of warmth, elegance, and impressionistic brilliance, and I doubt we’ll hear the likes of it again.”
Yet Carduff isn’t ready to let go. With wife Martha Updike’s consent, Carduff assembled and edited the posthumous Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism.
The title is slightly misleading: set alongside the essays and criticism are a few stories, five poems, and a couple brief (one page) playlets. There are forewords and afterwords and the inescapable commencement address. A loose assemblage of pieces falls under the heading, “Table Talk”. Considerable space is devoted to Updike’s enduring passion for golf, which he writes of the way Roger Angell rhapsodizes about baseball.
In his fine introduction, Carduff describes Updike as the sort of writer whose opinion the reader could trust, a man who beat you to the latest terrific new novel or exhibit, then told you all about why you, too, should read that particular book or rush off to the museum. Higher Gossip‘s many examples of Updike’s reviews have the power to send readers hunting for overlooked books or perhaps the catalog raisonne from a particular exhibit, now dismantled, for all is in the past.
To read Higher Gossip is to be suffused with the peculiar sadness—there ought to be a Latinate term for it—of reading a recently deceased, or perhaps wrongly deceased (David Foster Wallace, Andre Dubus, Sr.) writer, the simultaneous happiness at how fine the writing is smack against the fact that there will be no further words from this particular pen. (And yes, to talk about Updike is to envision a man holding a pen. A fountain pen, at that. Preferably a Mont Blanc.)
For all Updike’s undisputed greatness, the very nature of a compendium makes for a mixed reading experience. All of Higher Gossip‘s material has appeared elsewhere, meaning Updike’s serious fans have already read it, while less devoted readers may find dipping in and out the more profitable reading experience. Not all of us, I confess, adore golf, no matter how ably written about.
The collection’s first essay, “The Writer in Winter”, is a moving meditation on the older writer; see Donald Hall’s “Out the Window”, in this year’s January 23rd New Yorker for another masterful contribution to the experience of being aged in American society. We don’t hear enough the from the elderly in our society, much less our aged artists.
Updike poignantly describes the aphasia common to the aging brain, a worse punishment for the writer who once reached for words as easily as reaching for his socks, now hunting an insufficient replacement for that perfect yet elusive word in a pile of thesauri. He warns that the material so sparklingly fresh for the young, untried writer, the words and sentences so burning to emerge will, by age 40, have been penned, re-worked, fully mined.
The older writer settles: for innovation, for sequels, he will “attempt historical novels”. For those of us who viewed writing an inexhaustible fount, expecting it to grow only richer with life experience, Updike’s words give pause. Worse, he writes—Updike, recipient of two Pulitzers and countless other accolades—of fearing his later work is weaker than the books of the younger man. “The mental muscles slacken, that first freshness fades.”
In “A Desert Encounter”, Updike pens what initially seems an amusing piece on searching for his hat outside his desert condominium; what evolves is a sharply observed anecdote on the state of being aged. Updike’s search leads him to an encounter laced with the gentle derision reserved for a certain type of older person, one whose naïveté is ripe for ridicule, the sort of individual we swear we will never become.
From here the book moves to a playlet based on a dry cleaner’s note and an exhaustive description of what goes into formulating a football. The first section concludes with two short stories and five poems, all fine works but with an air of being dropped into the proceedings.
The next section, “Book Chat”, is more uniform and, for this reader, more engaging, as Updike’s talents as a critic are amply displayed. He ranges from Søren Kierkegaard to his friend Kurt Vonnegut to Raymond Carver, of whom he writes: “Of Carver’s stories it must be said that they are beautiful. Not since Hemingway, perhaps, has anyone built so lovingly in stacks of plain sentences…”
A collection of fore-and-afterwords suffers from detachment from main subjects, save the impressive introduction to “The Best American Short Stories of the Century”, which offers a practical course on the short story. In describing the thinking that went into the near-impossible task of selecting stories for this centenary volume, Updike is careful, apologetic about necessary deletions, sorry the stories are not more authorially diverse.
This segues into a series of reviews that edify both the lay reader and would-be critic: of the biographer Hermione Lee, Updike suggests she personally prefers Virginia Woolf to Edith Wharton, a subtle indicator of how very well read Updike was. His incisive analysis of Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever is deepened by his personal knowledge of Cheever: Updike “generally enjoyed his lively company….” yet was aware his friend’s alcoholism and barely closeted homosexuality meant “...the menacing miasmas of a life…which brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him.” He dislikes Bailey’s biography, but the review is delivered with such finesse that one hardly realizes she is being gently urged against this particular chronicle.
Updike’s reviews in “Fiction Now” are particularly compelling: from his unique vantage point as a highly accomplished fellow practitioner, he was largely generous. His review of Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills, one of the few positive ones the book received, shed entirely new light on what Smiley was attempting in this take on Boccacio’s Decameron. His gently judicious review of Ann Patchett’s Run,—again, wonderful author, weak novel—is spot on in its analysis of race, happenstance, and why Patchett’s fictional attempt at racial harmony doesn’t quite hang together.
“Gallery Tours” are just that, an expansive journey through decades of artwork that reached the American East Coast, where Updike spent the better part of his life. Updike’s interest ranged from ancient religious sculpture to modern photography, and his writings on art would constitute the oeuvre of a lesser writer. El Greco “arrived at a nervous, crumbly brushwork” along with his gray skies.
His review of Pieter de Hooch’s works manages to make us see Dutch Baroque painting anew: yes, de Hooch was a contemporary of Vermeer’s. There is the same (fascinating) emphasis on domestic interiors. But Updike tells us de Hooch was a bricklayer’s son, so besides those entrancing checkered black-and-white floors, stretching to infinity, we’re instructed to notice the carefully rendered textures of each tile. An exhibit of William Blake’s works is housed in a lower level of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the light is “shadowy”, causing “the conscientious viewer emerges with smarting corneas.”
The section titled “Pet Topics” ranges from dinosaurs to Mars to Updike’s years in Ipswich, Massachusetts, seen as a classic if vanishing sort of American town, something less than a city, yet larger than a burg.
“Table Talk”, the closing section, offers some trenchant observation regarding the state of writers, writing, the artifacts known as books, authorial copyrights, and those hallowed places known as independent booksellers. Updike, as expected, was not happy with recent developments in publishing or the near-death of the professional writer—that is, those persons talented and able enough to earn their livings with words. Updike was appalled by the notion of scanning and digitizing libraries, of “virtual bookshelves” stocked with mashups of various reading matter, yanked from original context and hyperlinked. Like most writers, he had no wish to spend valuable writing time engaged in the game known as self-promotion. The entire business, he wrote, “This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario.”
Updike writes: “In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of… accountability and intimacy?”
Posthumous compendiums offer glimpses of a writer, at best whetting the appetites of new readers, encouraging them to seek out the books. But for Updike devotees, who have all the records, so to speak, Higher Gossip is the greatest hits album you may not need. This is not to damn Carduff with faint praise: Higher Gossip is a meticulous labor of love. But in a society of prequels, sequels, found caches of unpublished letters, derivative works, the seemingly endless hunger for more, this won’t be the final uncollected collection. Carduff’s introduction makes reference to Updike’s journals and a book of art criticism accompanied by appropriate photographs. Beyond that, I hope these collections send readers to the sources, to the novels, essays, and critical collections, for the modern reader has everything to gain by availing herself of this man’s genius.