BOOK REVIEW / Small helpings of cold Rabbit: Memories of the Ford administration by John Updike, Hamish Hamilton pounds 15.99

AFTER U and I, Vlad i mir. For years Nabokov has prowled through Updike's work like a bear in the yard, occasionally knocking over the garbage cans. The fact that the Russian cited Updike as one of the two living writers he was prepared to admit admiring (Alain Robbe-Grillet being the other) no doubt contributed to the younger man's tolerance of his awesome presence, but there comes a time when a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Now 60, Updike has decided to have it out with the intruder.

The last sentence of the novel reveals the structural jest at its heart: 'The more I think about the Ford Administration, the more it seems I remember nothing.' The narrator, Alfred Clayton, a minor league historian, is supposedly responding to a request for 'Memories and Impressions of the Presidential Administration of Gerald R Ford' for a symposium to be published in the learned journal of the Northern New England Association of American Historians. He interprets this as an occasion to write an account of his erotic adventures during the three years in question, interleaved with lengthy extracts from an unfinished book he was working on at the time about a president almost as undistinguished as the hapless Ford: James Buchanan.

We thus have a Pale Fire project in which a nominally objective subject is a stalking-horse for very different and more personal designs. But while Nabokov calculates his angles of refraction so cunningly that complex delusions and inversions cohere, Updike's package consistently amounts to less than the sum of its parts, rapidly disintegrating into a succession of turns, numbers and stunts. The historical sections, accounting for about half the book, are the least successful of these. Updike's obsession with President Buchanan is well documented: he planned a novel about him, used some of the material in his only play, and has now recycled it yet again as Clayton's 'often-commenced, ever-ramifying and never-

completed book'. This proves to be an uneasy faction in the manner of Simon Schama's Dead Certainties, but considerably less well achieved. If Clayton had finished this tedious and unprofessional work, his tenure would almost certainly have been withdrawn.

But while as a historian Clayton is a purveyor of leaden cliches and fustian dialogue, as an autobiographer he possesses the unparalleled linguistic resources of . . . well, of John Updike. This Clayton, in fact, has two distinct registers. One is an arch master of ceremonies in the manner of Humbert Humbert, given to imperious asides to the editors of the learned journal, internal cross- references and outbursts like 'Genevieve in tennis whites] With a heartbreaking little black hem to her socklets]]'. He even tips the hat to one of Nabokov's most notorious betes noires in damning 'the surging cotton candy of P I Tchaikovsky, the inventor of sound-track music'. The result is a light-hearted guide to American mores of the period (although the presence of a rampant deconstructionist in the English department of a small New England college in the early Seventies surely owes more to a desire to poke fun at Derridean pretensions than to historical accuracy).

Here, too, there is a sense that we have been this way before, and that it was better the first time. Clayton's attempt to leave his wife ('the Queen of Disorder') for the coolly purposeful Genevieve, spouse of the said deconstructionist, only to betray his mistress with a selection of other roving faculty wives, is a half-amused, half- nostalgic memoir of 'those far-off Ford days, (when) it was assumed that any man and woman alone in a room with a lock on the door were duty-bound to fuck'. It says nothing about sex, marriage, adultery or separation which was not said better in Couples and the Rabbit quartet, and - lacking the moral seriousness of those books - it verges at times on a lip-smacking salaciousness which seems to relish four-letter words and split beaver shots for their own sake.

The writing itself remains as dazzling as ever, and those who view Updike as the Ralph Lauren of American letters will not be dismayed. Describe a vagina, inventory the contents of a living room, recreate a Student Center circa 1975 - whatever the assignment, Updike is the star student, performing with an ease and exactitude which leave readers breathless and other writers green with envy (vide Baker, op cit, passim). It is only when the last of the narrative voices switches in that you realise what has been missing. This is a quieter, more vulnerable Clayton, stripped of the glamorous high-profile style, reflecting on the damage his absence is causing his children, on his own and others' mortality, on the speed with which 'we become history, while waiting always to be news'. Such scenes as the visit of Clayton's elderly mother to his broken home have the poise and gravitas of Updike's best work, but for that very reason they are disastrous to the success of the book as a whole, mercilessly exposing its air of complacent self-indulgence.

Nabokov might have brought off such a complex conceit, but Updike's attempts to justify his extravagances by drawing parallels between public and private history never amount to anything more than a notional framework. The sight of an author so immensely pleased with himself is not a pretty one, and in the absence of a properly focused and characterised narrator it grows increasingly difficult to resist the suspicion that the author in question is not Alfred Clayton but John Updike.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy