A Week in Books: Sexual frankness in the Hay

Fêted by the organisers as if he were the Grand Duke of Hay, John Updike tripped lightly through the literary festival last weekend looking, and sounding, more like a waspish (and Wasp-ish) Lord of Misrule. The Massachusets spellbinder may have been summoned to the Welsh-border book town as walking, talking proof of mastery in modern fiction. But he reminded his audience that - for any writer from the realist tradition - mastery never excludes mischief and mockery.

After watching Updike flying away with the questions lobbed by James Naughtie like some gangly but graceful crane, I returned to the bumper book of Early Stories 1963-1975 recently published by Hamish Hamilton. The first word in the first piece turns out to be: "Carnival!" The carnival of realistic fiction always carries a charge of comedy, outrage and heresy on its floats. Now a figure who inspires deep respect, if not reverence, and will be a strong contender for the new Man Booker International prize for a lifetime's achievement, Updike began his career as a shocking rule-breaker.

At Hay, he recalled that, in 1959, the fairly mild sexual frankness of Rabbit, Run (the first in his tetralogy of decade-defining novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom) prompted serious fears of prosecution. His publisher, Alfred Knopf, worried that litigious "Southern sheriffs" would hurry to hunt this dirty-minded Yankee down. Updike responded that "it might be worth our American heritage for he and I to go to jail over this".

In the event, the pair were spared martyrdom. The zeitgeist was shifting fast across the world: a little later, Penguin in Britain fought and won in court for the right to sell Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in a paperback that "wives and servants" might afford. Meanwhile, not a single Southern sheriff rode into court against Updike; and the cultural path before him cleared for the closer bedroom scrutinies of Couples and beyond.

Since the days of Fielding and Defoe, all the pioneers of fiction have scandalised polite circles with their taste for "low", disreputable content. This "lowness" takes different shapes at different times, but often has to do with our absurd bodies and their unruly ways. (Just a few years after Updike and his peers emerged, a generation of feminist novelists would upset the masculine orthodoxies of the Sixties with another sort of offensive physicality.) In fact, emissions and editions often seem to go hand in hand. Updike accounted for the erotic fixations of his male protagonists by alluding to the surplus of sperm as a changeless biological fact. Immediately, Naughtie asked the famously prolific novelist a question about his "prodigious output".

James Joyce would have enjoyed that moment. The week after next, Dublin will heave and groan with centenary celebrations for "Bloomsday" - 16 June 1904, when Joyce first dated Nora Barnacle, and when the action of Ulysses takes place. The great and good of Ireland and far beyond will trumpet their veneration for Joyce's mock-Homeric masterpiece. Hypocritical hogwash, in many cases. Their official ancestors banned, seized and cursed the novel over decades of disapproval for its low, "obscene" incorporation of bodily functions and fleshly desires.

Ulysses, with its comic-epic tapestry that entwines micturation and masturbation around mythology, took fiction deeper than ever into the raucous carnival of everyday life. "The ordinary is the proper domain of the artist," Joyce once said, in mischief-making words that Updike could endorse: "the extraordinary can safely be left to journalists." And we know just how Mr Leopold Bloom used the torn-off sheets of the daily press.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game