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.

Comments