Hamish Hamilton £18.99
My Father's Tears & Other Stories, By John Updike
A new collection of John Updike tales alternately tugs at the heartstrings – and sadly frustrates
Sunday 26 July 2009
I am not really the right person to review John Updike. In the introduction to his 1975 collection of essays, Picked-Up Pieces, he set out some rules for reviewing, one of which is the exhortation that you should never "accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like". Hmm. I suppose you could say that believing, as I do, that Updike was the greatest writer in English of the past century – greater than Joyce, Greene, Nabokov and most decidedly Bellow – does not make him a friend, and so therefore it's OK. Trouble is, even though we never met, I do sort of think of him as a friend. When he died, real friends phoned me up to check I was all right.
Strangely, this doesn't always work in JU's favour. Having set the bar so high, disappointment must follow. Reviewing his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, elsewhere, it's not just that I didn't think it was very good; it's that I found reading it profoundly depressing, and reviewing it cruel. It felt cruel to Updike, whom I knew was still writing by then only to stave off thoughts of death, even if it meant tarnishing his golden reputation.
Well, it's not so cruel now, I guess. His death – doesn't it? – frees up opinion. There's been a review of this book by Martin Amis, a bad review, in which Amis, also a fan, but perhaps not so big a fan, writes that he would not have written it had Updike still been alive. Yet reading his review still made me upset: speaking ill of the dead and all that.
And interestingly enough, Amis was speaking oddly ill. He talks at great length about the fall-off in Updike's prose in this book – and undoubtedly, Updike is not the great sentence-creator he was – using, as the primary example, this sentence from the story, "Kinderszenen": "The grapes make a mess on the bricks when they fall; nobody ever thinks to pick them up when they fall."
Amis's point is that this, "the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen" in its clumsy repetition of "fall", is an indicator of the complete collapse of Updike's sonic capability. But he fails to mention that the story is seen from the point of view of a child. Kinderszenen: scenes from childhood. So I think the repetition is deliberate, as the sentence, although not intended as pure ventriloquism, invokes a child's thoughts. And while we're at it: "period"?
However, I agree with Amis that there are issues to trouble the Updike lover in this collection. Take the story "Delicate Wives". It's a classic Updikean idea: a man having an affair learns that his lover has been stung by a bee and rushed to hospital by her husband; thus the man feels jealous because he has missed this opportunity for saving her life. At the end of the story, much older now, he feels a lump in a woman's breast, and the narrator says: "This was the bee-sting, the intimacy he had coveted, legitimately his at last..." However, this woman is not his lover, but his wife, who has had little weight in the story. Am I missing something? Would this end-moment not have had more pathos and resonance if it followed, say, a chance reunion with the mistress? I could be wrong – maybe it's a very clever subversion of structural expectation – but I can't get rid of a niggly sense that maybe Updike just... kind of... forgot who was who.
The truth is probably that, as Updike aged, his ability to sustain longer narratives diminished, which means that as the novels went down, some hope could be held out for the short stories. A fair few of these crush that hope. A handful concern foreign travel on package tours, as do the opening 100 pages of The Widows of Eastwick, and it is hard not to feel that this is how Updike and his wife spent much of their latter years; all well and good, but there is, I'm afraid, an element of Diary of a Saga Cruise about the end product. "Varieties of Religious Experience", which forms the centerpiece here, written as a series of different points of view on the day of 9/11, feels something of a dutiful response to the Twin Towers attack (it was written in 2002), Updike self-consciously donning the red, white and blue mantle of Great American Voice.
Yet there are four stories in this collection, two near the start and two near the end, which approach Updike's best work. "Free" and "The Walk with Elizanne" hark back to his great studies of the sexual self, but seen here, of course, through the prism of time and loss; and "My Father's Tears" and "The Full Glass" are redolent more of the later years, solid fronts against despair, Updike finding in tiny details reasons to go on living.
Updike's greatest late work may turn out to be Endpoint, his collection of poetry written around the discovery of his terminal cancer, the shortness of its stanzas perhaps suited to the gradual narrowing of stamina that came with time. Overall, though, this collection does what I think Updike wanted it to do: use the imminence of death to provoke the memory of life. In "The Walk with Elizanne", the narrator meets, at a 50-year (and a last) school reunion, a woman who claims they shared a first kiss. Unable at first to remember, he pieces it together, foggily, and the story ends with the walk that leads to that kiss retold anew. But just before that retelling, there is this, which is the point at which My Father's Tears began to prompt some of my own: "'Elizanne,' he wanted to ask her, 'what does it mean, this enormity of our having been children, and now being old, living next door to death?'"
Some of the stories here, and the work of John Updike in general, come as close as we may ever come to answering that question.
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