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

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.

David Baddiel's new novel, 'The Death of Eli Gold', is published next year by Fourth Estate

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn