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The Independent Culture
JOHN UPDIKE looked very pleased with himself on The Late Show last night (BBC 2) but then how would you not, if you were him? A novelist of extraordinary, magisterial powers, he is capable of lifting weights that would leave lesser artists gasping, and yet the serene authority of his prose never wavers. Throughout his conversation with Ian McEwan he had a tight, secretive smile on his face - suggestive of a private amusement at the conceits of the world - whether he was talking about the absurdities of sex or the gravity of human guilt. To anyone who didn't know the novels, this Olympian affability might have been a little off-putting but it seemed unlikely that anyone but devotees would be watching.

If they were, it wasn't going to be the interview that converted them. Nothing Updike said spoke as eloquently about the pleasures of his prose as the brief extracts in the film introduction that prefaced the conversation. 'She lifts her head from its depression in the damp nest of down,' he writes in his latest novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, a line absolutely characteristic in the way it blends exactitude of description with a vigilance about language's suggestiveness. How perfectly the word 'depression' catches the peculiar despair of lying slumped and sleepless in a sweaty bed and how typical of Updike to recall the origin of the bedding material in the very word he uses to describe its shape. Updike's prose operates at such levels of magnification that readers lose their learnt perspectives - which is why he can write explicitly about sex without embarrassment; the over-familiar object is seen from an unfamiliar angle so that your conventional responses are suspended in wonder at the freshness of the sight.

McEwan clearly admires Updike and shares some of these qualities as a writer, which unfortunately doesn't necessarily make him the best person to conduct an interview. Too many of the questions here could have been paraphrased as 'I have analysed your work correctly, have I not?' and there was sometimes an uncomfortable sense that both men were engaged in a duel of eloquence, less concerned with what they were saying than with the elegance of its appearance. After McEwan had used the word 'quiddity' Updike found it in his own mouth a little later and seemed to hesitate a little (this is actually a dropped point in Articulacy Tennis, where the point is never to use the same balls as your opponent). When McEwan did hit the nail on the head (as with a simple question about Updike's almost religious faith in meticulous description) he talked so long over his own question mark that Updike had forgotten what it was attached to by the time he came to speak.

Lucinda Lambton's little cabinet of curiosities, the Alphabet of Britain (BBC 2), this week contained a camp poodle fan, the death mask of the last French Prince Imperial and a clifftop temple constructed by a former Bishop of Derry, a combination which, in its testimony to the unpredictable quiddities of private life, had a distinctly Updikean charm.

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