Magazine article The Spectator

Raising the Last Glass

Magazine article The Spectator

Raising the Last Glass

Article excerpt

My Father's Tears

by John Updike

Hamish Hamilton, £18.99, pp. 292, ISBN 9780241144596

£15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Although an air of valediction inevitably hovers over this collection of short stories, the last of John Updike's more than 60 books and published in the wake of his death, it is in no way a depressing read. On the contrary:

there is something exhilarating about finding him maintaining to the very end not just his brilliance of observation and narrative but his passionate appreciation of life.

Updike's writing has often been unapologetically autobiographical; his biographer will not have to decode the life from the work. These stories, apart from the first, a tale of an uneasy family holiday in North Africa in 1969, were all written and published during his last decade, and all of them reflect the preoccupations of an aging man;

health, family difficulties, the waning of sexual passion, the continuing search for love.

But in Updike's hands these trials are not so much tiresome as heroic, and irradiated by bright gleams of memory, humour and wisdom. When Henry, recently widowed, impulsively drives to Florida to find Leila, the woman he had been thrillingly unfaithful with decades before, he finds 'a tiny woman, her nut-coloured face criss-crossed by wrinkles', with whom he has nothing in common; but he also realises that their affair had been a gift to them both, a setting free, or 'as free as things get'.

Freedom, in Updike's writing, is a mixed blessing. His heroes (he writes more, and better, about men than women) need to escape from their parents, their home towns, their regular jobs and, often, their wives; but in these stories he demonstrates over and over again, in loving, precise detail, how there neither can nor should be any escape from memory. David, at a high school reunion, meets the girl he first walked home and kissed, and is instantly swamped with recollections of her uniform in the marchqing band at football matches, the high white boots and gold striped maroon jacket, the strapless taffeta dress she wore to a dance later and how his rented tux grew damp with sweat. Updike has always been the master of turning the ordinary into art.

Most of his stories, like his novels, have been set geographically and emotionally close to home, which for him was always the towns and suburbs of Pennsylvania and New England. …

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