Magazine article The Spectator

A Lord of Thin Air

Magazine article The Spectator

A Lord of Thin Air

Article excerpt

Richard Davenport Hines finds the author of Couples to have been a thoroughly singular man.

Higher Gossip by John Updike, edited by Christopher Carduff Hamish Hamilton, £25, pp. 501, ISBN 9780241145524 It is easy, especially if one is not American, to feel ambivalent about the fictions of John Updike. The immaculate clarity of his prose style, the precision of his vocabulary, the tenderness underlying his Wasp comedies of manners, the puckish wit rising above a sorrowful temperament - none of these can be gainsaid. But the ways in which his novels seemed to raise the banality of fornication to some remote altitude of meaning, his efforts to imbue the quandaries of adultery and cuckoldry with transcendent significance, can seem relentless and overdone.

Updike at times resembles those fanatical sexologists who gathered around Alfred Kinsey interrogating Americans about the minutiae of their sexual preferences and acts, as if by dour, gritted study of silly squelching they could anticipate (to quote the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer) 'the dreadful Day of Judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed'.

Updike was a prolific reviewer and writer of occasional pieces. The range of his curiosity, the closeness of his attention and the depth of his perceptions are triumphantly displayed in the essays and criticism collected in Higher Gossip. The book, which is a joy to read for anyone who cherishes literary intelligence, dispels misgivings about him as a novelist, and indeed is an incitement to reread the fiction with a less impatient spirit.

Updike is perhaps best of all - temperate, canny and revealing - when he writes about fellow novelists, and celebrates in them some of his own traits and tricks. The word-perfect control of his writings vies with those of two near-contemporaries, the novelists William Maxwell and John Cheever. In a shining essay, he describes Maxwell in his youth learning to find 'excitement in the presence of life', and savouring 'the mysterious beauty of the commonplace'.

Updike similarly celebrates Cheever's 'joy of the physical world', which provides such vivid epiphanies in the output of all three men. 'The lies of fiction were employed to get at the nearly unbearable heart of truth, ' Updike explains of Maxwell, whose work he praises as 'shapely, lively, gently rigorous'. 'Cheever's characters', Updike adds, 'are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift.' Updike was at his strongest when making clandestine comments about himself.

When Updike died in 2009, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote a tribute in the New York Times, which extolled him for 'prose so careful and attentive that it burnished the ordinary with a painterly glow'. 'Painterly' is a key word with Updike, who contributed scrupulously observant art criticism to the New York Review of Books for nearly 20 years. All but the three of the 20 essays collected in the 'Gallery Tour' section of Higher Gossip are reproduced from the New York Review. In each of them Updike displays the grace of a connoisseur with the insight of his own creative intellect as he discusses 15thcentury sculpture, El Greco, 19th-century Romanticism, Turner, American landscape painting, Van Gogh, Viennese nudes, Surrealists, Kodak snapshots and photographic reportage of the New Orleans flood.

Higher Gossip includes some dramatic dialogues (which seem weak squibs) and golfing reveries, together with four quiet, arresting poems written during Updike's final treatment for lung cancer. …

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