Perpetual Youth and Effortless Artistry

By Brookner, Anita | The Spectator, January 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

Perpetual Youth and Effortless Artistry


Brookner, Anita, The Spectator


MORE MATTER: ESSAYS AND CRITICISM

by John Updike

Hamish Hamilton, L25, pp. 897

In his introduction to this collection of essays Updike states that the ideal book review 'would quote the book in its entirety, without comment'. That, unfortunately given Updike's bewildering productivity, is not possible. Even what is possible is scarcely possible, as he assents, willingly, to write on almost every subject, amenable to any stimulus, any editorial suggestion, and demonstrates the odd, almost superstitious fact that writing as a way of life will keep head and heart in good order.

No suggestion of writer's block here, no anguish before making the first mark on the white page. Updike conducts his career as if writing were a given, an entirely natural activity destined never to fail him. This eerie fullness has not even earned him serious enemies. Other writers may envy him, even nourish a certain secret animosity, but their overwhelming feeling will be one of respect, as if Updike belonged to the same family as Gutenberg, able and willing to outlast the Internet and other newfangled short cuts, taking his stand on literacy and the traditional means of transmitting thoughts and ideas.

Amiability is the keynote of all his writings, whether reviewing a later novel by Edith Wharton or the Song of Songs, together with an ineradicable fondness for the 1950s, that postwar decade whose conventions he did so much to fracture. He is devoid of post-modern irony, preferring irony tout court, and he is still a member of the neighbourhood, the community, leading the nation in a revolt against marker-- taped Jiffy bags and child-proof pill bottles. fie is also a dandy, one who cherishes Nabokov's perpetual happiness but can also do justice to Tom Wolfe's specificity. Who else would compare Alice Munro's stories with those of Chekhov and Tolstoy? Of Proust, via Alain de Botton, he remarks, -The reader emerges from the last pages of the last volume, Time Regained, with a sensation of having triumphantly undergone therapy.' His dandyism cloaks his resistances in gentlemanly tact. He is obviously allowed as marry words as he likes, and he makes use of them without default. This expansiveness alone would identify him as an authentic man of letters.

As a writer he is immediately sympathetic towards other writers, whether of novels or of biographies, Italian, Russian, British, French. He can appreciate both Philip Roth and Patrick Chamoiseau, although both parade an ethnicity for which he has little use. He does justice to Sarah Bradford's biography of the Queen, and even more justice to the Queen herself. He moves with enviable ease across the whole spectrum of the written word, and makes a more than eloquent claim for literature to justify its old-fashioned dignity and lustre.

He can also quote to deadly effect: his article on Camille Paglia should be read in all university departments bruised by that lady's go-getting anarchism. Paglia, he says, manifests 'the ingenuous egoism of a teenager': few will fear her after that. Yet he is as devoted to popular culture as she is, particularly to movies, which he has been studying since the age of three. In the humble cinemas of his youth a generation learned 'kissing and smoking'. Today television does not even bother to teach an audience which professes to know it all anyway. …

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