Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Museums & Women" and Updike

“Set together, the two words are seen to be mutually transparent; the E’s, the M’s blend—the M’s framing and squaring the structure lend resonance and a curious formal weight to the M central in the creature, which it dominates like a dark core winged with flitting syllables. Both words hum. Both suggest radiance, antiquity, mystery, and duty.”

The talent of John Updike is so profound that it speaks to each of us in a highly personal way. I love two things about him: his critical voice, and his awe of women.

His literary criticism had effortless authority about it. He had no doubt about the duty of the critical voice to illuminate and elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of writing, from fiction to biography to poetry. I really was thrilled whenever I saw his name on the New Yorker contents page. He brought to the task that startling intellect, a frightening amount of sheer knowledge of things A to Z (from the old days, before the Internet!), and a sensitive understanding about the human condition, from religion to sex.

Much of his work ponders the mystery of women and sex. He is extremely conscious that it is all such a mystery. I love how he articulated the emotional life of his male characters-—I believe that he could express what many men feel but can’t explain.

He had an unflinching eye and passion for the whole spectrum of passion. His male characters are tormented, liberated, enthralled, baffled, jazzed by the drive of the life force that drives them into the arms of women---wives, girlfriends, mistresses---all in the shadow of their own mother’s arms. Ah, there’s the rub.

When this life force turns violent, we enter the ugly reality of rape, and that’s where Updike faced much criticism himself. Since he mostly wrote from the POV of men, there was much in this part of his writing and his stories to deplore.

But that was one small part of an admirable, impressive life’s work. I focus on the truth and tenderness of his stories instead:

“His wife was fair, with pale eyelashes and hair containing, when freshly shampooed, reddish lights. His mistress was as black-and-white as a drawing in ink: her breasts always shocked him with their electric silken pallor, and the contrast with the dark nipples and aureoles. In the summer, she tanned; his wife freckled. His wife had the more delicate mind, but his mistress, having suffered more, knew more that he didn’t know.”

From Solitaire

No candidate for husband of the year, but it’s exquisite, engaging writing of experience.

My whole life John Updike has been the man of letters. He was an important part of the fabric of “life making sense” for me. It is a sad day for the whole literary world, now that the “most self-consciously Protestant” writer, as Cynthia Ozick once deemed him, has returned to his God.


Peteski said...

interesting interview(s) audio file:

Edward Copeland said...

I love Updike, though I have to admit that I've almost exclusively read his novels. I have several books of his short stories, but have read very few of them and have read very little of his criticism. Perhaps it was part of an unconscious plan on my part, so there would always be lots of Updike left for me to go to. Then again, maybe the man was just too damn prolific for any fan to truly keep pace with. I read in one of his obituaries that there are still three books of his works that are scheduled for release this year, though alas no new novels.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Thank you, super. I do agree with what you see about the mystery - it's so difficult, and often so little rewarding, for a writer really to penetrate the psyche of the opposite sex without falling back on stereotypical superficialities (I'm sorry, shall I say that again?) or hyperbole. I wish I knew how to do it, but I suspect there's no answer. In my own ultra-minuscule way I rely on harnessing a welter of tiny feminine attributes and letting them speak for themselves, but all too often they keep pulling in different directions.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Sorry. "...what you say about the mystery..."

M.A.Peel said...

Peteski, thanks for the link. Updike's speaking voice is as distinctive as his writing.

Edward, you have many happy hours ahead of you in the critical pieces.

Christopher, the word "see" actually works in your first sentence. And the idea of tapping in to the attributes of "the other" in ourselves for all sorts of reasons--beyond writing characters--is a tantalizing subject.