Sunday, 13 January 2013

Battered Penguins - The Music School by John Updike

John Updike's recurrent subject
in the short stories I've read by him - including in this collection, (which does also contain: an attempt at a ghost story; a kind of modern day parable in The Christian Roommates; a stab at something faintly Lawrentian, in The Hermit; and a Malcolm-Bradbury-David-Lodge-esque anecdote of academic life) - is love, or desire, usually a man's for a woman or, indeed, women in general. It is not a subject that I find all that interesting, but that doesn't matter at all when Updike is doing the telling. I'll put up with anything that he chooses to write about. I couldn't care less how things finally work out for his characters; all I'm interested in is the scenery - the sharp, clear images, the gemlike insights dotted through the prose  - along the way.

I barely remember what happens in At a Bar in Charlotte Amalie, for example, but I am happy to have read Updike's description of a woman who looks 'as though she had put on her lipstick by eating it' and her neighbour whose 'stiff wide shoulders seemed a huge coat hanger left, out of some savage stubbornness, in his coat'. The fate of the couple on the point of divorce in Twin Beds in Rome doesn't touch me particularly, but I like Updike's clarity as he explains how between them there still remains, 'their lovemaking, like a perversely healthy child whose growth defies every deficiency of nutrition'.  In the same story, his image of the old men who work as uniformed guards at the Colisseum, standing 'this way and that in the rain like hungry gulls' conjures up a vivid picture.  The man waiting in vain for his lover in The Morning is not even meant to be pitied, but the discovery that he has 'lived so long with the vain expectation of her coming that it, the expectation, had become a kind of companion he was afraid of losing'  is a poignant insight I am grateful to have read. 

While sometimes, Updike overreaches himself and hits a dud note, either falling over from lyricism into sheer wetness - 'I unfolded the napkin, and your sigh, shaped exactly like a dove, the blue tint of its throat visibly clouding for a moment the flame of the candle on the table, escaped' - (pass the sick bucket), or producing something that just doesn't quite make sense - 'In silence as dark as widows'; 'aimless soft rain' (what other kind of rain is there?) - or making a statement that may be more solipsistic than universal - 'Men travelling alone develop a romantic vertigo' - more often than not he hits the nail brilliantly on the head. Certainly, after reading Updike's characterisations of 'Rusting barbed-wire fences' as 'strands of a forgotten debate' I will never look at the landscape I drive through, littered as it is with such fences, to reach my mother's place in quite the same light. 

The story from which the 'romantic vertigo' phrase comes is called "Bulgarian Poetess". It concerns Bech, an American writer, travelling through various Soviet bloc countries on a cultural exchange. It is difficult not to conflate Updike and his central character and therefore, when, in response to a question, Bech says this about his own writing:

"He told them ... how ... he had sought to show people skimming the surface of things with their lives, taking tints from things the way that objects in a still life colour one another, and how later he had attempted to place beneath the melody of plot a countermelody of imagery, interlocking images which had risen to the top and drowned his story and how ... he had sought to make of this confusion of the theme itself, an epic theme, by showing a population of charaters whose actions were all determined, at the deepest level, by nostalgia, by a desire to get back, to dive, each, into the springs of their private imagery."

it is very tempting to take this as a statement from Updike about what he is trying to do. If so, then perhaps I don't need to feel guilty for my lack of interest in Updike's plots and characters. It appears that he himself is more concerned with the 'countermelody of imagery' in his writing, which is what draws me back time and again to him. Even the theme of love is for him - or rather his possible alter-ego, Bech, - just 'a form of nostalgia'. 'We fall in love', Bech says, 'with women who remind us of our first landscape.' And possibly, judging by the beautiful first story in the collection, In Football Season, the state we long for most acutely in our nostalgia is not love but innocence.


  1. He's one of my favorites -- I love his prose, too. I do like his plot and characters, too, though -- my second favorite writer on American suburbia, next to the much underrated John Cheever.

    I once called him up while working on a paper on him in grad school. After I admitted the reason for my call, he sighed a heavy, oh-good-another-ambitious-academic sigh, but he was most gracious with his time.

  2. ... "him," in my second paragraph was Updike, not Cheever.

    1. There is a calmness about his prose that I like. I'm glad he was nice to you - I read a snaky comment about him not giving a Paris Review interviewer a drink, so it's good to hear he was actually pleasant.