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A lord of thin air

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

Higher Gossip John Updike, edited by Christopher Carduff

Hamish Hamilton, pp.501, 25

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 re-read 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 15th-century 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. ‘Cafeteria, Mass. General Hospital’ and ‘Not Cancelled Yet’ particularly linger in the memory for their mordant, mournful wit. Also to be relished are some fictive sketches inspired by quotidian incidents in Updike’s life: a man pruning a hedge, who falls into conversation with an annoying old passer-by dressed like a hoofer dancing in musical comedy; a visit by an unnamed dignitary to a nightmarish factory mass-producing footballs. The dignitary is an archetypal Updike figure — conservative, rueful, inconsolable.  

His whole adult life had been spent in the realm of the immaterial — speaking, thinking, performing, conferring, making impressions on men’s minds. His childhood acquaintance with matter and its earthly principles had been perfunctory and not pleasant enough to prolong. He had yearned for a life free of dirt and calluses, and his success was measured by how much time he now spent on aeroplanes. Only in aeroplanes, above the clouds, going somewhere at someone else’s expense, did he feel fully himself — impervious, clean, transient, a lord of thin air.

The title foisted on this collection is jarring. Christopher Carduff, who is in other respects an excellent editor, enthuses that because Updike once used the phrase ‘gossip of a higher sort’ to describe successful book and art reviewing, ‘the ideal reviewer’ is a ‘privileged insider’ who can dish ‘the dirt’ and murmur ‘juicy cultural news’ because he ‘got to the party early …  read the book in uncorrected galleys or saw the exhibition as the last wall label was going up’.  This seems a snobbish notion of reviewing, as if discriminating taste is the preserve of the edgy, posturing creatures with privileged access to the roped-off VIP section of nightclubs. It also gives a mean-spirited basis to criticism. Gossip suggests malice, scandal-mongering, inferring the worst motives. Yet the pieces collected by Carduff are united by Updike’s generosity: he was a protective, courteous reviewer whose cadences were those of a man who devoutly believed in goodness.  

In a piece listing his personal rules of book reviewing (reprinted by Carduff), Updike wrote: ‘If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure.  Sure it’s his and not yours?’ This is not the way of the gossip, who deals in resentments, degradation, proscription and blackballing. Instead, ‘try to understand what the author wished to do’, Updike advised; ‘better to praise and share than blame and ban’.  

Updike endured only two years of Manhattan literary life before fleeing from a milieu that seemed to him envious and viperish. He found refuge in a coastal town lying in a marshy area of Massachusetts: the essay with which he commemorates Ipswich is one of the jewels of this volume, and the antithesis of ugly, gossipy backbiting:

Ipswich has long been alive for us with people we know, people who, my impression is, distinctly lack the personal smallness associated with small towns. Perhaps the great Puritan beginning, or the proximity of that master ironist the sea, keeps them alert and open and ikind. Big enough to be yourself in, yet so small political enemies must link hands in a Greek dance-line.

Despite its misnomer of a title, Higher Gossip is alert and open and kind.

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