A recent review of More Matter in Private Eye snootily (and anonymously) gives John Updike the Cambridge backhand. “Entirely gratuitous,” it finds this 928-page compendium of reviews and casual pieces. Who wants to know, it asks, about “the best American stories of 15 years back” or “mediocre novels from 30 years ago”? Well, who-apart from this snoot-says that they are mediocre? But the tiresome reviewer witters on. “This is vanity publishing in the strictest sense of the term-a book that was published to flatter the author’s ego.” It is the sort of insolence which brings reviewing into disrepute and, as such, is the antithesis of any review by Updike.
Notoriously, the author of the Rabbit tetralogy, the delectable Bech stories and a compendium of superlative writing, is a kind reviewer. He shares the view of Anthony Burgess (also a victim of loftiness from below) that writing a book is a great toil underground and that to be smashed on the head afterwards-even with a cardboard shovel-is a rotten experience. Decent fellow writers should withhold such smashing.
Updike, poor thing, will never catch that tone of easy dismissal, the Lady Bracknell-ese, the flick in the face with a long glove and the dumb-smart incuriosity which makes our critical scene so clever and sterile. The reader of More Matter should settle instead for the ambling effect of a very powerful limousine in low gear. He will be presented with a writer’s reflections on a great mass of serious writing. Slipped into these reflections are big little judgments, for example when Updike gently pushes away a novel by Alain de Botton: “Why does psychology weary us when dressed in characters and incidents? It is a form of mechanistic diminishment… when what we seek, gropingly in fiction, is enlargement, a glorification of the furtive and secret and seemingly trivial, a valorisation of human experience.”
This could be taken as validation for Updike’s own novels, and the sympathy he shows towards his own creations. It is part of the man, novelist and critic. Updike is a conservative, but a tender one who can write with understanding about an unfashionable radical like Theodore Dreiser-whom he admires for a shared humanistic concern for actual people. But he is still a mildly insistent reproacher of style. Arundhati Roy is admired for her sheer scope: “a massive interlocking structure of fine, intensely felt details.” Updike the golfer pays a mighty compliment: “This is a first novel and it’s a Tiger Woods debut-Roy hits the long, socio-economic ball but is also exquisite in her short game.” But she can get into the rough or maybe the smooth: “The prose shuttling back and forth among its key images and phrases, rarely lets us forget that we are in the company of an artificer: Roy caresses her novel until it seems not merely well-wrought but overwrought.” Arch-modifiers such as “dinner-plate-eyed and slipperoily” and palindromic formations such as “Dark of Heartness tiptoed into the Heart of Darkness” put us squarely on a writer’s desk.
Updike as a critic has the gift of interest. His scope is continental-Joseph Brodsky, Sinclair Lewis, Arundhati Roy, HM the Queen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Camille Paglia, Graham Greene and Lana Turner. Updike is intelligently nostalgic. He is sufficiently independent of the arts community’s requirements to be able to field the latest buzz topic-then turn back to a film star of his childhood, or indeed a mediocre novel of 30 years ago, and write about it with affection.
Updike appreciates Camille Paglia’s courage-the Hell’s Angel breaking up the feminist workshop with assault-rifle prose. He responds sympathetically to Paglia’s exasperation at feminist resentment of maleness. She is right to speak up for real men, says Updike. “Paglia’s opinions are gruff and deliberately sensational, but not unreal. The roots of sexual attraction and excitement do go deeper than our codes of civilised behaviour. There is a tragic grandeur to the gulf between the sexes.”
But his objection to Paglia is one of nimiety, too muchness. “Her percussive style-one short sentence after another-eventually wearies the reader, her diction functions not so much to elicit the secrets of books as to hammer them into submission… The weary reader longs for the mercy of a qualification, a doubt, a hesitation; there is little sense, in her uncompanionable prose, of exploration occurring before our eyes, of tentative motions of thought reflected in a complex syntax.”
There is also a delightful cross-over from Updike the moviegoer and 1950s nostalgist, when he interrupts Paglia beating up Doris Day. “Paglia,” he says, “should get to know Doris Day-a renegade Catholic and no prig, and not even a natural blonde….” So often, assertions of popular taste demonstrate the pronouncer on-message to the generation. Updike doesn’t give a rap. His generation grew up watching I Love Lucy and The Pat Boone Show. Yet the adults of the 1950s grew up in a Gutenbergian universe where “literature was revered as it would not be again.” And Updike’s generation “was called silent, as if after all the vain murderous noise of recent history, this was a bad thing.” Updike is not silent. The reviews are the product not of vanity, but of inveterate involvement with books, films, art, politics, about which, unpontifically, he wants to talk-quietly. They are the record of the society and art of an age, left by one of that age’s two or three great writers. It beats drifting down the Cam in mid-sneer.