John Updike’s literary stock, amazingly, fluctuates up and down. He was our disguised, suburban Henry Miller. He wasn’t interested in becoming a persona in his work, but he opened up the eroticism of the 60s and 70s. Some critics and writers rate him below his peers, usually citing his lack of angst, the jewel-like prose, and the ease with which his massive body of 26 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction flowed from his pen. His fictional landscape has no peer, covering as it does detailed reports of American, white middle-class consciousness. His public persona and mild manners were camouflage for a deeply romantic, sexually aroused soul, which Adam Begley captures in a new biography, Updike. Also, here’s an interview with Begley, whose book has received tremendous reviews. I can’t wait for a volume of Updike letters. Updike clearly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but, alas, for many people in the literary game it takes decades to see the true meaning of a writer’s work. Unfortunately, he, Mailer and Roth were not honoured, but their work, along with Bellow’s, will stand with the books of the earlier American greats: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald… The last century of American literature overflowed with great writers who showed us America.
Begley is good on Updike’s prose style: “Aside from his enormous talents and Protestant work ethic, Updike’s defining characteristic is his signature style, which he owes to his desire to be a graphic artist, and to his stunningly visual memory. Like Proust, like Nabokov and like Henry Green, all of whom influenced him, Updike wrote sentences that work through the precise meeting of visual detail and verbal accuracy.”
See also this essential review of Begley’s biography, and Updike’s persona, by Louis Menand in The New Yorker here.
“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.
“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fisherman in western Montana, where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
—A River Runs Through It
Philip Roth may be enjoying his days more now, since it’s going on five years since he said he had decided to still his pen as a novelist. But that doesn’t mean he’s not still making literature, this time in the form of a literary interview conducted by a Swedish journalist, which has just appeared in The New York Times Book Review.
The interview sheds light on his own work and his methods, and also the current golden age of American novels. He spins off a list of American novelists, a paean to the uniqueness of American literature that captures as it does the modern and the universal world, writ large through America’s novelists’ eyes. Even in the face of America’s overpowering popular culture, he says, literature lives:
“What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?”
I haven’t returned to posting anything lately because I’m still rewriting my travel book, after helpful advice from several friends. However, to break the grind of copyediting, rewriting and adding new material, I’ve been reading again and before long I’ll catch up on my Bedside Books post.
Lately, between daily bouts with the travel book, I’ve read There and Then by James Salter, a classy travel book by a beautiful writer who I hadn’t read before. I was attracted to his writing by a review of All That Is, his latest novel. I ordered his autobiography, Burning the Days, which I’m reading now.
In the unread stack of books are Love Songs from the Grave, the ninth in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri crime series set in Laos, and The Great Leader by Jim Harrison.
The Shorter Science and Civilization of China: 1 by Ronan and Needham: This is the condensed version of Needham’s classic history of China, starting at the beginning and focusing on the foundations of China’s developing religions.
Needham is a story in himself. Wikipedia says: “Under the Royal Society‘s direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946. During this time he made several long journeys through war-torn China and many smaller ones, visiting scientific and educational establishments and obtaining for them much needed supplies. His longest trip ended in far west in Xinjiang at the caves in Dunhuang at the end of the Great Wall where the first printed copy of the Diamond Sutra was found. The other long trip reached Fuzhou on the east coast, returning across the Xiang River just two days before the Japanese blew up the bridge at Hengyang and cut off that part of China. In 1944 he visited Yunnan in an attempt to reach the Burmese border. Everywhere he went he purchased and was given old historical and scientific books, which he shipped back to England through diplomatic channels and were to form the foundation of his later research. He got to know Zhou Enlai and met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuoren, and the meteorologist Zhu Kezhen who later sent crates of books to him in Cambridge, including the 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopedia, a comprehensive record of China’s past.” The personal side: he remained married to his wife but had a Chinese “second wife” who lived on the same road in Cambridge as his wife for decades, with her knowledge, and whom he married after the death of his wife.
The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder: I’m now a dedicated Thornton Wilder fan. This historical novel is an imaginative recreation of the period before Caesar’s assassination told through the eyes of Caesar, his rivals, Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, conniving aristocratic women, famous actresses, Anthony and others. Wilder was a lifelong student of Classical Rome, and he inhabits the voices of his characters, weaving their stories, letters, diary entries and experiences together to recreate the life of Rome as effectively as we’re ever likely to experience it. I ordered his two other novels of the period, The Cabbala, and The Woman of Andros, plus his selected letters. A nice side story: Wilder spent a year and half in Douglas, Arizona, living anonymously, savoring the life of the local people, especially the nightlife and bar crowd that would cross the border to Agua Prieta at closing hour to continue the fun. It was a roisterous version of Our Town.
The Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson: His first novel, written at age 22, but delayed publication until not long before his suicide, is a revealing look at the well-spring of his talent. The novel is a solid piece of work and depending on the extent of later revision, a mystery as to why it wasn’t published earlier. Had it been published earlier, it might have done what he predicted at the time in a letter to a friend: it would, “in a twisted way,” do for the Caribbean what The Sun Also Rises did for Europe. Paul Kemp, age 35, is a vagabond journalist looking for a place to settle in, who sees the odd assortment of journalist has beens at the Puerto Rican newspaper that’s hired him sight unseen as what he secretly feared: a near crazy house mirroring the pretense, posing and fakery in the island’s culture at large. But, he can do his own good work anywhere, and he finds the odd misfits help keep his interests alive. A love triangle is handled realistically. The writing shows off his exuberant, tabloid-comic book adjectives, and his later trademark joy in exaggeration, satire and humor leavened by sharply outlined characters and scenes with a relentless pace.
The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane: This is vintage McGuane essays on fishing, while framing his well-known descriptive talents. His personal and family life slowly unfold as the essays pile up, revealing a man at a slight remove from his children, who see his obsessions to know and to master his various interests with risible disinterest. If McGuane has a religion, it’s fishing and horses. He invests his fishing quest (South America, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Michigan, Montana and other locales) with all the hyper-sensory mystery surrounding Nature and the self, especially the mandatory attainment of accepting the outcome – win, lose or draw. It’s fishing as a source of the sublime, the unexpected, the inability to know anything concrete or take away anything that gives anyone an edge during the next roll of the dice. Nothing to take away to use again, except the relish to continue the quest and savor the experience. That’s a lot.
Some Horses by Thomas McGuane: I followed up with more essays by McGuane on his other passion: horses and competitive quarter horse roping. He says some years he won more prize money at roping competitions than he earned through his novels. His essay on Buster Welch, a West Texas quarter horse trainer, is worth the price of admission. The kernel of McGuane’s talent has always rested on his untouchable American traits.
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: This is the best description of old age I’ve ever read. It could as well be called The Old Friends. Really brilliant. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Martin Amis’s father. Wonderful dialogue and roguishness, with women characters fully the equal of his men characters. In fact, compared to the women, the men remain rather vague, except for Alun Weaver, an ex-TV celebrity who’s retired and become a professional Welshman eager to rejoin a group of old chums soaked in afternoon cocktails and sodden binges. His wife, Rhiannon, is the strongest – and most mysterious – character in the book. Death hangs over it all. Kingsley understands how to let the mask of humor slip to reveal desperate pathos, but life goes on thanks to the guise of British manners. The book celebrates the wear and the endurance that long friendships demand, and as death encircles everyone, why a momentary solace counts for all.
Nobody Move & Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson – Both of the men in these two novels are specialties of Johnson: flawed souls who could fall apart in uncountable ways because their lives have been lived on the other side of normal sensibility for too long. In Nobody Move, a darker than dark crime noir, Jimmy Luntz discovers he can pull the trigger – kill people. He’s taken up by Anita, “another class of person,” a woman way too good for him, a rare beauty, an American Indian who has entered the world of the “other” people. That means both us and a world we can’t see, but she can. She has stunning beauty masking strength, a real aphrodisiac. She talks to spirits. She is braver than brave. She sees into Jimmy’s soul and figures what the hell, he’ll keep her alive for a while longer or die trying. This is Johnson in a stripped down prose, non-stop action, real suspense, everything – as always in his writing – charged and alive. There couldn’t be a better dark jaunt with two desperate, fascinating losers. Real fear – or is it empathy – arose when I read this tale. Of course, you want to rescue Anita, you don’t want her to go away, but…this is crime noir in spades. Good stuff involving bikers and people who collect money for gamblers and loan sharks and drug dealers. Oh, yes, Luntz sings in a Barbershop Chorus. It’s set around Bakersfield, California, and the Feather River – need I say more. Ok, more…at the end, we’re not sure if Anita dies. They might reunite, but they’ve been, as some say, through a grinder turned by some very bad people.
In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Leonard English drives into Provincetown on Cape Cod to start a job as a radio disk jockey and private detective with no experience in either. Men on the street are wearing skirts. He falls for Leanna, a beautiful gay woman he’s assigned to follow, and she’s attracted by his deep communion with God, or what God might radiate if He wanted to bring people to his side, as Lenny might say. Lenny has saintly, apocalyptic visions in which the entire world is charged with God’s spirit, which ultimately leads him to shoot the hat off the local Catholic bishop, or so he imagines. This is Johnson loading up the deck with opposing symbols: sexuality, faith, love and reality. In another life, Leonard must have followed Moses into the desert and enjoyed every minute of it. Normal life in other words is sorely lacking all around, a big disappointment if God is real. He can’t decide. Why all the waiting around? To survive, Leonard has focused his attention on attention itself, and he’s wired into everything around him save for the ability to live a normal life. Again, this is a type of character that Johnson can do better than anyone. At some point, Johnson discovered that he could write about the feelings of consciousness, not the normal feelings consciousness produces but the feeling of feelings themselves. Hard to explain, but I’ve often felt drunk or stoned when reading Johnson as he gets into the mind of these type of people, and I guess that’s the highest tribute I could pay him (no pun there, right?). I’m included in a place few writers can create. I’m not sure if it erases literature and exposes life or if life is erased exposing the power of words. Johnson’s ability to handle people who experience spiritual feelings reminds me of Norman Mailer, another writer who treated spirituality and God with real seriousness. I’ve also just finished On God, a conversation with Mailer with promptings by J. Michael Lennon. It would have been something to have brought Mailer and Johnson together to talk about some of these matters and how they can play out in people’s lives. Mailer was a Manichean gnostic; Johnson, I think, is probably religious in the sense that he is drawn to the mystery, or else he’s in deep as a practicing born-again Christian. Both men shun religion in the hands of institutions, as well-intentioned as some of them are, but we know from history many have not been well-intentioned as they went forward. Mailer speaks revealingly of the role of ceremony. Johnson has pegged the disturbed fringes, and the loners, as where the most inspired God-seekers reside. That reminds me of Updike’s Lillies of the Field, which has a wonderful section on people who ban together in search of God, as in Waco, Texas, many years ago, one of a long list of apocalyptic callings.
The English Major by Jim Harrison – Back to Jim Harrison again, and in this novel he’s on a roving romp. The character Cliff (as in fallen off) is who Denis Johnson’s flawed lost souls would be if they could get a ticket to a normal life. Cliff gets by. A normal guy, not brilliant, but smarter than most, not full of himself because he’s had too much of a normal life, lacking in a wide range of experiences which he’s now ready to rectify because he finds himself recently divorced and free to wither away or flourish at 60 years old. Is it too old to live out some fantasies? No way…he’s soon driving across America with a former high school student he taught some 20 years ago. His ambition is to travel to all the states and to rename them and their state bird. It’s a grand, large project and Cliff carries it off with aplomb while Harrison drops his perennial wisdom gems for over preened souls: get out of your chair, eat something different, roll the dice of life and double down till you win or understand something valuable. Harrison has perfected a style that rests partially on his non-stop ability to unfurl the discursive in-the-moment workings of Cliff’s mind. Cliff, it turns out, has been selling himself too cheap, and there’s a glimmer toward the end that at 60 he still has something to offer younger, attractive women, but that intimation is left as is, and he rolls back to where he started in life, into his mother and grandmother’s abandoned home, an adventure ended that has shown him he’s ready to knock on new doors, and he’s not nearly the same person as when he set out. Being on the road is a good thing indeed.
Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino – We leave the Roman consuls and dictators behind in this wonderful book of daily life in the Roman Republic in the second century A.D. This is a type of history that we need more of, as my friend Red Pine says, taking us to the places where significant things occurred. It’s one thing to read about the exploits of the grand names of Roman history and quite another to read about the non-exploits of the nameless in history, where most history really takes place. To read the story of Rome’s evolution as a city, the nature of its streets, its apartments, its shops, its public baths, the theater, the public forums, the nature of education, prostitution, marriage, sexuality, religion, the morning routine after awakening, breakfasts and the evening meals, the nature of clothing, the look of the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, it all adds up to create a living backdrop where the betrayals and bravery of the Roman elite are played out. It brings far away quite close.
Here are some links to recent things by or about Martin Amis. The first is an Amis website that is more or less authoritative and comprehensive, and can be found here. The second is an article Amis wrote about the Republican Party candidates out hustling for votes, which can be found here. The third is a Wall Street Journal article that’s a nice look at his marriage to Isabel Fonseca, and contains her description of Amis’ personality, found here. Last is the most recent glimpse of him at the Jaipur Literary Festival in India, located here. He’s jet lagged, but as always his observations wake you up. I haven’t looked at the website thoroughly yet, but apparently he’s moved his family to Brooklyn.
“Style is not neutral, it gives moral direction.” – Martin Amis