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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Considerable Memories

John Updike and the world

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On page 10 of Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (Knopf), John Updike makes it clear that he’s reluctant to be “a subject of extended biographical treatment,” wherein “some callow inquisitor interprets his life.” At age 75, the elegantly reserved Pennsylvania Dutchman says that “a fiction writer’s life is his treasure, his ore, his savings account, his jungle gym.”

He avoids the biographical treatment trap by bringing us essays and criticism in one mighty tome. As a tour guide through 700-plus pages, he’s clearly in charge of journeys to China (where people seem so “happy”), with a stop in glorious Florence, Italy, to taste Pontormo’s “electric, fruity colors.”

Humble observations about the pennies of his childhood are as sharply penned as his terrific essay (“The Future of Faith”), expertly interwoven with a hilarious slog through the Venice Biennale, where he’s stunned by pavilions rife with photos taken by a chimpanzee and abstractions painted by trained elephants. Only the dullest reader will fail to see the impossibility of separating Homo sapiens from the milling herd.

Whether you agree with this stance or not, there’s charm in imagining all living things as part of a herd thundering forth in search of who knows what. Updike’s novels, essays and reviews (particularly his reviews in The New Yorker) have been part of my life for many years, possibly because our experiences are similar: a taste of sexy suburbia-fueled dry martinis, a peculiar fascination with cinema and the world of “art” and, as we grow ever older, a wondering about what it means to be ensnared in a specific American fabric, once so seamlessly velvety with an upwardly mobile middle-class, but now stretched and tattered and barely recognizable to aging eyes.

The author’s broad-ranging efforts remind me of sitting in a church pew (or a movie theater), waiting for answers to pour forth; however, as time narrows, the act of questioning matters far more than the answers. “As to the movies,” Updike observes, “who of my generation did not seek his inmost self within the glittering, surging world-picture that cinema presented to its rapt receivers in the semi-dark? What was worthwhile and true was somehow coded there, coded in Gary Cooper’s pale-eyed deadpan and Esther Williams’ underwater smile.” For serious students of writing, and the arts in general, the book includes depictions by Goya and Thurber, among others.

The author’s remembrance is set down in sturdy Dutch type on creamy paper, encased in a cover featuring him clad in an impeccable suit, with a flash of white cuff to match his hardearned thatch of white hair. Tilted slightly upward, his gaze, like his prose, both questions and duly considers the unanswerable.


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