Saturday, September 27, 2014

John Updike, Olinger Stories

Remember when our recurring nemesis William Deresiewicz wrote this stunning review of a new Updike biography that was so lovely that it compelled us to go read Updike immediately although we never had the slightest interest in him before? Well, we did that, while still dangerously under the influence of our recent reading of Cheever, and found that Deresiewicz was right, the stories are wonderful. The bait in Deresiewicz's review was the promise that Updike would contribute to the vindication of my desire to find something valuable in nostalgia, which all right-thinking people treat as a low-minded self-delusion but which I can't figure out how to understand my life without:
Updike’s nostalgia is not for a specific historical moment; it is the ubiquitous modern ache for time past, and in particular, for youth. We applaud it when it comes to us in cultured Continental form (when the odor is of madeleines and tea), but less so, for some reason, here...Atheism, alienation, and angst; elitism and cosmopolitanism; aesthetic 
austerity and experimentalism; political and spiritual extremism: these were not for him. Updike’s life and work are testaments to the idea that mid-American values, beliefs, and sensibilities are adequate to address and interpret modern experience. 
This is pretty much the sum of the middle-brow conviction that I don't know how any amount of education, travel, reading, or haranguing from the sophisticated will flush out of me. But, admittedly, it's hard to reconcile this conviction with the small-scale misery of the homely but thwarted aspirations and the dread of death despite the smallness of life experienced by nearly everyone who actually lives this way. So you can either reject all that bourgeois nonsense in the blind hope that the unknown is better, or you can try to dignify these small sufferings, to make the mundane momentous by recording it. Updike is aggressively concerned with this kind of sanctification.

One of the stories, "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island," calls this approach to sanctification through precise description "the evocation of days." Deresiewicz points to "Pigeon Feathers" to show that Updike takes writing to be an imitation of God's creation (and destruction). There, the narrator is reassured of his immortality when he examines the bodies of the pigeons he has shot, concluding that "the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let 
David live forever." In "The Blessed Man of Boston," the narrator is even more explicit about what he's doing: "O Lord, bless these poor paragraphs, that would do in their vile ignorance Your work of resurrection."

There is a lot that is reminiscent of Cheever in the Olinger Stories, but the foundation of Updike's idea of fleeting middle-brow happiness seems to be Christian faith rather than, as for Cheever, marriage:
"We would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins. We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm." 
What a thoroughgoing piece of Protestantism that is - pleading for grace through self-abnegation - but for the anachronistic invocation of the novelist, this would fit comfortably into the rhetoric of the sixteenth century. We are worthless nothings who make no more impression on the world than a trail of snail shit in the dirt, our lives are a storm which we lack even the capacity to fully understand. All we have is the paltry power to recount a "few flakes" of our experience. But for all that melodramatic cringing, Updike's faith is much like Cheever's marriage - a flexible thing, subject to frequent assault and deformation, just as long as, in the end, it's not surrendered. You can cheat on your wife in Cheever, or renounce Jesus in Updike, but if you divorce or deny the possibility of immortality, well then civilization is lost.

But Updike seems to write mainly for the sake of the "evocation of days," and rarely gets so shrill about things. His similes are inventive, often because they pick up such mundane domestic experiences that you'd never remember them but for these promptings, as when a character described trying to comfort himself lying in bed at night "with the caress of headlights as they evolved from bright slits on the wall into parabolically accelerating fans on the ceiling and then vanished." A minute observation of childhood fixations. Nostalgia as simply an account of time passing in small lives can be funny too. This is one character's first effort to kiss a girl: "It was as if I had been given a face to eat, and the presence of bone - skull under skin, teeth behind lips - impeded me."

It's a mode of writing that's delightful while it lasts but can get tiresome pretty easily, when it becomes so much about making unexpected observations that plot is forgotten, or everything becomes indiscriminately significant in a desperate bid to record every last detail of living. Or maybe when Updike just gets too obsessed with adulterous sex to be any longer interesting, as even Deresiewicz's review, which emphasizes the early stories, suggests will happen. I suppose I'll find out about that in the next volume.


Flavia said...

Wait, who says nostalgia is a "low-minded self-delusion"? It's part of the human condition, is it not--the expulsion from the garden, the loss of childhood innocence, and all that? (One's political opponents may disagree about which past is worth mourning, to be sure, but I think some that nostalgia in some form is nearly universal.)

Or perhaps I'm just one of the self-deluded.

Andrew Stevens said...

Updike also wrote what is almost certainly the greatest essay about baseball ever written.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, about Ted Williams's final game at Fenway Park.

Miss Self-Important said...

Flavia: The anti-nostalgists have a point. Nostalgia distorts the past, a tendency pretty well encapsulated by the geezer platitude, "Things were so much simpler back then." WE may have been simpler back then, being children, but probably "things" were not. (Childhood innocence, sayeth Phillipe Aries, is a pretty recent invention. But Eden is a bit older.)

Kundera ties nostalgia to kitsch, which he in turn ties to TOTALITARIANISM. Can it get worse than that? But I'm not sure about that, b/c the most backward-looking political regime I can think of is not any 20th C. totalitarianism but rather Rome. And for Romans, it was not quite that the past was easier or less complex, but that it was more AWESOME, and full of greater men, compared to whom all current Romans are mice. The past was more difficult than the present and that was its pull.

But in private life, the main source of distortion is that nostalgia is an effort to invest your life with significance that it doesn't necessarily have. So the day you shot the pigeons in the barn when you were 14 and regained your faith in God becomes a decisive turning point in the development of you, as you see it. But maybe it wasn't and you only think so now, but no one else is as intensely interested in the development of you as you to bother finding out. You can re-narrate yourself infinitely, improving yourself with each iteration, and never get closer to the truth of things.

All that said, I still do it, because my life can't be made to seem insignificant to me.

Miss Self-Important said...

Andrew Stevens: If Deresiewicz had directed me to this essay instead, I would never have gotten past the second paragraph. This perhaps demonstrates the virtue of being an all-around writer, on many subjects.

Andrew Stevens said...

There is some "inside baseball" stuff in it, but most of it is an overview of Ted Williams's difficult and contentious relationship with the Boston press and fans which I think is worth reading even if one isn't a baseball fan.

Anyway, Williams hits a home run in his final at-bat (and then sits out the team's final road games in Yankee Stadium to make it the final at-bat of his career). The great paragraph is:

"Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs - hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted 'We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."