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Monday, December 14, 2009

John Updike: Confetti of Words

   John Updike 

John Updike—like Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the immortal wordsmith of India, who wrote 27 novels and numerous short stories and essays, presenting the commoner’s life almost with pathological accuracy, based on his encounters with life as a country-youth that provided him with the inspiration, ingredients and storylines for his lifelike characters in the uncomplicated rural family settings of the late 19th to early 20th century Bengali society, and died of cancer on 16th January 1938—drawing from his suburban American living experience, had authored 28 novels and published 14 collections of short stories, all centering around “the American small town, Protestant middle class” and nine volumes of poetry and countless reviews on the literary output during the second half of the 20th century, and died of cancer on January 27, 2009 at the age of 76, in Boston, US.

As Philip Roth observed, Updike was “our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer.” As he himself once said, as a novelist, he focused on making “narratives out of ordinary life by obscure and average Americans”, for “the writer must face that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is usually an escapist plot, that aesthetically the ordinary, the banal, is what you must deal with.” And that is what we see in his most popular novels: Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Rich and Rabbit at Rest, which chronicled the seismic changes taking place in the life of an average suburban American in the second half of the 20th century. These four novels are dubbed as ‘acts of preservation’, for they charter the course of one man’s life, Harry Angstrom, known as ‘Rabbit’ from his days as fleet loose-jointed high school basketball star: his job—car salesman, layoffs, business woes, falling status and accompanying frustrations; his marriage—the quarrels, caresses, recoils, bland and blind dances as of unwilling cell-mates; his affairs— love descending to a semi-prostitute followed by guilt, remorse, the pressure of a vague religion, morality, and running for cover, of course not knowing from what and for what; his minor triumphs—perhaps, more in an unseen world as is reflected by his questioning about “the thing behind everything” testifying his urge to believe in something beyond the crowded field; depression—dangerously overweight yet not being able to stop nibbling corn chips and macadamia nuts, near-death after a heart attack and finally death, all of which in essence makes him realize, “Funny, how what makes you move is so simple and the field you must move in is so crowded”—a reflection of the very changing soul of America, starting from 1950.

In his novels, Updike orchestrates the propensity of an average American of the 1960s for doubt and narcissism and self-immolation, the opposing claims of self and society—just as what Devdas of Sarat Chandra was confronted with, which of course he surmounts more by way of resigning to the societal system—by characterizing Harry Angstrom in such a style that he tends to compare his own fall with that of the waning power of America in the global context and his business woes with that of the national deficits, perhaps, to anchor himself in comfort amidst the ‘entropic process’ set in motion. In chronicling the four decades of middle class American life in his Rabbit novels, Updike gave ‘the mundane its beautiful due’ by simultaneously capturing the beauty of the ‘blue of the skies’ and ‘the mud puddles underfoot’, while expatiating and re-expatiating the themes of adultery and family relations in suburban America—of ‘compromised environment’ governed by ‘endless circumstantiality’— with extraordinary nuance and precision.

The most shocking revelation of the Rabbit quartet is: Updike’s theology. Indeed, in one of his essays, he remarked that Bath’s theology was the only thing that supported his life and that is what we encounter in Rabbit, Run when the Lutheran pastor Fritz Kruppenbach sternly chides Eccles, another minister: “Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at the seminary: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. …I don’t think that’s your job… In running back and forth, you run away from the duty given you by God, to make your faith powerful… When on Sunday morning, then, when you go out before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ, hot with Christ, on fire: burn them with the force of our belief…Anything else we can do and say anyone can do and say. …Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is devil’s work.”

Updike relentlessly explodes the American belief about the so-called male freedom as a mere myth. His heroes are shown as captives in the velvet gloves of women from cradle to grave. He “puts life together as a sophisticated oedipal knot in which a man is tied at both ends”—his men fear being in control and at the same time loathe to be suffocated and controlled. In one of his works, Marry Me, Updike, by making his hero say, “Men don’t like to make decisions”, “they want women or God to make them”—Fromm’s ‘escape from freedom’ syndrome: a possible search for emotional security amidst too much of an ‘individuation’— which his wife, of course, corrects saying, ‘some men’, gives more clarity to the psychological and ethical problems that middle-class people of the early 20th century America encountered in their day-to-day living. Indeed, we perceive more of it from what George Cladwell feels in the novel, The Centaur, “that in giving his life to others he entered a total freedom.”

Reading his Of the Farm that deals with a man’s nostalgia, his relationship to the family, his relationship with the earth, and his longings for the future and the conflict arising thereof, every Indian, particularly those hailing from country-side, are sure to strike a chord with Updike and his characters at once. The novel is all about the ‘past’ of a man threatening to imprison him in rigid definitions of his current relations with everything around—for instance, Robinson’s, the aged mother of Joey, the main character of the novel, trying to thrust the care of the farm to him to ensure its continuity within the family even after her death and the son’s disinclination to honor his mother’s wish, for he perceives it a potential threat to his relations with his just acquired second wife in Manhattan, while at the same time finding it extremely difficult to simply brush off his bond with the earth, the farm, for it evokes in him past relationships which tend to influence his present ones—this nostalgia about his past, his relationship with the land, and the resulting conflict among family members are as common to Indian families from which educated youth started migrating to urban locales, as are to Updike’s Joey, his mother Robinson, and his recently acquired second wife, Peggy, and her son Richard.

Equally important are his short stories. Though his stories are often about a sense of loss, they cannot be dismissed. In today’s world of crumbling ‘trust’ all around—particularly in the financial world, where everyone is scrambling to find an agency that is ‘Madoff-proof’ to trust one’s savings for creating more wealth for enabling them to lead a peaceful retired life—how refreshing it is to read Updike’s short stories, particularly, the story, The Happiest I’ve been that he wrote in 1959, which recounts the last night of a young man at home, about to return to the college from Christmas holidays. It is about the young man returning from a New Year’s party, during which a girl falls asleep on his shoulder, while another friend sleeps on the other side of seat. Now what constitutes the happiest moment for the young man is his expansive ‘feel’ for the landscape that he is in—the dawn, the safe drive over slick roads, and importantly, the two people sleeping at his side trusting their lives to him. The drive and all that is an ordinary event, yet Updike makes the trivial into a great story by rendering the details perfectly and sufficiently enough— the separation from the gnarled grandmother and aged parents and the commencement of journey from home (dependence), to college and the girlfriend in Chicago (independence), which indeed is the beginning of journey into one’s adult life— to make one feel that ‘being trusted’ is all that constitutes life’s stuff. And that is the maturity he creates in his characters as well as readers. Interestingly, Updike prefers to narrate the story in a retrospective style, perhaps to imbue the youthful past of the character with the wisdom of present, which incidentally reminds us of what Henri Bergson once said: “How many of our present pleasures, were we to examine them closely, would shrink into nothing more than memories of past ones!”

Updike, indeed, has an amazing sociologist’s eye for documenting every minute detail in the life of a suburban American, that too, in a remarkably precise but sensuous notation that evokes sublime emotions in a reader, as could be seen from these lines in the novel, Couples that gave him his first commercial success: “Foxy said, ‘We must get back’, truly sad. She was to experience this sadness many times, this chronic sadness of late Sunday afternoon, when couples had exhausted their game, basketball or beach going, or tennis, or touch football, and saw an evening weighing upon them, an evening without a game, an evening spent among flickering lamps and cranky children and leftover food and the nagging half-read newspaper with its weary portents and atrocities, an evening when marriages closed in upon themselves like flowers from which the sun is withdrawn, an evening giving like a smeared window on Monday and the long week when they must perform again their impersonations of working men, of stockbrokers and dentists and engineers, of mothers and housekeepers, of adults who are not the world’s guests but its hosts.” It is, perhaps, this unique ability of Updike for writing startlingly well-turned sentences on any aspect of America’s life that must have prompted Martin Amis to say: “As a literary journalist, John Updike has that single inestimable virtue: having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes.”

Besides fiction, Updike’s non-fiction leaves an indelible impression about the “author’s vast range in time, space, and discipline as a reader, and his capacity to understand, appreciate, discriminate, explain, and guide.” For over half a century, he wrote an amazing number of book reviews stretching over 5,000 pages. His reviews were generous, which does not mean that he pampered mediocrity, for he assessed the books from the perspective of the terms they set for themselves, and then evaluated how well they managed on those terms, besides assessing the adequacy and usefulness of the very terms. Reviewing his Picked Up Pieces, Martin Amis observed: “Updike’s view of 20th century literature is a leveling one. Talent, like life, should be available to all.”  

Updike’s tremendous love for his vocation—condensing memories, fantasies, and discoveries into dark marks on paper—had fetched him two Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Award, and National Medal of Arts. The death of such a conscientious writer has created a great void in the world of letters, but his works, as he longed for, are sure to become “a kind of confetti shower”, falling from bookstores and shelves of libraries across the globe upon the heads and shoulders of mankind for generations to come. 

- GRK Murty


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