I’ve always been an admirer of John Updike: an elegant writer and a perceptive and generous critic. This is his latest collection of essays and reviews and it’s a treasure trove. How does he do it? Such quantity and such quality. While you may encounter the arcane and the obscure you will never be bored – an amazing feat when you consider that a lot of these pieces were written to order. There is hardly a false note throughout, although I found the tribute to Tina Bown a bit mawkish – can she really be described as “personally unassuming”?
His subtle dissection of Colm Tobin’s The Master is a fine example of his skills. He gives Tobin credit for his fluent writing and for his research but asserts that the portrait painted is a blurred one – culled from the biographies. He takes Tobin to task for assuming that Henry James was a closet homsexual – there is a tendency for homosexuals in general to assume there’s more of it about than there actually is. Updike reckons that James was more asexual than homosexual – not uncommon amongst writers in those times (George Bernard Shaw springs to mind). He describes Tobin’s portrait of James as carved in soapstone – a less than oblique putdown.
In an essay entitled The Future of Faith he nails the vacuity of the Venice Biennalle in a couple of pithy paragraphs. He lists some of the ludicrous exhibits and decries its “abrasive irony and nihilism”. He bemoans a world where art is no longer “a physical work amenable to being housed and contemplated”.
His analysis of the poetry of Larkin is the best piece in the book for me. It’s a sympathetic and perceptive account that must send you back to the bitter sweet poetry. It’s also a swingeing rebuttal of the politically correct attacks on Larkin’s reputation by right on feminist critics such as the egregious Bonnie Greer.
He quotes a couple of contrasting (or complementary) bits of Larkin:
“the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” (Aubade)
“We should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time” (The Mower)
But the book is full of little treasures – ruminations on literature, sex (still a key Updike concern), art, sport and even a piece on poker.