Books

book review

‘Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism’ by John Updike

In his introduction to “The Early Stories: 1953-1975’’ (2003), John Updike explained why it was a collection rather than a selection, excluding only a few of the many he had written: “Any story that makes it from the initial hurried scribbles into the haven of print possesses, in this writer’s eyes, a certain valor.’’ He must have felt just as strongly about his reviews and essays, since the roughly 500 pages of this posthumous volume, added to the six prose collections that preceded it, amount to nearly 5,000 pages deemed valorous enough to be retained within hard covers. Thanks to the labors of his wife, Martha Updike, and the expert editing of Christopher Carduff, the new book in its organization and disposition of items is fully in accord with previous ones. In a handsome introduction, Carduff rightly calls Updike the “ideal reviewer,’’ indeed “the preëminent literary journalist of our times.’’ As America’s man of letters, his fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews bear testimony to, also in Carduff’s words, “the light and order and color that he was born to bring.’’

As with the earlier volumes of prose pieces, “Higher Gossip’’ is divided into sections containing reviews, talks, and essays; introductions to some of his books; more words on golf; reminiscences of places; and writings about painters, exhibitions, and other art events. (The pieces make up a quarter of the book, even as the editor tells us some items have been held back to await a future volume with color plates.) For good measure, there are a couple of stories, and six poems, some written when he was hospitalized in Massachusetts General Hospital in the fall of 2008. Martin Amis, reviewing one of Updike’s previous collections, called him “a psychotic Santa of volubility.’’ But no psychosis is to be detected in these measured, erudite, and humorous writings that poured out of his word processor.

One of the last things published before he died was a short essay, “The Writer in Winter,’’ which appeared (where else?) in the AARP magazine. In it Updike reflects on what it is like to be an “old’’ writer with decades of print behind him. He notes that his early works remain his best-known and those to which later efforts are unfavorably compared. How ironic that “[a]mong the rivals besetting an aging writer is his younger, nimbler self, when he was the cocky new thing.’’ The situation would surely induce a wintry feeling, even though there remains the “irrational hope that the last book might be the best.’’ (He was at work on a new novel when he became fatally ill.) Another late piece, a review of Blake Bailey’s enormous biography of John Cheever, quotes its “stunningly anticlimactic’’ valedictory pages in which Bailey observes, correctly, that none of Cheever’s novels are now much read. Yet Updike calls Cheever (in an introduction to “Best American Short Stories of the Century’’) along with Flannery O’Connor, a master of the short story. These two very different writers were similar in that both “swiftly built their fictional castles right on the edge of the absurd.’’

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Imagining these writers building castles on the edge of the absurd, reminds us how vividly metaphorical is Updike’s critical writing. Two examples: “El Greco’s divine personages . . . are like movie stars, perfect and untouchable.’’ An overpopulated Van Gogh exhibit consists of “docile masses straggled in clotted lines, their noses almost grazing the minutely hatched and speckled art, through rooms housing more than one hundred drawings.’’ (Has anyone expressed so well the viewer discomfort in looking at art with lots of other people around you also looking?)

One of the earliest items in “Higher Gossip’’ is a talk, “Humor in Fiction,’’ delivered at a PEN conference in South Korea in 1970. After considering examples from Voltaire, Twain, and Evelyn Waugh, he concludes by praising the “evident style and tact and general wisdom and frequent seriousness’’ to be found in comic writers. Humor in fiction is not a separate genre to be anatomized, but draws its strength from the “gravity of actual life’’; it “coexists with the noblest qualities of imagination.’’ Updike the novelist, storywriter, and poet, has been insufficiently recognized for his superbly humorous sense of things, and in this respect his critical prose is every bit as informed with humor, whether describing the luxuries of a private golf club with “locker rooms scaled like the Baths of Caracalla,’’ or the Tasty Sandwich Shop in Harvard Square, an “escape hatch . . . whose exiguous triangular interior shape accommodated only a few hot-dog addicts at a time.’’ As a whole these varied pieces partake of the major aims of all art: to “sidestep mortality with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connection’’; to give, in the final words of the introduction to collected early stories, “the mundane its beautiful due.’’

William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is “On Poets and Poetry.’’