Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0008960, Mon, 24 Nov 2003 11:45:27 -0800

Fw: As a stylist, Updike is very close to Nabokov ...

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From: Sandy P. Klein
Sent: Monday, November 24, 2003 6:33 AM
Subject: As a stylist, Updike is very close to Nabokov ...


November 24, 2003 | home

The virtuosity of John Updike.
Issue of 2003-12-01
Posted 2003-11-24
I am not one who golfs. The only time I tried it I was confident that a dozen balls would be an adequate supply. This is the sport of retired people: how hard could it be? The confidence was misplaced, also, one by one, the balls, and I had to quit somewhere around the seventh hole. On the sixth, actually, I hit a car≈there was absolutely no reason for a highway to be that close to a golf course≈but that▓s another story. The point is that the game did not yield up its mystery to me; I remain, in the golfing universe, a child of darkness. I do find that I am able to watch golf on television, however, where it is possible to experience a serenity that the game itself sadly lacks. Spread out on a couch and indifferent to the outcome (very important), you watch tiny white orbs sail improbable distances over the biggest lawns in the world, interrupted occasionally by advertisements for expensive cars. One of the players is named Tiger. Another is named Love. If you have access to a pitcher of Martinis (optional), the bliss potential can be quite huge.

There is usually a price for pleasure so mindless. In the case of TV golf, it is listening to the commentators analyze the players▓ swings. What looks to you like a single, continuous, and not difficult act is revealed, via slow motion and a sort of virtual-chalkboard graphics, to be a sequence of intricately calibrated adjustments of shoulder to hip, head to arm, elbow to wrist, and so on. Where you see fluidity, the experts see geometry; what to you is nature is machinery to them≈parallel lines, extended planes, points of impact. They murder to dissect. Yet, apparently, these minute and individualized calibrations make all the difference between being able reliably to land a golf ball in an area, three hundred yards away, the size of a bathmat and, say, randomly hitting a car, which, let▓s face it, only a fool would drive right next to a golf course. There is a major disproportion, in other words, between the straightforwardness of the game≈hit the ball, trudge after it, hit it again, until it ends up in a hole in the ground, a fitting activity, possibly too fitting, for retirement≈and the fantastic precision required to play it, a disproportion mastered by a difficult but, to the ordinary observer, almost invisible technique.

Short stories are the same. A short story is not as restrictive as a sonnet, but, of all the literary forms, it is possibly the most single-minded. Its aim, as it was identified by the modern genre▓s first theorist, Edgar Allan Poe, is to create ⌠an effect■≈by which Poe meant something almost physical, like a sensation or (the term is appropriate, since Poe▓s reputation was always greater in France than in his own country) a frisson. Every word in a story, Poe said, is in the service of this effect. It▓s all about (and after this we will bury the analogy) getting the ball in the hole with the fewest strokes possible. Sometimes the fewest can be a lot, but at the end there has to be the literary equivalent of the magician▓s puff of smoke, an outcome that is both startling and anticipated. The reader of a story expects an effect, and expects to be surprised by it, too. If you try to name the sensations that stories deliver, you find yourself with the sort of terms that (if you were a college teacher) you would write ⌠vague■ or ⌠ugh■ next to when you saw them in a paper: a pang, a shiver, a mental click, or what you might call (if you were a college student) a general sense of ⌠Whoa.■Whoa is not exactly a term of art. You know it when you feel it, though.

The difficulty of putting into words the effect a story produces is part of the point. The story is words; the effect is wordless, or, at best, whoa. James Joyce called the effect an ⌠epiphany,■ a term whose theological connotations have led, over the years, to a lot of critical misunderstanding. What Joyce meant by an epiphany was, he said, just ⌠a revelation of the whatness of a thing■≈a sudden apprehension of the way the world unmediatedly is. Language being one of the principal means by which the world is mediated, the epiphany is an experience beyond (or after, or without) words. ⌠Snow was general all over Ireland.■ The sentence is as banal and literal as a weather report. (In fact, in the story it is a weather report.) But if ⌠The Dead■ works, then that sentence, when it comes, triggers the exact shiver of recognition that Joyce wants you to have.

"The Early Stories■ (Knopf; $35) is a collection of all but four of the short stories that John Updike wrote between 1953, when he was twenty-one, and 1975. Most were published in The New Yorker. The four missing pieces, according to the author▓s foreword, are two stories already collected in the recent volume ⌠Golf Dreams■ (it▓s not clear why that should be a reason for exclusion, since every other story has appeared in a book before, too) and two that Updike says seem ⌠topical■ and ⌠dated■ (again, a somewhat arbitrary application of principle). There is one Henry Bech story, ⌠The Bulgarian Poetess■; it is included, Updike explains, because it was written before he had it in mind to make a book of Bech stories. This crowd management nets out at a hundred and three stories, which is a remarkable number considering that there are still twenty-eight years, and counting, to go. Ernest Hemingway published sixty-nine stories in his entire career.

Reading the stories straight through reveals a striking thing, which is that you can read the stories straight through. They present themselves (with some exceptions, mostly experimental or whimsical, which are bundled into a separate section headed ⌠Far Out■) as a shadow autobiography. The names of the characters change, of course, and the circumstances vary, but if you read the volume as a single narrative, which is the way it has been arranged, you find that it follows the experiences of a man who spends his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania, goes off to Harvard, studies in England, marries while still a young man, moves to New York City and then to a town north of Boston, has several children, and, after twenty years of marriage, gets divorced≈a man whose path through that chunk of the twentieth century is a lot like John Updike▓s.

Is the inner life the same? Not for us to say. The boy, youth, unmarried man, husband, father, and divorcИ of the stories (there is one, terrific story, called ⌠Killing,■ written from a woman▓s point of view) is, typically, someone who stands in a subtly, almost imperceptibly askew relation to the normal≈someone who believes in the normal, who wants to believe in the normal and aspires to nothing more, but who always seems one size too small or too large for the fit. This person is thoughtful and well educated, although (unlike his creator) he is never a prodigy. He is not smarter than everyone else≈that is not his problem. His tastes do not deviate from everyone else▓s tastes. He smokes; he enjoys a drink; he has an eye for conventionally pretty women; he is uxorious even with his mistresses; he loves his kids. He is a liberal whom sixties liberalism makes grouchy, partly because he thinks that sixties liberals take themselves too seriously, but mostly because he is grateful for the amenities of American middle-class life and doesn▓t understand why it is fashionable to tear that life down. (⌠America,■ as the narrator of one of these stories explains, ⌠is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.■) What makes him different, what accounts for the persistent askewness, is really just one thing, which is that he is haunted by death.

It▓s a haunted genre. Goosebumps was undoubtedly one of the effects that Poe had in mind when he wrote about how stories work, and, far from being a debased or merely popular kind of story, the ghost story is almost the paradigm of the form. Many of the great story writers in English, besides Poe, wrote ghost stories. Some of these≈Henry James▓s ⌠The Jolly Corner,■ Rudyard Kipling▓s ⌠The Phantom Rickshaw■≈are literally stories about ghosts or ghostly things. But many famous stories≈⌠The Beast in the Jungle,■ ⌠Mary Postgate,■ ⌠The Secret Sharer■≈are stories of haunting. ⌠The Dead■ is a story about a haunting, by the ghost of Michael Furey. The supernatural lurks around the form. The stories of O. Henry and H. H. Munro, even more popular, probably, than ghost stories, are essentially whoa effects produced by the suggestion of the operation of some sort of supernatural agent. J. D. Salinger was by no means above confecting this sort of thrill: he does it with the empty swimming pool in ⌠Teddy.■

For the most part, of course, the contemporary story keeps the supernatural safely concealed below the floorboards. But this only makes the obsession with death more evocative, since death now appears as simple annihilation, pure absence. The petty form (so to speak) of death in stories is tied up with the emotions of loss and nostalgia. Updike is a master of these moods. One of his best-known stories is called ⌠The Happiest I▓ve Been,■ written in 1958. (It was in a volume, published in 1964 but long out of print, called ⌠Olinger Stories,■ all of which were based on Updike▓s Pennsylvania years. These eleven stories belong with Updike▓s finest work; they are classics, and Updike himself says that one reason for collecting ⌠The Early Stories■ was to have them together in print again.) ⌠The Happiest I▓ve Been■ is a longish (for Updike) story about a young man who goes to a party the night he is leaving his home town and driving to Chicago to meet the woman he expects to marry. The ⌠happiest■ moment is the moment, after the party, when he gets on the highway, at dawn, and sets off for Chicago. The tug (ugh! better term!) comes with the realization that he is describing these events years later≈that is, after his reunion with the woman he was planning to marry.

The grand form of death in stories has to do with Joyce▓s notion of ⌠the whatness of a thing.■ It is reflected in the kind of flatness or coldness that you find in the stories of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Another way to describe the apprehension of the whatness of a thing is to say that it is a realization of what the world would look like if you were dead. Consciousness is an interminable yakking, a frantic effort to keep up appearances, to make the game seem always to be your game. If the yakking suddenly stopped, if you were, from that point of view, dead, then the world would appear without aura and without affect≈a clattering movie projector, a machine for churning out illusions. Hemingway▓s ⌠The Big Two-Hearted River■ is a story about the fear of this happening. So is Updike▓s ⌠Pigeon Feathers■ (1960), in which a boy sets out to exterminate the pigeons in the family barn.

Updike has another great story in this mode, called ⌠Transaction■ (1973). ⌠Transaction■ is not a New Yorker story; it made its first appearance in Oui, a now defunct organ of the old Playboy Weltanschauung. The reason is that it recounts, in every detail, a man▓s evening with a prostitute. It▓s an oddity that Updike has spent his career as a writer for The New Yorker, a magazine long notable for its prudery, since carnality is as great a theme for him as it is for Norman Mailer or Philip Roth. William Shawn is supposed to have rejected ⌠Goodbye, Columbus■ because it includes a reference to a diaphragm. He would not have needed to get very far into ⌠Transaction■ to reach an editorial judgment. In the story, the man and the woman, after a few false starts≈he has had too much to drink≈consummate, earnestly, gratefully, but joylessly, their interlude, each element of which is carefully transcribed, down to the texture of the labia. There is a hint of affection between them when it is over, but the man is glad to see the prostitute go. She has left him, Updike says, a gift. ⌠What she had given him, delicately, was death. She had made sex finite.■ She has made him see sex as she sees it, from the outside, an act without aura, stripped to its corporal elements. Updike (needless to say) puts it more beautifully: ⌠Always, until now, it had been too much, bigger than all systems, an empyrean as absolute as those first boyish orgasms, when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss as dense as an ingot of gold. Now, at last, in the prime of life, he saw through it, into the spaces between the stars.■

In his foreword, Updike names some of the short-story writers he regards as influences. He says that his main debt≈he concedes that it might not be obvious≈is to Hemingway. It▓s not obvious, actually. Hemingway showed writers of Updike▓s generation what the story▓s possibilities were, and (having a highly professional view of the business) instructed them in a few rules of craft≈the importance of suppressing information, and the use of dialogue to convey significance, so that a conversation about a cat in the rain, for example, becomes the anatomy of a marriage. But Updike is more generous with description than Hemingway, and more generous, too, with commentary. He is not superstitious about pointing a moral: he doesn▓t think it will ruin the effect if he puts the upshot in a nutshell. One of his greatest stories, ⌠A & P■ (1960), about a kid working at a supermarket checkout counter when three girls wearing bathing suits walk in, ends with the words ⌠I felt how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in.■ Hemingway would probably not have given his character this thought, or would not have permitted him to express it. But it is the sentence≈in a story that somehow squeezes the whole pathos of Cold war life into a tiny, perfect anecdote≈that produces the click.

The god of New Yorker fiction when Updike arrived on the scene was Salinger, and a couple of the ⌠Early Stories■ are Salingeresque (though by no means imitations): ⌠Who Made Roses Yellow?■ (1956), ⌠His Finest Hour■ (also 1956). ⌠Friends from Philadelphia■ (1954), the first story The New Yorker bought, is the only one with a true O. Henry ending (though Updike says, in the foreword, that the ending owed something to Salinger). As a stylist, Updike is very close to Nabokov, whom he lists, along with half a dozen other writers, as someone he learned from, and with whom he shares an almost religious commitment to linguistic hyper-clarity. But the figure Updike is naggingly reminiscent of≈naggingly, because Updike is so American a writer that you feel he should spring from an exclusively American provenance≈is Joyce. The first story in the volume, ⌠You▓ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You■ (1960), is surely indebted to Joyce▓s ⌠Araby.■ ⌠Wife-Wooing■ (1960), practically a hymn to uxoriousness, begins with a recollection of Molly Bloom snapping her garter. But everywhere you find the eucharistic metaphor that was the heart of Joyce▓s aesthetics: mimesis as the transubstantiation of dead matter into spirit. ⌠Ulysses■ opens with a mock Mass, and the title story of Updike▓s collection ⌠The Music School■ (1966) is probably as explicit on the subject as a writer should allow himself to become. ⌠The world is the host,■ the narrator says; ⌠it must be chewed.■ Which is why normal life, if it could truly be entered into, without anxiety, would be enough, and why, since it never can be truly entered into without anxiety, we have these stories.

The earliest story in the collection, written in 1953 while Updike was a senior at Harvard, is called ⌠Ace in the Hole.■ The Ace of the title is a young guy who was once the star of the Olinger High basketball team, and is now working in a car lot and married to an unhappy wife with whom he has a fussy baby girl≈the ur-Rabbit. By 1953, Updike had set on its novelistic track the character whose story would occupy him for almost fifty years. Rabbit, like Updike, is one who golfs. There is a memorable scene in ⌠Rabbit, Run■ in which Rabbit plays a game of golf with the local Episcopalian minister. The game is an excuse for a conversation about Rabbit▓s reasons for abandoning his wife and child. Rabbit struggles to name the object of his transcendental itch, but the best he can come up with is ⌠it.■ The minister begins to ridicule him a little. Rabbit, annoyed, tees up and, to his surprise, hits a monster drive. The swing is perfect; the ball just keeps going and going down the fairway. He turns to the minister. ⌠That▓s it!■ he says. ⌠That▓s it.■ It is the expected unexpected.

Shortness, as it happens, is a salient feature of the short story. You do not lose yourself in a story the way you can in a novel; it▓s too short to put down and pick up later. It is therefore a field in which virtuosity can flourish, since attention to the writing is never far from the experience of reading. There is something beyond language, the story seems to say, but only language, only this language, can disclose it. Updike is a virtuoso, and ⌠The Early Stories■ is in one respect an enormous showroom of Updike sentences, with their lovely curves and shiny details. Updike doesn▓t describe only things; he is a brilliant describer of sound, too. Virtuosity can seem a distraction≈as when you find that you are thinking about how great the musician is instead of listening to the music. In stories, though, this is never a problem. The whole idea is to make language perform its own little supernatural act, which is to turn marks on a page into an emotion, an effect, an apparition of something that is not there, a ghost. You could say that the complexity of the machinery used to produce this is hidden beneath the surface of the writing, except that the writing is the machinery, just as sex is only bodies. The satisfaction comes from the creation of a feeling where there was no feeling, only words, or flesh, or golf balls. People like Updike, or Tiger Woods, make you aware, by what they do, that this satisfaction is possible in life, and that it can be as supreme a satisfaction as there is. They almost turn to us when it▓s done, as if to say, ⌠That▓s it.■


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