Tag Archives: John Updike

The time-traveler’s tale: reading in 2011

“By and large, time moves with merciful slowness in the old-fashioned world of writing. … (T)he rhythms of readers are leisurely. They spread recommendations by word of mouth and ‘get around’ to titles and authors years after making a mental note of them. … A movie has a few weeks to find an audience, and television flits by in an hour, but books physically endure, in public and private libraries, for generations.”

John Updike, The Writer in Winter
Collected in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism, 2011

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Scatter contends that time is not an arrow: we all live in several pasts, several presents, even a few futures. At any moment, and in separate yet overlapping ways, we are old and young, conservative and radical, classical and modernist. We are ever-shifting texture, contradictions that forge ahead and loop back on ourselves. Crusty old children. Impetuous adults. Civilized wild creatures. Logical irrationalists. Mysteries, even to ourselves.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, "The Reader," ca. 1770-72. National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia CommonsIn that sense reading and writing may be the most human of the arts. They follow us, and sometimes lead us, into these bewilderments of emotion and thought – the places that may not make sense, but simply are. Books explain things, and smudge them up. They are private pleasures that draw us beyond ourselves. And they are time-travelers. They can be “new” to any given reader at any given time, sometimes even when that reader has experienced them before. O miracle divine!

This year, Updike’s notion of the “merciful slowness” of literature sets the table for my annual recap of my year’s readings. Considering the rivers of writing that flow into the great literary ocean in any given year, it’s a foolish quest. Yet I feel curiously compelled to undertake what amounts to a private reckoning in a public space. These books, all of which I read in 2011, engaged me. I believe in them, and like most readers in most times and places, I feel an urge to pass my enthusiasms on to someone else who might enjoy them just as much.

This is not a best-of-2011 listing. A few of the books were new last year. Several others have been kicking around for quite a while. In subject and style they sprawl all over the place, from classic animal fable to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the wonders of the Louvre and the woes of Henry Miller and Anais Nin. That sort of leaping-about is the way life actually works for most of us, and it’s the way I like it. The discipline of writing opens up the world. And it isn’t simply, or even primarily, about what’s new, although a steady flow of fresh energy is necessary to its continuing health. How can we understand the new without some familiarity with the old? Why would we want to try?

Continue reading The time-traveler’s tale: reading in 2011

Friday link: Discovering Updike country in verse

Today in Scatterville we’re taken with Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times of Tony Hoagland’s new book of poetry, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty.

tonyhoagland1For one thing, that’s just a terrific title, even better than the review’s zinger of a headline (based on a quoted poem set in a grocery store), The Free Verse Is in Aisle 3.

Mostly, though, we’re happy that Mr. Hoagland has a new collection on (or in) the market, and that Mr. Garner has so cheerfully brought it to our attention.

The review draws comparisons in Hoagland’s poems to Randall Jarrell, Frank O’Hara, Marianne Moore. And we love the way that Garner fixes not just Hoagland’s poetry but an entire school in the firmament, in the process defining both what Mr. Hoagland is as a poet and what he is not:

“On a superficial level Mr. Hoagland’s poems — he writes in an alert, caffeinated, lightly accented free verse — resemble those of many writers in what one is tempted to call the Amiable School of American Poets, a group for which Billy Collins serves as both prom king and starting point guard. But Mr. Hoagland’s verse is consistently, and crucially, bloodied by a sense of menace and by straight talk.”

That makes Hoagland, in the Scatter Book of Literary Comparison, akin to the great John Updike, poet (in prose and verse) of suburban middle class unsettling awareness. Something growls, softly, beneath the placid surface. Think of that as you read these excerpts, from a poem set at a wine-tasting, that Garner quotes from Hoagland’s 2003 collection What Narcissism Means to Me:

But where is the Cabernet of rent checks and asthma medication?
Where is the Burgundy of orthopedic shoes?
Where is the Chablis of skinned knees and jelly sandwiches?
with the aftertaste of cruel Little League coaches?
and the undertone of rusty stationwagon? …

When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension.
When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest.
But when a man is hurt, he makes himself an expert.
Then he stands there with a glass in his hand staring into nothing
as if he was forming an opinion.

Rabbit, rest: John Updike, 1932-2009


At least, we can wish so for John Updike, the creator of the vivid American everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who through several novels fell from the heights of high school basketball stardom into the cultural maelstrom of the 1960s and ’70s, tried the straight and narrow, made a fool of himself over women, became desperate, became rich, became old, and always, always, kept searching for … for what? For whatever it is we search for in this nervous, impatient nation of ours.

Today, at the early age of 76, Updike died from lung cancer in a Massachusetts hospice near his home.
A novelist, short-story writer, essayist and poet of prodigious output whose work was praised for its grace and humor and panned for all sorts of reasons, up to and including the purported clumsiness of his sex scenes (just last November Britain’s Literary Review magazine awarded him the Bad Sex in Fiction lifetime achievement award), Updike seemed an unlikely subject for the occasional exasperation and pettiness that his work attracted. Maybe it was because he and many of his characters were unapologetically middle class in their underpinnings — too high an aspiration for some of his critics, too low an aspiration for others. Mark Feeney, writing in today’s Boston Globe, quotes Updike: “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.”

To me, there was honor in that so-American attempt to create myth from the everyday and supposedly mundane,
as he did in his Rabbit novels and in such writings as his early novel The Centaur. Stylistically the two writers had almost nothing in common, but it’s apt to note that, in the theatrical world, Arthur Miller did the same thing. And wasn’t Walt Whitman, when he sang the possibilities of the men and women of this adolescent country, thinking of the same sort of people who would come to find themselves caught in the webs that Updike strove to understand?

For all of Rabbit’s importance, and for all the fuss his Witches of Eastwick and other novels sometimes kicked up, I have an abiding affection for another Updike character: Henry Bech, the irascible, august fictional novelist who eventually ascends from the mess of his everyday existence to become a winner of the Nobel Prize. Bech is the central character in what may be the funniest scene ever written about writer’s block — when he sits on a Caribbean beach, drinks and nubile companionship and fat publisher’s fee at hand, with no task but to autograph a huge pile of one of his novels, and finally becomes so paralyzed that his pen freezes in midair: He’s forgot his name.

We’ll not forget the names of Bech, and Rabbit, and John Updike. Rest well, gentlemen. You deserve it.