Sailing on the Open Sea: John Updike’s Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism

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Drawing by Bill Morris

John Updike drew the title of his 1983 essay collection, Hugging the Shore, from his analogy that “writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing on the open sea.” To assess aesthetic and stylistic merit was, in other words, a guarded, temperate activity, not exacting the skill, audacity, and celerity of judgment that creative writing did of novelists and poets. Sailing on the open sea cemented Updike’s literary reputation, for readers and critics admired the local color, minimalist aesthetic, and tonal immediacy with which he wrought wry, empathic portraits of middle America, middle age and its crises, and the middlebrow, most famously in the “Rabbit” tetralogy, which traces the lives, loves, and losses of hapless former high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over four decades. Rabbit and his fellow literary characters — the coy Witches (later Widows) of Eastwick, for example — were fabled and fallible, their creator ever casting a more sensitive than censorious eye upon their foibles. Yet Updike took reviewing just as seriously, as his sheer output of ten essay collections shows, and he did it incomparably well. Hewing to strict principles of ethics, understanding, and citation of texts, which he detailed in Picked-Up Pieces, he contributed more reviews to The New Yorker than any other critic in his lifetime, garnering the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

The sensibilities he developed as a novelist and poet, perspicacity and a genial appreciation for the creative process (“the first flush of inspiration, the patient months of research and plotting,” “creation’s giddy bliss,”) meet with stylistic temerity in his criticism, countering what he wrote about hugging the shore. His gentle, measured voice and daring opinions inform his sixty-first book, Higher Gossip, a posthumous compendium of literary tributes, essays, gallery reviews, poems, and speeches that Updike’s widow and literary executor, Martha, and Library of America editor Christopher Carduff culled from meticulously revised printouts that the author sorted into shirt boxes and deposited in a Harvard University archive. Drawn mostly from reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, and forewords to classics or fine editions of his own work, the collection focalizes Updike’s mid-to-late career as a man of letters. It also foregrounds his secondary reputation as a consummate art critic.

The hieratic art critiques in the “Gallery Tours” section of Higher Gossip resonate long after their initial reading both for the shrewd formal analyses of line, color, and direction, and for the able mining and interweaving of curatorial notes into each piece. By turns coruscating and charming, Updike weighs the ideal perspective from which to gaze at Tilman Riemenschneider’s limewood statue of the Virgin and Child (best “to place her feet level with my eyes, so closely that, looking upward, I create steep perspectives wherein hands, drapery, and the two holy heads achieved a dramatic, foreshortened conjunction”); reads the sculptor’s male statues as “an attempt to express spirituality while acknowledging the heightened awareness of human individuality that came with the Renaissance,” and considers whether color amplifies “the seductive persuasiveness of statuary.” He contrasts Egon Schiele’s etiolated male nudes with his healthier, more seductive females. He traces the novelty of El Greco’s craft (“religious images designed to be seen in a church’s dim candlelight; flattened space, [and] visionary mode of attenuated anatomy,”) and its influence on Delacroix, Sargent, Cézanne, and Matisse. The essays will inspire vicarious thrills in readers who have not seen the shows under review, while illuminating those readers have seen. To my mind, the meditations on Seurat’s figure studies for “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” which I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in Fall 2007, were especially apt in characterization and analysis. While Updike graciously overlooks the chilling emptiness that Seurat’s streamlined, faceless figures exude, he unveils the artist’s material craft, the Conté crayons and handmade French Michallet paper that shaped his shading and Pointillist techniques.

This isn’t to say that the occasional personal bias doesn’t peer at readers from between the judicious shades of these commentaries. Among Dutch Baroque painters, Vermeer categorically trumps Pieter de Hooch in Updike’s view, and a Hartford exhibit can’t upend that conviction. De Hooch’s “brushstrokes are scratchy, his colors brownish and murky, and his compositions haphazard when viewed with Vermeer’s pellucid and exquisitely rigorous canvases in mind. Compared with Vermeer, de Hooch does not draw well, let alone paint with the younger man’s serene rapture of weightless touch and opalescent color.” What about taking de Hooch on his own terms rather than comparing him to another Dutch master, or considering the trajectory of his artistic enterprise, as Updike does with Van Gogh, a reader might ask? Why not celebrate the elegant linearity of “Couple With Parrot,” or the warm tonality of “Woman and Girl in the Yard”? That these pieces invite such polemicism, however, is precisely their appeal. Like the reviews New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl pens for his column, “The Art World,” these essays are learned, sagely voiced, and gracious, even when Updike’s personal taste is clearly at odds with an artistic technique or a curatorial layout. Writer and translator Wyatt Mason, in a Harper’s essay on Updike’s 2007 collection, Due Considerations, and on his critical practice writ large, posed the question of whether “the true critic, like a unicorn or a yeti, must reside in the imagination.” “Gallery Tours” affirms their terrestrial existence in Updikean form, as true criticism here navigates the open sea in its graceful marriage of candor, reason, and research.

By contrast, if there’s an adherence to the shore in Higher Gossip, it’s woefully on view in the literary tributes section, “Lives and Laurels.” Updike has professed admiration for Søren Kierkegaard in interviews, but here the philosopher becomes almost fey, living “in the toy metropolis of Copenhagen, a little man with a dandy’s face” and an “extraordinary, insinuant voice, imperious and tender, rabid and witty.” Kierkegaard is lionized for his “heroism in facing down the imperious tradition of German idealistic philosophy,” too. Likewise, Ernest Hemingway (“a bearish celebrity” whose “work remains a touchstone of artistic ardor and luminously clean prose”), Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver (“produced stories of exquisite directness, polish, and calm that sit in the mind like perfect porcelain teacups”), and others receive equally encomiastic tributes. Taken together, these unequivocal pabula approach an idolization rather out of keeping with Updike’s well-tempered critical style. Had he lived to select the essays, this section may have been more representative of the balance and plasticity of his critical faculties, both exacting and encouraging.

Similarly, the essay “Humor in Fiction” is a curiosity. It mines the most tired passages from classics like Don Quixote and Candide, only to blur the sight lines between irony and humor, which is described, varyingly, as “the misapplication of momentum,” “states of mind that appear not merely various but even opposite,” “mock penalties,” and “rubbery” characters who suffer no lasting damage, all considered against the backdrop of veritable danger. Where Updike reads comic brio, in Huckleberry Finn’s unwillingness to characterize Jim, a former slave, as a human being, for example, others may read either gallows humor or satire carefully masking deeply engrained pain. Given that subtle jocularity is one of Updike’s novelistic strengths, it’s strange to see this essay miss its mark.

Given how diligent a reader and writer Updike remained throughout his life, annotating with extensive marginalia the text and footnotes of galleys he received for review, revising his published pieces for new collections until his death, he might have excised some of these less lively pieces, keeping one if it had “carefree bounce, snap, [an] exuberant air of slight excess,” and “the forward momentum of a certain energized weight” he ardently sought and achieved in his prose. The choice may have concerned him as it did Charles Baudelaire, who laid out anthologies specifically for the continuity between poems, or Paul Simon, who carefully considers the juxtaposition of songs when determining track listings for his recordings. We readers cannot know, but we’ll be privileged to see more of the criticism that charts the open sea, as Carduff’s introduction notes that additional art essays will be compiled, coupled with full-color illustrations, and published. Together with the “Gallery Tours” here and the literary criticism collected in earlier volumes, these will be evidence enough of Updike’s veritable departures from the haven he once envisioned criticism to be.

The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table

“It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, circling…at those familiar moments of emotion,” writes Anna, the literary historian who narrates Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s last novel. “We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”

The kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the concinnity of memories, the process by which an adult narrator frames and makes sense of her past is, I venture, the cornerstone of Ondaatje’s fiction. Coming Through Slaughter married biographical and sonic details from jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden’s career and tales of louche Storyville portraitist E.J. Bellocq’s mutilated photographs of prostitutes with fictionalized accounts of internecine love affairs that drove Bolden’s character to paranoia and death. In the Skin of a Lion and its sequel, the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, introduced readers to the chthonic world of Caravaggio, a morphine addict and thief notorious for art heists, and his friend’s daughter, Hana, a Canadian Army nurse and caretaker for a burn victim whose scars and stories, recounted while he recovers in an Italian villa in the wake of the Second World War, belie his identity and his past as a Hungarian desert explorer.

Ondaatje’s distinctive signature — the use of metanarrative; the graceful integration of historical filaments and intertexts; the quiescence, compassion, and ardor resonating from within luminous yet temperate prose — has won him a broad international readership, as well as doyen status on prize shortlists. In tenor, his new novel, The Cat’s Table, evinces a similar elegance. Its masterful rendering of time and memory, too, echo the part-fictional memoir, Running in the Family, and the novel Anil’s Ghost, in which a forensic anthropologist returns to her native Sri Lanka for the first time since adolescence to investigate crimes perpetrated by pro- and anti-government factions alike.

The life experiences of Michael, or Mynah, the narrator, dovetail with the author’s. Both were born in Ceylon (presently known as Sri Lanka), raised in England, and are now naturalized Canadian citizens and novelists. Mynah deftly weaves the novel from a series of vignettes, character sketches, and episodic journal entries drawn both from his voyage, at the age of eleven, from Colombo to England on the ship Oronsay in the early 1950s, and from present anecdotes and reflections.

This is no mean feat with a cast of characters ranging from Mynah’s equally lowly neighbors at the Cat’s Table, to the middling passengers, to the blue-blooded characters aboard Emperor Class, noble enough to be seated at the Captain’s Table. We meet Emily de Saram, his beloved, enigmatic seventeen-year-old cousin, en route to England to finish secondary school; Mr. Daniels, an admirer of Emily’s, who cultivates a secret garden aboard the ship; Mr. Mazappa, the ship’s pianist, who impresses Mynah with his knowledge of musicology and jazz history, his “ongoing mythology,” and, in memory, the recognition that “the future would never be as dramatic and joyous and deceitful as the way he had sketched it”; Mr. Fonseka, an English teacher who gently ministers to Mynah’s loneliness and intellectual curiosity; Niemeyer, a manacled prisoner whose crimes the passengers try to surmise; and his deaf daughter, Asuntha, a former acrobat of whom Emily grows increasingly fond and protective. Mynah’s two closest friends are Ramadhin, a sensitive but effete boy who takes precautions for his weak heart, and Cassius, a guarded rogue who renounces his past and masterminds the boys’ antics, including tying themselves to the ship with rope so that they can experience a storm from outdoors, and sneaking into the ship’s hold.

While the autobiographical contours enrich the novel’s sense of realism, its most beautifully wrought element is the integration of time present with time past — Mynah’s arrangement of shards of kaleidoscopic memory, of the atavistic with the prophetic, the hazy with the crystalline, the childlike with the adult. Mr. Fonseka and Emily are its most vivid embodiments. Visiting the former one night, Mynah observes:
It was the anonymity of the stories and poems that went deepest into me. And the curl of a rhyme was something new. I had not thought to believe he was actually quoting something written with care, in some far country, centuries earlier…He had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live…I am aware of the pathos and the irony that come with such a portrait…I did realize that people like Mr. Fonseka came before us like innocent knights in a more dangerous time, and on the very same path we ourselves were taking now.
This evocative sketch nicely refracts what Mynah learns of human character both on the voyage, and, broadly, in his adult life. The precise histories, traumas, experiences, and dreams of his fellow passengers are ever discernible, yet partially opaque, anonymous, accessible only through subtleties of physiognomy and gesture, which Mynah sagely intuits and weds to his own sense of foreboding. When, in a later chapter, he reflects on the fate of a ship being destroyed in a breaker’s yard, there are echoes of his depiction of Fonseka, and of the other characters whose lives he discerns through impressionistic, deductive understanding: “in a breaker’s yard you discover that anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.”

This form of linking, the reshaping of metal, or the mapping of observations onto lives, is one way to understand the valences of Emily’s character, too. Mynah’s only kin, she offers him security, enfolding him in her embrace and letting him fall asleep in her bed when an inexplicable grief seizes him. Yet darker sensibilities inflect even this fey moment: Emily’s allure, Mynah’s nascent attraction to her, the palpability of secrecy and danger as she becomes part of the underbelly of maritime life, engaging in criminal activity to protect Asuntha, and channeling her own yearnings into romantic involvement with a disreputable performer. “Who or what caused this darkness in her? At […] times she had an unreachable face. But when she returned to you, it was a gift,” Mynah lovingly recalls. She is a quintessentially Ondaatjean character, an Anil or a Hana, whose nature and grace one can only understand by suturing details.

Like Salman Rushdie’s narrator in Midnight’s Children, Mynah is “a swallower of lives,” navigating both the intimacy of and the demarcations between passengers, the ship the apposite vessel on which to experience the picaresque joys of childhood, the vertiginous beginnings of adolescence, and the furtive discoveries of the nuances of adult behavior. Seeing his reflection in a mirror early on in the novel, he recognizes only “someone startled, half-formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet,” but stochastic glimpses and profound emotions heighten his sensitivity to human frailty and strength, to the “story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” So beautiful a novel, drawing these phases of life into a web of prose calibrated and lyrical, phlegmatic and passionate, could only flow from the hand of Michael Ondaatje.