Candide: Or Optimism (Penguin Classics)

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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.

Reading in Tongues

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When many years ago I first read Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Scott-Moncrieff translation published in seven very elegant paperback volumes by the London house of Chatto & Windus—an effort that took just about six months—I was so affected by this work that I was determined to read it all over again in the original.

My French up until then consisted of three years in junior high and high school, and a year of it in college; I retained none of it. As we were living in England at the time my wife and I (and eventually our infant daughter who, at three months, cried so incessantly one night in the Hôtel Aviatic on the Rue de Vaugirard that the poor Frenchman on the floor above us could only pace and pace until suddenly he fell silent, leaving us to imagine in all its vivid detail that he had done himself in, pauvre type, his body fished out of the Seine late the next afternoon, a note stuffed in his watery pocket, Adieu, monde cruel!) occasionally took cheap trips to Paris, which consisted of multiple train journeys to Dover, a hovercraft nightmare to Boulogne, and an interminable railway stop-and-go in ancient rolling stock through World War I battlefields to the Gare du Nord. Once, at Dover, our hovercraft gasbagged into life only to deflate when, as we watched through the porthole, the Queen Mother stood beneath an umbrella in her usual pale blue hat and dress and took bows from the wardens of the Cinque Ports before being driven off for her nightly ration of gin-and-it.

My spoken French was pathetic (my wife’s far better), though having l’enfant along made everyone like us immensely. I may be one of the few Americans who has not actually encountered a rude French person, and I ascribe this to the presence of a babe in arms. One thing we discovered is that the English love children as long as the children in question are grown-up—childhood tolerated only as nostalgia, a memory of the land of lost content, as A.E. Houseman would put it; Americans want to be children forever, and many as they negotiate the minefield of middle-age dress as though they are; while the French go all gooey over them and indulge them with expensive gourmet baby food and clothes that look as if they were actually thought up by someone. This may have changed, but it worked for us from the moment we stepped onto the beachhead at Boulogne-sur-Mer.

I began to learn French with a few grammar books bought at Heffer’s Booksellers in Cambridge, and after several months began to read some simple stories, graduating to Candide and Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet, and then moving on to more contemporary writers. I started with Patrick Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’étoile. All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.

You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.

Though I needed (and still do need) a dictionary beside me, I continued to read in French with a greater fluency and quickly saw how my own work was being both enlarged and influenced by it. Living in Britain had its risks: my writing could begin to adopt some of the market-driven demands to write about being a writer in Hampstead (a subject so effectively cornered by Margaret Drabble and others) or to delve into agitprop (quite common back then in both theatre and television drama) or even historical fiction, but it was reading French that pulled me into doing something different, into introducing characters from other cultures, bridging genres, and bringing in some of my Russian grandparents’ émigré experience, if not in fact then as a kind of mist that lay over the landscape of my fiction.

They had almost moved to Paris in 1911 and only at the last minute decided to come to New York. My grandfather had heard that Frenchmen would stand on the railway platform as Jews from Eastern Europe would step off their trains and scream “Juif! Juif!”, a remnant of the days of the Dreyfus Affair, and one that was mined until 1940 and after. Had my grandfather and namesake moved there with his family, I wouldn’t be writing this today, and the lot of them would be dust in the grounds of a concentration camp in Poland.

Somewhat serendipitously I discovered what’s come to be known as the nouveau roman noir. Nominally detective novels, these took the basic elements of the genre and added to them various elements of postmodernism and of film, and led the genre to a whole new place. Possibly Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers), a recasting of “Oedipus Rex” as a murder mystery, was the first. But having read an article about the more well-known practitioners of the genre, writers of a whole other generation than Robbe-Grillet’s, I was introduced to the Lyon trilogy of René Belletto—Le Revenant, Sur la Terre comme au ciel, l’Enfer—and was immediately impressed both with his dark humor and how he introduced myth, musical structure (Belletto is both an excellent musician and composer, as well as something of an expert on J.S. Bach), and an encyclopedic knowledge of American B-films, into novels that straddle the genres of literary fiction and crime. Though I also read, and still read, Jean Echenoz, Thierry Jonquet, and, beyond the genre, Jean-Patrick Toussaint and Georges Perec, it was Belletto who influenced me perhaps more than the others. I wrote him, as well, and for twenty years we’ve been friends.

When I eventually did make the leap to read Proust in the original I was surprised to discover that he really wasn’t a difficult writer, per se: his vocabulary was hardly erudite, he expressed himself simply (though still in sentences whose length the idea being expressed required), and the writing possessed, as he himself hoped it would, the naturalness of breathing, even that of an asthmatic, which he was. All of a sudden he was a very different kind of writer from that in Scott-Moncrieff’s translation. Where that translator emphasized, or rather extracted and highlighted, the poetic and romantic side of Proust, reading him in French showed just how muscular, how sinewy, Proust’s prose truly is.  In reality there is a stylistic and narrative confidence in these more than three thousand pages that, in the first English translation, comes off as tentative and somewhat precious, as though he had bought into the contemporary view of Proust as being not much more than a gossip and a social butterfly. What we miss in Scott-Moncrieff’s version is the edginess of Proust, especially his extraordinary humor—and I contend that Proust was one of the truly great comic novelists—and the dark and, at that time, forbidden sexuality of what has now properly come to be known as In Search of Lost Time.

This is also something of a tale of espionage and detection: the narrator (allusively called Marcel, though this is far from being a reliably autobiographical novel) is a man separate from the world, an outsider cloaked within his own secrets and private memories who comes to perceive the world as something mutable, unreliable, cruel and dismissive, and seeks that elusive knowledge that will allow him to become the creator of the very people we’re reading about—people who also have many things to hide at a time when the cloak was far more useful than the megaphone. Knowing that Proust was homosexual, we can see where this sense of being a fugitive observer comes from and which leads him to become a kind of scientist (Proust’s father and brother were physicians) of human behavior. I know you, he seems to be saying, but you will never entirely know me. Six months, eight months, a year later, and once you’ve finished the entire novel you see the world differently from when you first read the opening sentences. That is but one, to me important, measure of what art can achieve: to make you comprehend things in a whole new way.

Adopting French as a second reading language gave me two worlds through which my own work could be filtered. As a novelist (far less so as a screenwriter), I find that reading in two languages has a way of enriching one’s own work. When reading in French I’m really stepping beyond myself and my world, and it’s this tiptoeing into another culture and another way of viewing things, that allows me to look back over my shoulder and find perhaps a whole new way of telling my own story.

Surprise Me!