It was October of 1966 and John Barth had just published Giles-Goat Boy, a 700-page postmodern comedy, and a New York Times Bestseller. Barth was starting the stories that would eventually make up Lost In The Funhouse, a seminal work of metafiction. He was teaching at the University of Buffalo and was busy putting together a week-long reading series for the following spring. He had already secured writers like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and John Hawkes – author of the spectacular surrealist Western, The Beetle Leg. The series would feature some of the most powerful literary figures of the time. But Barth was working to finish the line-up with one more writer, a man he admired and sought to befriend; he wanted to get John Updike.
“I’ve been told you don’t make public appearances, and I sympathize,” Barth wrote to Updike. Updike had won the National Book Award for The Centaur three years prior, and Rabbit, Run was only half a decade old. Updike was 34. Barth was 36. Barth wrote to Updike, “…as one who respects your work, and suspects it would sound excellent to the ear in the author’s voice, and has agreed to read something of my own to help out, and wants to meet you better anyhow than I did at the Academy last Spring, I’d be honored, and we all delighted, if you’d bend your admirable policy once and lay some of your prose on us out loud.”
Barth was genial with many alpha literary fiction writers throughout his career – eventually even men like Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie. But Barth was an alpha writer himself, in the mid-60’s, a literary artist and intellectual who was both wildly innovative and popular. Barth largely associated with other experimentalists – people like William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass – but then he was especially drawn to Updike. Updike was a realist, and this genre discrepancy served as a sort of important buffer to literary bitterness and jealousy, especially as time went on.
Other writers knew about Updike’s aversion to public speaking. Updike had only ever taught one course, in the early 1960s, at the Harvard Summer School and disliked the experience so intensely that he vowed to never do it again. Updike covered a single additional class session in the Fall of 1966 at Boston University – after John Cheever called him, too drunk to stand up – and that was his final appearance in the classroom.
Barth wrote to Updike anyway. Updike responded, “I don’t ‘read’ much, but such a generous and engaging letter from the author of Giles Goat-boy would be hard to resist. By next April I should either be insane or substantially through a novel that is presently tormenting me, so let me accept, on the assumption that I’ll be reminded as the date approaches.”
Updike went to Buffalo in 1967. Barth stood at the front of a crowded auditorium and enumerated the ways that Updike’s writing was distinctive in a time of high postmodernism and experimentation. “His materials and methods remain essentially realistic, straightforwardly if subtly representational, as opposed to the diverse anti- and irrealisms of most of his contemporaries.” Barth said, “He’s non-apocalyptic, a highly unfashionable attitude – one suspects he may not even be a nihilist.”
Barth certainly thought of himself as one of those irrealist writers he mentioned in Updike’s introduction. He had begun writing Lost In The Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. The book begins with a note from the author, in which Barth writes that many of these stories aren’t actually meant for the page. Barth says “Glossolia,” for example, “will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female.” Despite finally limiting some of those ambitions to the printed word, a story like, “Night-Sea Journey” – a sperm’s existential reflections on its swim to fertilize an egg – is brilliant. Stories like “Lost In The Funhouse”, “Autobiography”, and “Title” are, too. Some of the others – “Echo”, “Menelaiad”, “Anonymiad” – really stumble.
Six years after the Buffalo reading, and around the time Barth published his National Book Award-Winning trio of novellas, Chimera, Barth moved back to Baltimore to teach in the writing program at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. He was put in charge of another speaker series. He again sought John Updike.
In October 1974, Updike wrote back and accepted that invitation. Updike then shared some unhappy news: “You and [Barth’s wife] Shelley will be sorry to hear that Mary and I seem to be undergoing that American, or is it menopausal, experience called separation. Hence the urban address below. I work, eat, sleep, and read all on the same head of a pin-sized apartment, and seem happy in a way, or at least less asthmatic.”
Barth conveyed his distress and sent his best wishes to Updike and his wife. He hoped Updike was able to write in his “diminished physical plant.”
Updike furthered the intimate tone of the exchange with his response. He wrote, “A curious bit of etiquette – having no wife to bring, might I bring someone else?… The substitute would be, I would think, a mature American female, quiet and mannerly, not apt to embarrass any proceedings. I haven’t invited any yet, just wondering, way in advance.”
Barth wrote to Updike that he would set him up in the Nichols House, which would be comfortable “with or without mature American female, whom by all means, bring.”
On Friday, April 18th, 1975, Updike arrived in Baltimore with, in his words to Barth, “A Martha Bernhard (37, une autre séparée, onetime student of Nabokov at Cornell).” Leslie Fiedler, the book critic, had a campus event that same day. The group of them went to Updike’s afternoon reading, then Fiedler’s evening lecture, then out to dinner.
The next morning, Barth and Shelley and Updike and Martha went on a literary tour of Baltimore. They visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. They went to the H.L. Mencken House. They got soft-shell crab for lunch. Then John and Martha got on a plane back to Massachusetts.
Gracious letters from both Bernhard and Updike followed. Bernhard wrote, “Dear Shelley and Jack, You were dear to let me tag along to watch John enchant your students, a pleasant occasion for me of course. Beyond that, I was moved by your graciousness and acceptance in what could have been an awkward situation. But it was charming, really, because of your gentleness. Lovely of you.” She added that the Barths were fortunate to have seen Updike in a “role he shies from but does beautifully.”
Updike, for his part, said, “Martha was greatly touched and cheered by the lack of awkwardness in an adventure, a venturing forth, that was a touch barefaced for us. You were both most kind.” Then he goes on to ask Barth if he can get him a Johns Hopkins University sweatshirt for a souvenir, “with as it happens [his] initials on it.”
Updike and Martha got married in 1977. They were married for 31 years, the rest of Updike’s life.
After Updike died, Martha told Barth in a letter that this first trip was not only the beginning of her relationship with Updike, but also the occasion on which Updike changed his mind about readings. “He took to it,” Martha wrote, “as he didn’t to teaching, and thus began a modest, but consistent, reading schedule that he truly enjoyed.”
Following the Baltimore visit, Barth and Updike’s communication continued primarily through the mail. Letters of mutually generous appreciation of each other’s work were frequent, and they sustained the friendship.
The differences between the two writers, meanwhile, grew more marked. In 1982, Updike published Rabbit Is Rich, the story of Harry Angstrom inheriting his late father’s Toyota dealership and living through prosperous days in which he worries about his wife’s drinking, his son’s hostility, and his own libido. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Barth, meanwhile, published an opus of a novel called LETTERS. LETTERS is not only entirely about itself and its author, but also about Barth’s first six novels, which you need to have read in order for LETTERS to make any sense.
The critical state of their respective careers diverged. After the publication of Rabbit Is Rich, Barth wrote to Updike, “Congratulations on ‘Rabbit’ sweeping the field—and what’s more, on the book itself. Shelly has asked me, “are you envious?” And I have answered, “yes,” especially as the first negative advance reviews of my new one [The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor] trickle into the clear stream of our life like acid mine drainage.”
Updike published the well-received Witches of Eastwick. He again won the National Book Critic Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with Rabbit at Rest. Barth meanwhile published sprawling navel-gazing novels like The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales – books that were increasingly long form concentrations on the mechanics of storytelling.
Barth and Updike complained to each other of certain writers’ underappreciated brilliance, and griped of others’ successes. “The Pynchon—,” Updike wrote, “I got a hundred pages into it, and wondered if the next several hundred would tell me anything I didn’t already know. He can coin wonderful phrases, and does prodigies of homework, but there isn’t a lot of flesh to nibble on. Still, I must get back to it, and then read every word of Underworld, as penance or pleasure, who knows?”
Barth grew sensitive to critics and reviews, and counter-productively more stubborn in his methods. In 2001, Barth wrote Coming Soon!!!, in which he attempts to spoof his own position in the pantheon with two protagonists: one’s a retiring novelist (quite clearly John Barth) setting out to write his final masterpiece. The other’s a young, aspiring writer (quite clearly a young John Barth) in the midst of his first novel. The two protagonists are tangled up together in a competitive literary reprisal of The Floating Opera, the writer John Barth’s first book. Despite his admirable pursuit of fun and experimentation in fiction, Barth often seemed to want to make things hard on himself. Like with a lot of artists, he tended to be his own worst enemy.
In a 2002 Salon interview, critic Leslie Feidler was asked which of postmodern writers would survive and endure. Feidler said, “I used to think Barth and Hawkes had a chance. I’m not so sure now. Barth’s most recent book was terrible. And he sorta knows it too, I had a note from him which mentioned the reviews.”
Updike wrote to Barth in November 2008. He said he had only read the first story in Barth’s new book, The Development. He wrote, “I needed to pluck up my courage to continue, especially since. I have just emerged from testing the waters of mortality in three days at Boston’s finest, MGH. Your description of the hectic banality of retirement havens almost makes mortality look good.”
Updike had just been diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. Eight weeks later, on January 27th, 2009, he died.
Barth immediately wrote to Martha, and she responded, “He began writing the final verses of Endpoint in that hospital bed and continued at home where he finished before Christmas…He died eight weeks after his diagnosis, at the end of January.”
Updike had some faults – most notably a nonchalant misogyny – but there was much more that was miraculous about his writing. Rabbit, Run, in gritty lyric detail, conveys the American dream as the American nightmare in the way it renders young Harry Angstrom stumbling after happiness in a place like Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike once described his own style as “an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and he did do just that. He also published an incredible number of books – 24 novels, 16 books of nonfiction, 14 collections of short stories, and 10 books of poetry.
John Barth, too, wrote more than most readers would be likely to get through. Yet there are moments in his catalog that are wildly inventive, strange, and brilliant; the influence of certain Barth stories and novels ripple conspicuously across the works of writers like Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, who went on to generate monumental influence on their own terms. Barth’s story “Lost In The Funhouse” is metafiction at its peak. Ambrose’s anxious journey through the story’s funhouse becomes a perfect metaphor for the reader’s passage through the story itself. In certain places, the plot pushes forward and the story gains momentum. In others, it gets stuck in mirrored corners. “The important thing to remember,” Barth writes, “is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement.” Barth’s embrace of this principle – as he considers funhouse architecture and simultaneously inspects the mechanics of storytelling – transforms the piece into something sinisterly buoyant and incredibly smart. The writer, narrator, and reader experience all the joys and setbacks of the journey together. The story is passionate, angsty, and a bit existentially terrifying. “For whom is the funhouse fun?” the story opens. “For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.”
Barth’s early success in metafiction inspired him to continue in that vein, and it eventually led to the surge of negative criticism for the books that came later in his career. “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon,” David Foster Wallace once said in an interview. “Art’s reflection on itself is terminal.” Barth, though, kept fighting to mine life from his metafictional flights, writing longer and longer books to do it.
In their later letters, Barth continued to express admiration and respect toward Updike. Updike returned the praise, though more often with soft mentions that he hadn’t quite finished Barth’s most recent books. As was always the case, Barth took solace in the discrepancies between their respective genres, but it got more difficult for him as the state of their critical acclaim split. The thorniness of the relationship begins to show as the letters go on.
Updike never abandoned Barth, though. Updike and Barth rose as important literary figures around the same time, and largely behaved as compatriots until the very end. In the 1990s, Updike spotted a news clipping featuring Barth in which Barth had been quoted saying, “Just now, I’m completely enthralled by and engrossed in John Updike’s book. There’s a writer who’s very unlike me who I admire enormously for his productivity and his talent.” Updike underlined the passage and wrote, “I do thank you for the generous words. But I don’t think we’re very unlike. We’re both sons of the hard-working, temperate Middle Atlantic region, twice married, depression-conscious, and stuck with the belief that there is such a thing as American littrachoor.”
Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. A physical exhibition on the writer John Barth will be mounted in the Johns Hopkins George Peabody Library in Fall 2015.
Through the Window, Julian Barnes’s sparkling new collection of essays, is a veritable treasure house of letters on novels and their authors. His subjects span the Anglo and French traditions within which Barnes work is rooted – Flaubert’s Parrot and England, England highlight in his own fictional oeuvre the interplay between the two – from Orwell and Kipling on the one hand to Mérimée and Houellebecq on the other.
This is not to say that the American pantheon is neglected. Far from it. Barnes is not immune, for example, to the work of John Updike. “Any historian wanting to understand the texture, smell, feel and meaning of bluey-white collar life in ordinary America between the 1950s and 1990s will need little more than the Rabbit Quartet,” Barnes concludes, labeling Updike’s Angstrom sequence “the greatest postwar American novel”:
It’s rare for a work of this length to get even better as it goes on, with Rabbit at Rest the strongest and richest of the four books. In the last hundred pages or so, I found myself slowing deliberately, not so much because I didn’t want the book to end, as because I didn’t want Rabbit to die.
The collection concludes with an essay of searing clarity on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir A Widow’s Story. Barnes is somewhat kind to the book in general terms, labeling it “novelistic and expansive” and arguing that in focusing in the main on “the dark interiors, the psycho-chaos of grief,” Oates plays to her strengths. Moreover, he goes some way to defending the lax character of her prose, arguing that if it appears repetitive, obsessive, or incoherent, well, “so is grief.” Barnes is critical, and oddly so, of Oates’s failure to disclose her decision to remarry following the death of her first husband:
This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore’s line that “the cure for loneliness is solitude,” but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have good case for breach of narrative promise. Was not Ray “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man”? And what about all those perennials she planted?
In the main, however, Barnes appears drawn towards a certain type of trans-Channel writer. His take on Rudyard Kipling is at once jarring and refreshing in the way in which it seeks to highlight the bond between Kipling and France. “He seems to us such an English writer, such a British imperialist, such a pungent purveyor of the lore and language of his tribe,” Barnes writes, “that it comes as a surprise to find how well known and widely read he was in France.”
Such was his fame in fact that when Kipling’s family would tour the country by automobile after the war, they found that “three days was the maximum they could stay in one place without his identity being discovered,” without being invited into the local church by the priest or accosted in the street by grateful soldiers. In terms of the latter, Barnes notes how on a tour of the front lines in 1915 in his role as a war correspondent, Kipling discovered to his astonishment how well read his stories and poems were in the trenches.
Indeed, the bond between Kipling and France was “made lifelong – and sealed with blood – by the Great War.” Kipling spent a good deal of his postwar life there, working with the War Graves Commission, advising that Ecclesiasticus 44:14 – “Their name liveth for evermore” – be chiseled into the Stones of Remembrances. Kipling came to admire in France “what he thought his own country could do with more of,” qualities of “work ethic, thrift, simplicity.” Enforced military service, Kipling believed, “promoted not only civic virtue but also a fundamental seriousness of mind which he felt his compatriots lacked.”
But Barnes goes further, attempting to assert that France would influence his literature, too. “Direct literary influence is small,” Barnes concedes, yet he sees in his work an inspiration “of a more diffuse kind.” Kipling was criticized for being “democratic in personnel and truthful in theme and detail. An early exposure to French literature,” Barnes concludes, citing Rabelais, Balzac, and Maupassant, “would have endorsed this aesthetic.”
Barnes also sees a converse influence, of Kipling on France, though this appears to be minimal, too. In a second essay on Kipling, Barnes analyses Jérôme and Jean Tharaud’s 1902 roman à clef, Dingley, l’illustre écrivain, perceiving the protagonist to be unmistakably Kipling – “his energy, his ceaseless curiosity are all acknowledged; what is questioned is the use to which the famous imagination and the public fame are put.” In this vein, the novel emerges as a “critique of British imperialism and a warning against literary populism.”
Barnes’s efforts to impress the link between Kipling and France feel clean and are indeed intriguing. It is evident that Kipling, like many Englishmen, had Francophile tendencies, with a feeling for the landscape and the people. But Barnes is less persuasive when attempting to expound literary influence. Not so with his take on Ford Madox Ford novel of the First World War, The Good Soldier. “France certainly provided The Good Soldier’s point of emulative origin,” Barnes states, noting Ford’s ambition to do for the English novel what Maupassant’s Fort comme la mort did for the French form.
Ford sought to imitate the “violently transgressive passion” of Maupassant, applying the “tropes of torments” of Fort comme la mort to “a very English set of characters.” Barnes concludes that while The Good Soldier is “much less of a social novel” than Maupassant’s, it is “in terms of emotional heat even Frencher than Fort comme la mort.” Whereas Maupassant “turns up the burners only towards the end of his novel,” Ford goes all in, raising the stakes of “madness and terror,” audaciously starting “at the highest emotional pitch” and only continuing to elevate it thereafter.
The result, Barnes believes, is “Ford’s masterpiece,” noteworthy for its “immaculate use of an unreliable narrator, its sophisticated disguise of true narrative behind a false facade of apparent narrative, its self-reflectingness, its deep duality about human motive, intention and experience, and its sheer boldness as a project.” It is a novel which “constantly asks how to tell a story, which pretends to fail at narrative while richly succeeding.” Yet for all its qualities, The Good Soldier and also Ford himself was derided by his contemporaries. Barnes proposes why:
He presents no usefully crisp literary profile; he wrote far too much, and in too many genres; he fails to fit easily into university courses. He seems to fall down a hole between late Victorianism and modernism. He also presented himself as an elderly party fading out before this new generation which was probably a bad tactical move.
It might be a bit much (and I dare say a little rude) to venture that like Ford, Barnes as a novelist remains under-appreciated, or at least under-read, when compared to his contemporaries. But it bears mentioning because, due to the personal nature of the format, Barnes’s examinations of these authors can’t help but say a little something about the essayist. In both Kipling and Ford, he strives to unearth the ties and sentiments which he holds most dear, which most impact upon his novels, those of an Anglo inexorably bound to France. Through the Window confirms not only this love of England and of France, but of language and literature as well.
The pleasures of reading Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels can feel strangely illicit. From the Some Hope trilogy of novellas — comprising Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — through 2006’s Mother’s Milk, St Aubyn has used the trials of Patrick Melrose and his family to explore psychological damage and the intangible terrors of childhood trauma. But he is at his most remarkable when dealing with the experience of the senses, the means we use to escape ourselves.
Bad News, the most gripping book of the early trilogy, chronicles a 24-hour drug binge in New York, where Patrick Melrose almost self-destructs against the backdrop of his father’s death. It is a thrilling novella, and yet its thrills feel slightly dubious because we are invited to revel in what amounts to drug pornography — a specialist genre which, from Hunter S. Thompson to William Burroughs, is notable for its talent-crushing ODs. But St Aubyn’s nimble mind allows him to avoid the usual forms of self-indulgence. “The trouble was that he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire,” is surely one of the best one-sentence summations of drug addiction ever written. And no one I have read has managed to make the anticipation of a cocaine injection sound as cosy but also as infinitely depressing as when St Aubyn writes, “His stomach made a rumbling sound and he felt as nervous and excited as a twelve-year-old in the back of a darkened cinema stretching his arm around a girl’s shoulder for the first time.”
One of the problems with the Some Hope trilogy is that the great sentences, which are usually similes, stand too tall among the underbrush. Instead of being combed through with greatness, the writing is only great at intervals. I can imagine St Aubyn, like Raymond Chandler, keeping a notebook of devastating descriptions to be deployed when an otherwise bland paragraph is in need of horsepower. This problem was partly overcome in Mother’s Milk, where the prose is not as uneven, and a complexity of feeling shines through. That novel was a departure from the trilogy in many ways, not least in its focus on Patrick’s relationship with his mother instead of his father. It also has some very good passages from the perspective of Robert, one of Patrick’s sons, a supremely intelligent five-year-old who has the preternatural clarity of a less sombre Little Father Time. Unlike the trilogy, Mother’s Milk works as a standalone novel, and it is for this reason, as well as for its depth and range, that it might be remembered as the best Melrose book.
But those who have not read all of the Melrose sequence may feel at a disadvantage when they come to At Last (the books are now also out in a set The Patrick Melrose Novels). The most cathartic novel that St Aubyn has written, it achieves a subtle but satisfying conclusion to the saga, comparable in its best moments to John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Its power relies on the accumulation of details, so when Patrick reminisces about “the gecko that had taken custody of his soul in a moment of crisis”, readers of Never Mind will remember the rape of Patrick at the age of five by his father, and how by seeing the gecko on the window sill the child was able momentarily to see beyond the terror. In a characteristic dualism, it also brings to mind the unforgettable description of his father’s eyes: “They moved from object to object and person to person, pausing for a moment on each and seeming to steal something vital from them, with a quick adhesive glance, like the flickering of a gecko’s tongue.”
At Last begins with Patrick in a much longed-for state: a parentless existence. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect. He seemed to have been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness.” His mother, Eleanor, is finally dead after a long deterioration, and the novel takes place entirely on the day of her funeral. After a month-long stint at the Priory rehabilitation clinic, the alcoholism that haunted Mother’s Milk is behind him. He is separated from his wife, Mary, though still dependent on her. With his inherited money gone, he is living in a bedsit (though, in a nod to his erstwhile privilege, the bedsit is in Kensington). The only person he can really open up to is his friend Johnny Hall, who is, perhaps appropriately, a child psychologist.
The funeral setting allows for a raft of characters to be in the same place, many of whom Patrick despises: the snobbish friends, the greedy relatives, the over-earnest New Age gurus. Most of them are members of the decaying upper class. Eleanor’s sister, Nancy, lives on the prestige of her illustrious family tree (“One day she was going to write a book about her mother and her aunts, the legendary Jonson sisters”), and Nicholas, a family friend, is the perfect symbol of unrepentant snobbery in the face of a future that has no plans for him or his kind.
Everyone at the funeral is troubled in their own way. Eleanor, like a Mrs. Jellyby recast by Evelyn Waugh, has left a legacy of pain to Patrick and a legacy of bewilderment to everyone else. She spent much of her life desperate to help others through charity, while her own son was being abused by her husband, David, one of the most relentlessly despicable characters in recent English fiction. Eleanor tells Mary of a particularly upsetting incident, when a drunken David circumcised his infant son as Eleanor and others looked on, too scared to do anything. “They knew this was no operation, it was an attack by a furious old man on his son’s genitals; but like the chorus in a play, they could only comment and wail, without being able to stop him.” A scandalised Mary wonders how a mother could let this happen, but concludes that her mother-in-law “could never have protected anyone else when she was so entranced by her own vulnerability, so desperate to be saved.”
These gestures towards forgiveness are scattered throughout the novel and are what give it a sense of simultaneous ending and renewal. Yet St Aubyn can stumble when he tries to push conflicted thoughts onto paper. His simile-laden style has no purchase in the tangle of feelings that Patrick experiences towards the end of the novel. We get a hint of its manic source when Patrick tells Gordon, the moderator of the Priory’s Depression Group, that metaphor is “the whole problem, the solvent of nightmares. At the molten heart of things everything resembles everything else: that’s the horror.”
St Aubyn is clearly aware of the malign effect a stylistic flourish can have, and it is perhaps the struggle with this impulse that can cause confusion for the reader. There are moments when, caught in the cobwebs of Patrick’s mind, we are perhaps supposed to be confused; but then we arrive at a sentence like this: “The absolute banishment of irony from Eleanor’s earnest persona created a black market for the blind sarcasm of her actions.” Some readers may be clever enough to digest this on first reading, but many of us will be scratching our heads on the 10th time round. St Aubyn is also capable of dropping the ball entirely. The following sentence is the literary equivalent of a blooper reel: “Her social secretary would call twice a day to say that she had been delayed but was really on her way now.” The siren repetition of the “ay” sound would be shoddy work if the writer was not considered a superior stylist, but in the context of so much careful prose it feels like a minor tragedy.
Mentioning tragedy in such a trivial context might seem insensitive considering the novel’s autobiographical source. From what can be gathered from interviews, St Aubyn lived through many of the most traumatic episodes of his novels. This autobiographical strand is repeated to the point of numbness in most reviews and features, but it is worth remembering that the Melrose books are presented by the author as fiction. In a lot of cases, joining the dots between life and art is a futile practice, and not very interesting either. It is tempting because it is easy, which is why it is not appropriate for these addictive but complicated novels; and it can also lead to the reader doing the author too many favors, investing emotion when it is not there in the words. Or, more unfairly, it can downplay the real strengths of St Aubyn’s abilities. Once we know we can’t unknow, and many readers will be carrying some extra nonfiction baggage when they read At Last. But even without the autobiographical anchor — or, better, if we were unaware of the autobiographical anchor — the Melrose novels would still be a brilliant if awkward display of St Aubyn’s gifts as a writer.
As many have likely already heard, John Updike died today. The New York Times and innumerable other outlets are remembering his gargantuan contribution to American letters. We’ve talked about Updike many times here at the Millions; for starters, there was Corey Vilhauer on the Rabbit Angstrom novels, James Hynes on Rabbit at Rest, and Hamilton Leithauser on Roger’s Version. With his close association with The New Yorker, his stories were naturally covered in the two roundups of the magazine’s fiction that we’ve done: 2005 and 2008. Patrick also paid homage to Updike’s story “The Christian Roommates” last year.Speaking of Patrick, he has collected some nice links at the Vroman’s blog, including Updike’s appearance on the Bat Segundo Show podcast, Sam Anderson’s remembrance at Vulture, and, oddly, Updike on dinosaurs for National Geographic.Updike fans can also wend their way through the New Yorker archives, checking out his work. That link comes via emdashes, which also offers ample Updike coverage. There’s also this conversation (there’s a video and transcript available) between Updike and Jeffrey Goldberg at the NYPL, suggested by our contributor Anne. And George Saunders recalls his own first story for the New Yorker being paired with an Updike story.Finally, Wikipedia has plenty of detail on Updike’s life and Amazon, on his substantial oeuvre.
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. He’s a Michigander, but he’s lived in Austin, Texas, since 1995. Hynes adds, “I have a new novel that is, if I’d only get my ass in gear, a month or two away from being finished.”James Hynes’ Top Three… No, Top Four Books of 2007Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I’ve been an atheist since the age of 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, but since then I’ve never really bothered to examine why I believe what I believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be). So, with atheism in the air recently, I read Ms. Hecht’s wonderful popular history of skepticism, from the Greeks to the present. It’s elegant, witty, and very light on its feet, with none of the arrogance, self-righteousness, or snarkiness of the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). I learned a lot, and now, thanks to Ms. Hecht, I have purchased a small library of classics of skepticism (by Epicurus, Cicero, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, and David Hume) that I’m working through, books I should have read as a philosophy major years ago, but didn’t.Rabbit at Rest by John Updike. When I was a young, stupid, unpublished writer, I used to diss Updike for being all style and no substance – sure the sentences were lovely, but his books weren’t about anything important, the way, say, Gravity’s Rainbow was. But since my father died a few years ago and I turned fifty, suddenly it turns out Updike’s novels, the Rabbit books in particular, are about everything. I started a couple of years ago by rereading Rabbit Run, and I finished the fourth and final book just a couple of weeks ago. Updike’s pointillist rendering of an ordinary and not even especially likable ordinary guy is both unsentimental and humane, and it manages, somehow, miraculously, to make everyday life into something epic.Dance Night by Dawn Powell. I decided to try Powell because my friend Kate Christensen (author of The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man) has always spoken highly of her. I even had Katie’s permission not to like the book. But, as it turns out, I loved it. I gather that Powell’s best known books are about bohemian life in mid-century New York, but this one is a vivid and clear-eyed rendering of some intricately intertwined lives in a small, working-class town in Ohio in the early 20th century. Apart from a few touches, this book feels surprisingly contemporary. It’s expertly and surprisingly plotted, and, like the Updike book, it somehow manages to be mercilessly honest and tender all at once. It’s like a boiled-down Dreiser novel, only much, much better written than Dreiser.No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. After I finished the first hundred pages of this, I e-mailed my friend John Marks (author of The Wall and Fangland), who had raved to me about this, and asked him what all the fuss was. It’s just a Jim Thompson novel, I said, weary sheriff versus heartless psychopath out in arid West Texas, only with a higher literary gloss than Thompson’s work. John was gracious, as always – he’s a Texan himself – but I sensed that he thought I’d missed the point on this one. Which, it turns out, I had. I finished the book – just last night, as a matter of fact – and it turns out to have more in common with Dostoevsky than with Jim Thompson, if Dostoevsky wrote lightning-paced, violent thrillers that get adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers. As a thriller, it’s first rate, but what makes it a great novel are the first person sections by Sheriff Bell, whose faith in goodness is shaken to the core by the events of the novel and who speaks in pitch-perfect Texan. I’m still not sure it’s as good as Blood Meridian (my favorite McCarthy novel), but, as we say in Texas, it’ll do till the real thing gets here.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Which is better?Reading a series slowly, savoring each book by separating it from its ilk, dividing and conquering and drawing the series out over the span of several years, as if reading them real time the way they were released.Or…Devouring a series at once, going from book to book as if the separate entities were truly one bound volume, not allowing the characters to rest but letting them progress, from their early days until their final words.I used to be in the former.Now I’m in the latter.This sudden change of heart is thanks, in most part, to this month’s Book of the Month – John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels. Or, as most know it: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest.Breaking away from my typical pattern, where I found myself reading one book, then steering away for a while until coming back to the next in the series (see: Roddy Doyle’s Henry books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), I decided to read all of these books at once. I came to this decision in two parts.First, I had to actually decide to read one of the Rabbit books. I did it in order to see what the big deal was about. So I asked around. I had heard from several people that Rabbit Redux was the best of the four. I found out that the final two books won the Pulitzer. That left three of the four books with a decent pedigree. Then, I thought, “Well, if I was going to read the last three, shouldn’t I start with the first one?” In days, I had created a viable argument for reading each one of the four books.Second, at Common Good Books in St. Paul (Garrison Keillor’s great little basement bookstore), I made a grand discovery. Having never looked for any of these Updike books before, I never realized they had been published together. They had been. It was reportedly the way Updike had meant to have them published after finishing the fourth installment: as Rabbit Angstrom. The collection shed its four names and took the name of its protagonist, the utterly despicable yet strangely endearing man from Brewer, Pennsylvania.With that, I found my mind made up for me. I’d just read all of them.So I did. And here’s what I found.1. Reading a set of books like this keeps everything fresh. Nothing is missed. Vague remembrances to scenes in past books are still top-of-mind, making every allusion memorable. You also start to see patterns more readily. There’s no time taken trying to figure out where a character or an odd turn of phrase, or a symbol or reference to earlier foreshadowing first appeared. You know. You encountered it just a few days prior.2. In completing the set, I discovered I intimately knew everything about the character – more than any character I’ve ever encountered. And I have to believe that, if read apart, I wouldn’t have made all of the connections. I wouldn’t have been able to predict what Rabbit was going to do. It would have been impossible – I’d have spent part of my brain thinking back to whether an event was worth remembering, not processing each flaw, each trait.3. I saw each character grow, amazingly, over a thirty year period, in a way that only a 1,500 page novel can do.The Rabbit books are pretty simple, actually – just the chronicle of one man’s life over thirty years, each book taking place ten years after the one before it. It’s, to use the overused Rabbit cliche, a series about an “Everyman.” It’s the tale of Everyman’s rise from dirt to riches, complete with all of the warts – the infidelities, the misguided choices, death, life, hate, family relations, everything that makes real life interesting.I know. I know. Many actually find the Rabbit novels to be very uninteresting. Many find Updike to be a little too pretentious, especially in these books. Many find these to be boring, unnecessary trifles that have done no more than elevate Updike to a literary position he may not deserve.I liked them. I liked them because, over the course of the four books, I truly got to know Harry Angstrom. I knew what he was going to do, felt his every pain and struggle. When he was in the hospital, I developed a sympathy chest pain. When he was watching his home burn down, I was smelling fire in the distance. When he hurt, or was hurt, I wanted it to stop – I wanted to do something to steer the characters in the right direction, to grab them by the shoulders and remind them of what had happened in the past – where the destructive nature was going to lead, why they were making mistakes that they should have learned from in years past.I enjoyed the decade-wide time capsules and the growth of the characters and the references to past seemingly inconsequential events. And Updike, despite all that he did to make Rabbit Angstrom completely sex-crazed at times, is a great writer. You’ve got to hand him that.So yeah, I tended to grasp the characters emotionally. In everyday life, I’d find things that reminded me of Harry Angstrom, simply because he seemed so real – so ordinary and so knowable.I’m not sure I’d have had the same effect if I read them spread out over a long time. I’m not sure I’d have even finished the collection. But I’m sure glad I did.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.