Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Farewell, Updike

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Farewell, Updike

Isn't it strange how we feel that some people, some artists and some works of art, belong to us? And how arbitrary it is who falls in to that category? Olivier doesn't belong to me but Brando does - never more so than in On the Waterfront. Godard belongs to me; Truffaut does not. Dreyer, but not Bresson. Fitzgerald is mine, Hemingway is a stranger I admire and am courteous towards, but he does not really hold a place in my heart. The Beatles are so much mine than I can get tired of them the way one grows tired of a sibling; and so forth.


Perhaps this familiar, filial feeling is most present of all with writers, who share their inner voice and speak to us in conspiratorial tones emanating from those innocent letters typeset on white pages. I already mentioned Fitzgerald and Hemingway, notable among the interwar Americans. With the Russians, I admire and enjoy Tolstoy but Chekhov and Dostoevsky are blood-brothers to me if not to each other. And with postwar Americans, among the last generation of great novelists and celebrity litterateurs there should be many names to choose from. But when Norman Mailer died, I had to acknowledge I'd never read much by him and that the astringent tone I'd gleaned from his image didn't quite gibe. When Vonnegut passed, I tipped my proverbial hat but left the real mourning to my college rommate, who - like so many others - idolized the writer on an extremely personal level. And now John Updike is gone, and I feel that I've lost a neighbor. Why, exactly?

It wasn't quite the novels. The only one I'd completed was Rabbit, Run and though good, Rabbit does not stride alongside Gatsby or Raskolnikov in the avenues of my imagination. Nor was it quite the WASPy milieu that belonged to Updike - one I have often found off-putting and limiting in other artists' work. In part, it was his peculiar looks: the wolfish/hawkish visage, those tiny shark eyes with the jack o'lantern grin. The face that shouldn't have been welcoming but somehow was, perhaps softened by the honeyed voice. When he appeared in documentaries, he was an oddly comforting presence - soothing and purifying at the same time. In this, his appearance reflected his prose, and that's ultimately what drew me to him. Specifically, the prose of his short stories.

I'd love to quote you a passage right now, pointing my finger in the air, brushing my long hair to the side (metaphorically speaking, as my hair is rather short) and pontificating like an undergraduate poet, closing my eyes to cultivate the right mood and then breathlessly incantatating some immortal words of the late bard. But I can't; though I don't readily carry quotes around in my head anyway, if I did they'd be more likely Fitzgerald's than Updike's. Besides, Updike was never meant to be invoked in that way, perhaps why he didn't quite have a cult the way Vonnegut or Mailer did. He was more often admired than beloved, yet somehow, something...

It isn't the words I remember, but the feeling those words evoked, the way Updike could so deftly find a warm glow in a superficially banal situation, the little eddies of feeling that carry one through a normal life in the suburbs, the aches and minor pains rendered so exquisitely that they manage to transcend their limits - not through exuberance but through focus, spilling just over the edge and suffusing all the proceedings with a fine-combed sensitivity. Finally, if I don't quite remember the words, I remember the images - a family stopping amidst a cacophony of roadside billboards for fast food, a father and son quietly stomping through the Northeastern snow on a hunting excursion, and finally, most poignantly of all, a civil ceremony in which the husband kisses the wife...after the clerk pronounces them divorced. (In other hands, this may have seemed obvious and trite, since the narrator recalls that he and his new bride had forgotten to kiss at their wedding twenty years before; but Updike manages to make it seem at once spontaneous and conscious, in an unembarrassing way, as if the divorcee knew the gesture he is making but does it instantly, without overthinking it, his self-conscious thought sublimely transfigured into action.)

These images bring me to my final point...the irony of celebrating Updike on a movie blog. Of 20th century writers, he might seem one of the least cinematic. His spaces were so often interior, and when not interior, certainly not larger than life either. So much of his writerly attention was focused on thought process, eschewing the concise action of Hemingway or the vivid scenery of Fitzgerald. Among the aforementioned recently deceased peers, Mailer made movies and struck tough-guy poses gleaned from them; Vonnegut wrote in the vernacular of science fiction, filling his work with wild imagery (albeit imagery so wild it could almost never be imagined, better left paradoxically unadorned on the page). And yet somehow it is Updike whose images linger in my imagination like half-remembered, hazy bits of home movies or overlooked quiet moments in a feature, the forgotten corners of some narrative - the naturalistic ephemera that draws our eye to its own surprise.

This ability to enliven the mundane - there's that word I've been seeking for several paragraphs - was one of Updike's greatest gifts. And always lurking beneath the pleasantness of his comfy suburbia was a frustration and a restlessness, seldom given free reign, though his breakthrough novel took its name from the impulse. In Rabbit, Run, the young hero hops in a car and beings to drive...and drive...and drive...and drive. The sense of freedom looms, terrifying almost, and eventually he turns around and races back to town - without returning to his home. The image is telling - though the journey has switched direction, it hasn't really ended. That searching, impulsive tone which drove the hero outward will carry with him back onto his stopping ground, casting the familiar in a new light and reminding us of the inner adventure that lurks behind every ordinary sight. This inner adventure was carried throughout the rest of Updike's life and career, but it was an inner adventure that belonged to all of us.

And implicit in that inner adventure was the knowledge that eventually the car would not be able to turn around, that it would continue to drive into the black night, eventually disappearing into the darkness altogether. The clinging to the familiar and the mundane, despite the restless desire to escape, comes in part from this skittish awareness that these moments, these conventions and comforts, will someday be ripped away from us; we might as well enjoy it when it lasts. And the best we can hope for is that on that day when it all ends, cognizant of the fact that we forgot to do so initially, we can gracefully lean over and give it one last gentle, light farewell kiss.

John Updike
1932-2009

6 comments:

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

I must confess that Updike was never a literary cousin to me -- too many of his novels (I can't quite forgive him The Centaur especially) seemed only to coax out the prosaic in the mundane, for me. Perhaps his milieu cut too close to home; I was raised in the sleepy, economically schismed suburbs (albeit on the west coast) and hardly felt the need to read about fading small town athletes in my spare time. I do, however, agree with you that his short stories are the peak of his prowess -- I remember reading "A&P" in high school and just thinking "Where did THIS come from?" The anthology "The Early Stories" is worth a look from anybody who ever doubted the man's status as a looming figure in 20th century letters.

And your analysis is, I must once again admit, rather humbling.

MovieMan0283 said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jon, despite your own proclivities - I'm actually kind of surprised Updike resonates with me based on other favorite artists, yet for whatever reason he does. I don't remember the titles of the stories or collections I read - it was about 8 years ago - which one is A&P?

T.S. said...

Very touching in memoriam. I met Updike briefly last year – he came to deliver the keynote address during a writer's week on our campus, but before his reading he met privately with a small group of graduate students, which completely floored me. That night he read the first short story he published, and on the news of his death, all of those images from that story came flooding back to me. You're definitely right about him: his images were neither too large nor too small, but perfectly sized for recollection. Thanks for the elegant thoughts.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

MovieMan: A&P is the coming-of-age tale wherein a young grocery clerk quits his job in protest after watching a fellow employee humiliate three nubile vixens who tour the store in bathing suits. It's often anthologized. What drew me to it most of all was the descriptions of the girls -- again, those conveniently compact images. They magnificently capture that odd cusp between childhood innocence and the blossoming of raw adolescent sexuality. The narrator's attitude towards them is not entirely lascivious, but not entirely platonic either -- as he slowly dissects their bodies you can almost hear him coming to terms with his own libido in front of you on the page.

I mean no disrespect by mentioning this, but as a side note, the day Updike passed my father sent me a link to the news article and titled his email "Hope this makes your day". Obviously I'd never go around wishing death on those who don't aesthetically jibe with me, but hating on Updike was very fashionable in my college days so I did my share of it (I made a rather dadaist short video on him once that ended with a rhapsodic ode to particular parts of Amy Tan's anatomy...ah, those were the days). Anyhow I really do owe him another glance, in particular his later short narratives.

MovieMan0283 said...

T.S.,

Glad you enjoyed it & thanks for the Matinee mention.

Jon,

I had no idea Updike was so vehemently hated upon by undergrads, but my own perverse old-man-in-a-25-year-old (and perhaps recovering, well, undergrad) way that makes me like him even more. Anyway, don't feel too bad - I've got cold-hearted buddies who would make that e-mail heading seem benign (i.e. their fathers would not be exaggerating to say "this will make your day" when a particular celebrity dies...)