I’m still suffering over my love-hate relationship with John Updike, a writer I can’t stop admiring no matter how hard I try.
There are many reasons to dislike this pillar of our literary establishment, this modern giant. He has been the epitome of cozy, smug success since his career began in the early 60s. Just look at the smarmy smile on any of his 150 or so book jacket photos. This is a writer who embraces the culture of upper class suburbia, a writer who would have sneered at his peers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, a writer whose stories from the 1960s poked mean fun at hippies and civil rights activists (just read his excellent collection Too Far To Go to find some surprisingly cynical jabs at Martin Luther King, published when King was still alive and not yet a saint).
In fact, John Updike is so easy to hate that I can’t even find an original way to do this; Nicholson Baker devoted an entire, hilarious book U and I to his own jealous obsession with this author.
There’s only one problem: I love John Updike. I recently picked up one of his recent and less successful books, Gertrude and Claudius, which was remaindered for five bucks at Barnes and Noble. This is a modern retelling of the Hamlet legend, based on Shakespeare as well as earlier Danish sources, that focuses on the illicit love affair between Hamlet’s mother and uncle. I picked it up because I’m a bit of a Hamlet buff, and maybe even because I liked the idea of reading an Updike failure, a late-career book that got no media attention and didn’t sell.
Well, guess what? I love this damn book. It’s up there with my favorite Updikes (among them the aforementioned Too Far to Go, Couples, Bech: A Book, and many more I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve read).
I’m not surprised the book didn’t sell or get good reviews, because the book’s ambition is to approach Shakespeare’s sacred territory and compete on Shakespearean terms. The book is written in prose, not verse, and yet the sentences certainly do reach, quite self-consciously, for the gorgeous cadences of iambic rhythm. This is a grand move on the author’s part, equivalent to a pat on his own back. But once you look past the nerviness of this self-comparison, what remains is a book that works, a story with a peculiar angle that strikes true in many ways.
Because John Updike is primarily an author of relationship stories, and because these relationships usually involve extra-marital affairs, it is no surprise that the author identifies deeply with Queen Gertrude as she runs from her husband into the arms of his treacherous brother. I am still in the middle of the book, so I can’t comment on the plot as a whole. But, sentence by sentence, this book is a thrill.
Here’s one sentence, describing the Queen: “Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open.” Lines like this make me realize it may be time for me to let go of my natural inclination to dislike this author, and accept the fact that he is one of the few novelists who can write as well as one of my lifelong literary role models. So, today I let go of the fight and admit what I’ve known all along: John Updike is the Henry James of our time, an absolute master of the private thought publicly expressed, and a writer who will grace the bookshelves of eternity.
What do you think about John Updike?