Considering John Updike

I have been asked only once in my life to name a great short story writer, and that was by one of my kids yesterday. For the record, I picked John Updike. He certainly has written quite a few great short stories. His stories about the Maples (first collected in 1980 in Too Far to Go) represent only a small part of his work in the form over the period, but they can stand as representative of his accomplishment. In those stories he explores marriage and divorce with a kind of depth and intimacy that one would have thought impossible in a short story.
He has also written enough stories to fill three small volumes about his fictional alter ego Henry Bech. Despite the fact that it is Updike’s gift with the language for which he is usually either praised or damned, in the Bech stories Updike writes in a comic or satiric mode that displays several other facets of his genius.
In “Bech in Czech” (from the third volume), for example, Bech is sent to Czechoslovakia on a cultural exchange program through the United States government in 1986, while the country is still Communist. Bech attends a party of dissident writers, one of whom had been jailed. Bech reflects: “Jail! One of the guests at the party had spent nearly ten years in prison. He was dapper, like the cafe habitues in George Grosz drawings, with a scarred, small face and shining black eyes. He spoke so softly Bech could hardly hear him, though he bent his ear close. The man’s hands twisted under Bech’s eyes, as if in the throes of torture. Bech noticed that the fingers had in fact bent, broken. How would he, the American author asked himself, stand up to having his fingernails pulled? He could think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.”
That paragraph, buried in the middle of the story, is the product of a deeply humane sensibility. I can’t think of another man of letters who could have written it in the course of a story devoted to the ghosts of recent history. All of which is meant only to suggest that the fiction book of the year is inarguably the book collecting Updike’s short stories written through 1975, and Cynthia Ozick’s review from tomorrow’s Sunday New York Times Book Review would be the one I want to read: “‘The Early Stories’: Prodigious Updike.”
In her conclusion Ozick calls on an earlier Bech story to pay tribute to Updike in the familiar terms: “Updike is assuredly rich in language (its dazzle is tempered by colloquial rushes of dialogue), and if his fictive world is poor in the sorrows of history, if the only conflagrations his characters must witness are picnic fires, it is no wonder, and mainly a pleasure, that he turns to the elaborations of imagery. Henry Bech, Updike’s alter ego in ‘The Bulgarian Poetess,’ remarks to an enchanting woman fettered by Communism — the closest this collection comes to a tyrannical age — ‘It is a matter of earnest regret for me that you and I must live on opposite sides of the world.’ In light of the imperial craft of Updike’s ambitious 20’s and 30’s, it must be, rather, a matter of felicitous relief. The America of these early stories may be the mostly untrammeled land we remember; but language in all its fecundity is Updike’s native country, and he is its patriot.”
Lorrie Moore also had an excellent review of the book in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. Among other things, Moore attends to the personal qualities of Updike’s stories in “Home truths.”


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