In John Updike's collection of essays and criticism, Hugging the Shore, it takes the author until page six to delve into the varied wonders of the female sex organ. I am unsure whether this is a record for Updike, but knowing his work as I do, I suggest not. Still, sex, wit, clarity, insight, cleverness and a tendency towards dazzling prose tell us all - Here is John Updike.
The collection begins, to my mind, very weakly indeed. The first seventy pages are scattered pieces of writing that are neither essay nor story, review nor criticism. One twenty page section is simply interviews, with such non-entities as the Golf Course Owner and the Undertaker. A brief piece on book envelopes taking over the world is bizarre, and one wonders whether the rest of the collection will come across as the droppings of a writer accustomed to seeing his work in print.
Happily, this is not the case. Updike's reviews, while predominantly of Americans and absolutely focused on an American, Protestant outlook, are conversational and enjoyable, while also possessing great intelligence and creativity. He is unafraid to sprinkle his writing with metaphors and smilies and other tricks of the author's trade, allowing his reviews the sprightliness of prose and side-stepping the possibility of churning out tired, staid non-fiction. On Charles Citrine, the hero of Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift, '...the sleep of his soul, as he thinks of it, is disturbed but not shattered. He rolls over, amid the rumpled sheets and untied threads of the plot.' This is wonderful writing, imagery which could easily find itself nestled within the cosy bosom of an Updike short story.
Because the fiction ranges from roughly the early to late 1970s, and because John Updike has reviewed a great many books by the same authors, collected together by theme (if there are multiple authors considered) or the writer's name (if only one), we are able to watch the rise, or fall, or Updike's opinion of their writing. Of Anne Tyler's writing he is very impressed, until perhaps about 1980 when he begins to realise that the quality of her work has plateaued, and does not seem likely to increase. Iris Murdoch is at first warily appreciated, then wearily disliked, while the French nouveau roman authors are, for the most part, technically applauded while simultaneously derided for their lack of humanity or relevance.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the collection for me was the hundred and fifty or so pages in the first half which focused on the letters and journals of some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century - Nabokov, Edmun Wilson, Hemingway, Joyce, Kafka. Perhaps because of his own knowledge of writing and the writer's life, Updike brings to his analysis of these works a tender, indulgent understanding of the difficulties and the pleasures of being a writer. Updike is of course was nothing like Hemingway, who boasted of killing men and lions, and who drank and drank and drank; nor was he like Kafka, who couldn't escape the shadow of his father. But he shares with them the passion of the word, which allows an illumination of artistry that perhaps a lay reader would not discover.
Often when reading a collection of reviews it becomes clear to the reader that perhaps only the works they are familiar with should be read. This is not the case with Updike's writing. He does not admonish the unaware reader, and nor does he lord his great knowledge. The plot of fiction is explained gently, calmly, with few interludes, and then he comments on the work. With non-fiction Updike simply comments, and there is a very real sense that he appreciates, admires and respects non-fiction, but that it is not really for him. Reviewing fiction causes his own prose to shine, for example when he calls Calvino's Invisible Cities 'a consummate book, both crystalline and limpid, adamant and airy, playful yet "worked" with a monkish care.' Of the magic realists he is most impressed with Calvino, though he is, as a whole, duly envious of the masters in a genre he cannot himself master.
Which leads Updike, finally, into a kind of removed contemplation of his own oevre, which did not yet include Rabbit at Rest, but was studded with the worthy minor gems of The Centaur, Couples, and, of course, the preceeding three Rabbit novels. In an interview with his own fictional creation Henry Bech, Updike says of literature: 'let [it] concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner lives of hidden men.' He 'distrusts books involving spectacular people, or spectacular events'. Other pieces collected under the heading 'On One's Own Oeuvre' include forewords to other books, snippets of poetry, essayistic asides and notes.
Updike's reviews are neither cutting when he is disappointed, or gushing when he is impressed with an author's talents. He remains curiously calm, overall a genial, jolly writer who enjoys reading books and likes to talk about them, but who is perhaps not attuned to the endless passionate craving of a bibliophile. But could this be true? Of a man who has written over twenty books, many short stories and poems, as well as the very book of reviews that is being reviewed? Strangely, it seems to be the case. He is pleasant, not pressing; urging, not urgent. This is both his strength and weakness as a reviewer. We catch the spark but not the flame.