Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton, eds. European Perspectives on John Updike. Camden House, 2018.
European Perspectives on John Updike presents twelve chapters arranged in four parts. These are preceded by a comprehensive Introduction from the editors, Updike scholars Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton. Each chapter, including this astute and thorough Introduction by the editors, includes “Notes” at its conclusion and its own following Works Cited pages. Such thoroughness Updike scholars will surely welcome. “Part I. Coming of Age, Aging in Time” opens with a chapter on Updike’s late novel Terrorist and also includes essays by Eva-Sabine Zehelein on Updike’s most well-known protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, and by Sylvie Mathé on “Intimations of Mortality in Updike’s Oeuvre.”
In the first chapter, “Under His Skin: Reconstructing the Adolescent Longings of a Would-Be Terrorist,” Teresa Botelho fathoms the novel’s inspiration as a response to Don DeLillo’s call for a post-9/11 work to address the changes in American society wrought by that event. Botelho cites scholars including Francis Blessington, writing in 2008 for the Sewanee Review, who “identifies two texts written in English that were particularly influential in the establishment of the conventions of this genre: Henry James […] and Joseph Conrad.” Botelho further notes that “Conrad added a particular new motif, that of the terrorist as a ‘tragically fated naïf, crushed between two opposite and corrupt political forces,’ [according to Blessington] whose choices the reader can observe and understand while reading the novel as a type of bildungsroman.”
The complications within Terrorist include the fact that the story arrives from young Ahmad’s point of view on America, the land of his birth. The novel sympathizes with his hybrid background, part Arab-American and part Irish-American, as he searches for identity and adopts the absolutes of an extremist Muslim persona. Botelho addresses the views of both “academic critics” and “journalistic reviewers”: the former group, according to Botelho, recognized the novel’s “audacity of purpose.” Updike initially saw the character Ahmad Molloy as bearing some similarity to the protagonist and narrator of his early story “Pigeon Feathers,” David Kern. Botelho compares—as does another scholar, Kirk Curnutt, author of “Teenage Wasteland: Coming of Age Novels in the 1980s and 1990s”—the 18-year old protagonist to Holden Caulfield, the hero of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, who appears an expert on American phoniness. She also considers responses to the novel by journalists Christopher Hitchens and Michiko Kakutani as well as novelist Salman Rushdie.
“Part II. Love, American Style” also includes three chapters; the first addresses Updike’s 1968 novel Couples while the two that follow address the more recent novels Villages and Seek My Face, whose title quotes from the Psalms and which meditates upon modern art. Part II includes one of the co-editor’s essays; Sue Norton’s essay “Back to the Garden: American Longing in John Updike’s Couples” borrows its subtitle from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” just as the part’s title borrows from the name of an American television program, Love, American Style. Norton places Couples one year prior to Woodstock, which she mentions, and The Summer of Love, which she fails to mention by name. The historical references she includes will seem familiar to most American readers who are middle-aged and beyond. Norton effectively ascertains the indulgent behavior which Updike satirizes; he describes a mother’s lap, for example, as an “ambrosial chalice.” The seemingly Joycean overkill may seem humorous to some readers; perhaps Updike is having a bit of fun with his prose? Norton perceptively notes:
Like the plot of the novel itself, gratuitous lines such as these exemplify, however inadvertently, the heavy toll exacted by wanton self-indulgence.
Certainly self-indulgence of many shapes and hues is its dominant motif. The novel depicts a social milieu in which solipsistic behavior is de rigeur—a phrase that, along with the word milieu, would roll nicely off the tongue of Harold little-Smith. One of the Tarbox husbands, Harold will not tame his ostentatious habit of lacing his conversation with French vocabulary words.
Also in this second section, Brian Duffy, one of just two male contributors to this book, explores and extrapolates the links between artistic symbols including the Madonna in Updike’s late novel Villages. Duffy’s essay seems to fall short of truly giving Villages its due, but he succeeds in appreciating Updike as a literary artist; Duffy correctly notes Updike’s use of symbols, stretching back to the author’s knowledge of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels of the 19th century. Duffy, like Aristi Trendel later in the book, sees Updike as a literary artist and avoids the reductive, autobiographical reading of Updike’s entire oeuvre which Adam Begley presents in his biography Updike, which is alluded to in European Perspectives only briefly to clarify some points of chronology. But readers who have read both that book and this one might wonder: are Updike’s literary allusions to precursors further efforts to mask autobiographical details?
“Part III. Amazing Grace, American Faith” in its three chapters analyzes late works and includes a focus on Updike’s aesthetics. This section begins with Andrew Tate’s essay “Psalmist of the Everyday: Late Updike, Aesthetics, and the Language of Praise.” Here Tate, a Reader in Literature, Religion, and Aesthetics at Lancaster University, explores the theological concerns of Updike’s fiction and the author’s appreciation for the work of theologians Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. Tate’s chapter builds upon the scholarly work of James Yerkes and cites his subtitle on Updike’s “sense of the sacred and the motions of grace.” Tate weaves into his artful discussion David Baddiel’s remark, which describes Updike as the “great poet of the ordinary life, of domesticity, of life as most people live it.” What appears most interesting in Tate’s essay, which may be at least partially familiar to Updike readers and scholars, is the author’s assessment when he “reflected on his realization that his ‘sole’ imperative was ‘to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due’.” Within the same chapter Tate considers Updike’s remark on “the Old Testament injunction to give praise” and also mentions Updike own assessment of “a ‘kind of hymning undercurrent’ to his writing.” What seems especially remarkable is Updike’s gift for “praise” and his refusal to take sides against the less-than-admirable actions of his characters. Tate notes a “prelapsarian” innocence in Updike’s meditations on religious faith prior to September 11, 2001, and also offers a thorough exploration of Updike’s story “Varieties of Religious Experience” and its allusion to William James’s well-known work. Tate also addresses the views of prominent Updike scholars James Plath, who completed an important interview with Updike, and James Schiff, who has considered the religious impulses in Updike’s writing.
In this same chapter, Tate investigates the novel Seek My Face, whose backdrop includes the milieu of the abstract expressionist painters in New York City in the 1950s. This novel also garners attention in Part II with Karin Ikas’s essay “The Art of Love: Pierre Bourdieu, Cultural Production, and Seek My Face.” Tate notes that “Updike makes mischievous, and barely concealed, use of biographies and artistic habits of a plenitude of figures, including Jackson Pollock, […] Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg” in this “kind of a roman a clef.” Tate also includes Updike’s brilliantly true-to-life description of a Quaker meeting as Hope recalls the worship of her childhood:
I remember mostly the light, and the silence, all these grown-ups waiting for God to speak through one of them—suppressed coughs, shuffling feet, the creak of a bench. […] Then the quality of the silence changed, it turned a corner, like an angel passing, and I realized it was a benign sort of game. The Friends speak of ‘living silence.’ The Quakers did make arrangements, but left space for God, so to speak, to upset the arrangements.
But most interesting in Tate’s assessment, towards its close, is his inclusion of the remarks of scholar Marshall Bowell on Updike’s late story “The Full Glass,” observing “Updike’s ‘larky, adulterous believers’.” Tate continues, “He gives praise for the everyday—he is a man who remembers a capacity for ‘amazed gratitude’—but also seems, unlike other characters, oddly untroubled by the hurt his behavior caused those he betrayed.”
Chapter 8, “Guilt, Shame, and Hope in Updike’s Short Fiction: ‘The Music School,’ ‘Guilt-Gems,’ and ‘Deaths of Distant Friends’” by Aristi Trendel presents a thoughtful and insightful analysis of The Music School’s title story. Scholars should appreciate the depth of Trendel’s analysis and her appreciation for the musical “fugal weave” within this story. Trendel illuminates Updike’s sophistication as a prose stylist while she plumbs depths journalists within mainstream media outlets fail to recognize. Her endeavor reveals why this collection of scholarly essays appears as a most welcome and indispensable resource for scholars of 20th-century American literature; any scholarly library should also welcome it as an equally important resource. Trendel’s notes on “The Music School” include the following:
The narrator’s effort to piece his breaking life together and make sense of its bleak drift parallels the reader’s effort to draw the disparate narrative strands together. Their intricacy makes ‘The Music School’ a more complex narrative requiring a high degree of organization, paradoxically achieved within broad narrative freedom. In fact, free association seems to be the narrative’s principle. The dissolution of marriage finds an appropriate vehicle in Updike’s technique of fugal weave.
“The Music School” and later stories “Guilt-Gems” and “Deaths of Distant Friends” all have “their highly introspective tenor” as Trendel finds. A “fugue” in music is “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving parts.” The “fugue” also holds a second meaning in psychiatry: “a state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment.” The end of the protagonist’s marriage causes “guilt,” whose psychological ramifications Trendel explores as she also thoughtfully examines characters who are seemingly deracinated by actions, choices, and circumstances surrounding the end of a marriage. Updike scholar Donald Greiner claims that “The Music School” is “perhaps Updike’s finest story.” Readers will certainly notice the “brooding” quality Trendel senses within this story, and the two other stories Trendel couples it with grapple with the moral heavyweights “guilt” and “shame.”
Part III of European Perspectives on John Updike concludes with Biljana Dojčinovič’s essay “Signs of Omission? Socialist Erasure of Religion in John Updike’s Work.” This essay provides unique insights into a dilemma to which most American readers remain oblivious: the constraining of religious expression in Eastern Europe under the domination of the former Soviet Union. This essay lends an air of social history to European Perspectives which rounds out a view that American literary scholars have failed to address.
Part IV of European Perspectives on John Updike, with the heading “Old World Myths, New World News,” includes the final three essays in this important tome. The final section begins with further consideration of Updike’s controversial and under–appreciated late novel Terrorist, which here receives additional attention in a second essay, “‘Hey, Come On, We’re All Americans Here’: The Representation of Muslim-American Identity in John Updike’s Terrorist” by Ulla Kriebernegg. Kriebernegg, to her credit, provides a sort of a bookend to the initial essay in Part I; she sagaciously clarifies, “Although [Charles] Demers and [Yvonne] Zipp are right in stating that Updike’s descriptions are almost caricatures, I argue that he uses overstatement and essentialism deliberately.” The book concludes with Kasia Boddy’s “Rabbit and the News” which provides historical background on the notion of “the Great American Novel,” as Mazzeno and Norton mention in their Introduction.
Perhaps Trendel’s essay on Updike’s short stories, with its focus on “The Music School,” best summarizes much of what this rich resource of scholarship offers readers; in that short story, Updike includes a consideration of the communion wafer: “The world is the host. It must be chewed.” There appears much in European Perspectives on John Updike for readers, scholars, and students of Updike’s work to chew on here.
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