June 7, 2008
John Updike: A Month of Sundays
Penguin Modern Classics have had their revenge on me at last. Always keen to read more John Updike after the Rabbit series, I struggled to decide which of his many novels to take away next, and ended up plumping for the one with the nicest cover. Clever of them to do that, because it is, by Updike’s standards at least, a stinker.
A word first about my other experiences with him. John Updike is one of what I think of as the big three American mainstream novelists of the late 20th century – Roth and Bellow the others – yet he is so strongly associated with the four Rabbit books, about the skittish Harry Angstrom, that most of his other novels are in shadow under their mass. And it’s some mass: the four books weigh in at 1,700 pages (and there’s another 200 pages in ‘Rabbit Remembered’, the story – I call that a novel – published in the collection Licks of Love). I enjoyed the first and last books best – Rabbit, Run and Rabbit at Rest – but you only get to the end by reading the middle two as well – Rabbit Redux and Rabbit is Rich, which for me had their ups and downs. But it’s hard to carp when Updike can sum up Harry Angstrom’s ambivalence to domestic life as beautifully as he does in a few words right at the end of Rabbit is Rich, when he holds his daughter’s daughter in his arms for the first time:
Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.
Where do you go – reader, writer – from there? I enjoyed his 1977 novel Marry Me but struggled with – gave up on – his debut The Poorhouse Fair and his 1986 novel Roger’s Version. So I may not know much about Updike but I know what I like in book design, and A Month of Sundays (1975) was irresistible.
The title is explained by the structure: a daily diary by the Reverend Thomas Marshfield, who is in exile from his family and his flock owing to sexual indiscretions. He has been banished to a desert retreat, where he reflects on his errors and continues to write sermons which will never be delivered, and which take to new heights the mischief-maker’s favourite pastime of interpreting holy scriptures to his own ends:
Of the two adulterous women Christ encounters in the Gospels, one is commended, and the other is not condemned. […] Adultery, my friends, is our inherent condition. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his own heart.”
But who that has eyes to see cannot so lust? Was not the First Divine Commandment received by human ears, “Be fruitful, and multiply”? Adultery is not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced. Thus I construe these texts.
And there is much of Updike’s usual interest in extra-marital relations, as seen in Couples, the Rabbits, and elsewhere. So what marks this out – and down – from other Updikes? It’s that throughout the author seems in thrall to the author of another Great American Novel. The inkling first prickled when I read this interjection by Marshfield into an anecdote about his past:
This is fun! First you whittle the puppets, then you move them around!
That coolness, that solipsistic distance: where had I seen them before? It arose again, when Marshfield refers to “the redhead deftly evoked pages ago, and there was a bony fellow-counsellor one summer we may never find the space for.” It kept coming and coming (“But to prolong this paragraph might compromise its shortness and brightness”), and it was when I was half-expecting him to reflect that you can always count on an adulterer for a fancy prose style, that I realised Updike, in A Month of Sundays, is helplessly in thrall to the tics and tricks of Vladimir Nabokov.
It’s so glaringly obvious that it becomes slightly embarrassing – Updike, when he wrote this, was a fortysomething novelist with plentiful acclaim, so his apparent desire to write what practically amounts to a pastiche is mystifying. This coolness and irony suits Nabokov because we sense, however perversely, that he means it, where Updike is typically a warmer writer, and it sits on him oddly. Even the motifs are a mixture of Nabokov obsessions – Freud, insomnia – and Updike standards – God, golf. The prose too has a baroque quality which might be said to approximate Nabokov at his most excessive, where Updike normally knows (just) when to rein back the verbiage:
The room still nudges me with its many corners of strangeness, though one night’s sleep here has ironed a few rumples smooth. I know where the bathroom is. O, that immaculate, invisibly renewed sanitas of rented bathrooms, inviting us to strip off not merely our clothes and our excrement and the particles of overspiced flank steak between our teeth but our skin with the dirt and our circumstances with the skin and then to flush every bit down the toilet the loud voracity of whose flushing action so rebukingly contrasts with the clogged languor of the toilets we have left behind at home, already so full of us they can scarcely ebb!
We might charitably assume that this is simply Updike’s way of showing his character’s ungodly pretensions – his use of language not as a clear pane to illuminate his actions, but a stained glass with which to obscure the truth – but even so, it’s a pain to read. There are still passages of impressive language (morning light falls onto glass “with an almost audible splintering of brightness”) but they are drowned out. Fortunately I’ve read better Updike than this, and hope to again – I have The Centaur on my shelves (another handsome cover…) – so I’ll consider A Month of Sundays an anomaly, and draw a veil over it. The 1970s: truly the decade that style forgot.