June 7, 2008

John Updike: A Month of Sundays

Posted in Penguin Modern Classics, Updike John at 12:53 pm by John Self

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 Month of Sundays

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.

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18 Comments »

  1. bookchronicle said,

    I promise myself I will pick up Updike’s Rabbit novels, but I had a rather atrocious experience with The Witches of Eastwick (I couldn’t even finish it).

  2. Tony S. said,

    My favorite John Updike is “Gertrude and Claudius”. I’ve read enough lousy Updike not to trust him. I read and liked “Rabbit, Run”, read and hated “Rabbit Redux”, so didn’t read the other Rabbits. He seems to me a much stronger story writer than novel writer.

  3. John Self said,

    That’s interesting Tony: I sort of assume (with no reason, now I think of it) that Updike’s older books are bound to be better, which is why I’ve tended to investigate those rather than his newer stuff like Gertrude and Claudius (though I suspect that would require at least a rudimentary understanding of Hamlet for best results… :oops: ). I’ve never read any of his stories, so will keep those in mind. I agree that Rabbit Redux is weak, the worst of the four in my view, but the last in the series Rabbit at Rest is worth it.

    bookchronicle, you have summed up precisely the problem with a writer as wide-ranging as Updike. We never know what the next book is going to be like, a gem or a stinker, which means the only solution is to read them all: and that’s not altogether a welcome prospect either. You’ll not be clamouring to read his next book, out this autumn then: a sequel titled The Widows of Eastwick!

  4. Sam said,

    Think I’ll give this one a miss, John.

    His earlier stuff has tended to be more rewarding, I think, particularly the Rabbit books, ‘Couples’ and, at a push, ‘Roger’s Version’ (though I’ve no idea what was going on with ‘Brazil’). His last two novels, ‘Villages’ and ‘Terrorist’ have been sad affairs: going over tired and boring old ground in the former, making a mess of newer material in the latter. His short-story collection ‘Afterlife’ had some real gems, though.

    His last few efforts may have been misfires, but I’ll keep reading him, if only because past evidence suggests that for every ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ Updike will pull a rabbit out of the hat.

  5. John Self said,

    Yes Sam, Couples is the other Updike I really think I must read – though I did try Roger’s Version and didn’t get far I’m afraid. I take it from your use of The Witches of Eastwick as a benchmark for Updike at his weakest, you’ll not be holding out hopes for a return to form from Widows… either.

  6. Pete McRod said,

    The funny thing about Updike’s story A Month of Sundays – is its based on a real priest in Atlanta in the early 70′s. The priest was named Jim who is now an attorney named Jin Macie in Atlanta. He had these affairs with two real women in the church in Atlanta. His stories aren’t his imagination he just changes stories about real people around to what he wants

  7. John Self said,

    Interesting to know that, Pete – thanks!

  8. I’ll probably give this one a miss too, thanks.
    ‘Villages’ was a cold re-retread of ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Couples’ territory. ‘Brazil’ was insane, a kind of outsider’s dream of the country. It was like he had never been there but wanted to fantasize on every myth or stereotype associated with it. I’ve just recently started Rabbit again from the beginning, and have posted a review of the first on my blog. It didn’t make quite as strong an impression on me as ‘Rabbit is Rich’, which I read, unchronologically, a few years ago. What strikes me about ‘Rabbit, Run’ is its probing unruliness. The author goes wherever he wants, and it can be quite visceral – being under the skin of Rabbit’s drunken wife Janice made me really queasy. Enjoying your blog, jamesewan

  9. John Self said,

    I’m sad that my only review of John Updike, as I search my own archives on hearing of his death, is of a book I didn’t like one bit. I do rate the final volume of the Rabbit series, Rabbit at Rest, and enjoyed Marry Me (which coincidentally, Mrs Self began to read the other day), but would welcome ideas on where else the very best of him lies. Couples? And of who else is left, other than Philip Roth, to stride the literary map of America like a colossus now.

  10. Tony S. said,

    Yes, sad to hear of John Updike’s passing. My favorite Updike book is a short one, “Gertrude and Claudius”. Somehow, I don’t think Updike had the insight to modern living of Richard Yates or Phillip Roth. Sentence for sentence, John Updike was a great writer, It’s just that sometimes his novels did not cohere. A great short story writer though, one of the best.

  11. John, I am beginning Updike’s Bech books. You might be interested.

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks T and T. I did actually read some of the Bech stories many years ago, and remember them as being amusing, though I don’t think I finished them (there are three volumes, right? Bech: a Book, Bech is Back and Bech in Czech?).

  13. I reread both the Rabbit Angstrom books and the Bech books in the last two years, since Updike was one of my youthful favorites. The Rabbit series hangs up well, but only okay — the Bech series grew much better (you have the three books correct). I recommend the Everyman’s Library volumes for both — Updike wrote the introductions to both and offers a very good explanation of how he intended both series to captures portraits of America at different times. Particularly for someone who doesn’t live or know the U.S., I think the Bech books are better — I also think they are better fiction writing. As individual stories they are “amusing” — read one after the other, in many ways, they are better than his novels.

  14. Sam said,

    He really could make you gasp with a turn of phrase, an observation.

    “The trimmed large bushes of the groomed yards, the yews and aborvitae and rhododendrons, look alert by night, like jungle creatures come to the waterhole and caught in a camera’s flash.” – Rabbit at Rest

    William Dean Howells spoke of “the novelist’s anxiety to produce an image that is startling and impressive, as well as true”. Startling and impressive and true describe Updike’s prose perfectly.

  15. workingwords100 said,

    John Updike wrote this before his death:
    http://www.aarpmagazine.org/people/john_updike_writer_in_winter.html

  16. John Self said,

    Yes that is very nice, Sam – you’ve restored my faith in the man a little.

    That is a wonderful piece, workingwords: Updike must have known he didn’t have long when he wrote it. Certainly reading it now adds an inevitable poignancy that it probably didn’t have when published a month or two ago.

  17. Lee Monks said,

    Great writer that was so ferociously curious he could wear you out. An incredible eye and ear. The first Rabbit book is pretty weak but thereon the series is magnificent, though I do agree with Trevor S. to an extent that his short fiction is where he’s at his best, stories like ‘The Happiest I’ve Been’ which is certainly a masterpiece for me. I think his virtuosity and his sheer observational brilliance can pall. Effervescence, like anything, can be wearying. Technically, though, astounding and effortlessly poignant.

  18. Leyla Sanai said,

    I haven’t read A Month of Sundays, John, and based on your review, I may give it a miss. I finished Marry Me last night (review here: http://www.bookgrouponline.com/forum/showthread.html?t=5503) and it more than lived up to expectations. My whole review is a eulogy of the man. I haven’t liked everything he’s done – I felt that in some of the short stories in Licks of Love, there was no room for the characters to develop, so that they blurred for me into a mass of stories about middle-aged men looking for extra-marital sex. But in the context of a novel – eg the Rabbit books or Marry Me – his incredible gift for perceiving life and its dramas, both trivial and major, just flowers. And noone has surpassed him as far as beautiful turns of phrases are concerned, imo. Images just leap out the pages, almost like how it must be for people who’ve had bilateral cataracts removed and can see things clearly and sharply for the first time in ages. RIP.


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