Wednesday, June 30, 2010

John Updike Live, in Cincinnati

(reflections on UPDIKE IN CINCINNATI, edited by James Schiff.)

photo: John Hughes

"The whole aim of civilized life is to create nonviolent circumstances."  John Updike made that observation to explain how he could sympathize with the "prudery" of the NEW YORKER's editor Wallace Shawn. 

Sympathy is John Updike's other talent, the first being his facility with our language.  Besides these, he also works conscientiously, regularly, productively -- "three pages or three hours a day."
This book preserves the transcripts of Q and A sessions during two days of public appearances that Updike made as guest of the University of Cincinnati in the spring of 2001, and one can learn from Updike how to handle this kind of situation.  In every response, he explores the other person's assumptions and opinions as if in sympathy, before he begins to define his difference ...and then typically ends with a deferential comment as if to say, "I could be wrong."

Seeing him do this is a great pleasure of the book.  Much of the content is stuff I've read before, and the pages include the entire texts of the stories and essays read to the crowds by Updike and by critics who shared a panel discussion with him. Updike shows at least that he has been able to appreciate the critic's insights before saying, "Well, we all have our approaches and the critics are welcome to theirs.  But it seemed to me...." (57).

He bites back twice, at "every writer's friend" critic Kokutani (?) whose hostile reviews of his work I've seen in the NY Times; and at Tom Wolfe.  Even here, Updike shows that he knows what Wolfe has said, and why, before he dismisses Wolfe's A MAN IN FULL.

A theme that pops up a lot has to do with "archeology."  It's an explicit metaphor in a story discussed a lot here, whose title includes the phrase "Packed Earth."  I remember a later story with "Archeology" in the title; and his last book of poems describes how time packs layers of previous selves between the poet and the boy who looks back from the bottom of a well, blue sky behind him.

The editor James Schiff introduces the guest of honor at one event with an anecdote from seeing Updike at another conference.  "I became convinced that John Updike was merely the front man for an underground stable of writers who were .... cranking out stories and reviews ...and articles," until the end of the busy day, when Schiff catches sight of Updike at a table in the corner of the lobby, writing (2).

There are photos of Updike at talks and at the art museum, which I visited a not long after with my aunt Blanche. "I seem to have an expression I maintain through most of these authorial appearances," he writes back to the editor, "mouth half open, as if mulling  a salient point or recovering from a sharp blow to the back of the head"   (xxviii).

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