Saturday, February 08, 2014

Updike's Underappreciated Seek My Face

Even while I read Seek My Face the first time, I was thinking I wanted to read it again. It's tantalizing because we get page after page seeing the world through the eyes of an interesting character, yet neither she nor we can really grasp that world the way we would a solid object of art or a conventional plot.

Then it hits us: that's what life is like, isn't it? and reflecting life is what art is supposed to do? And isn't this all suggested by the title of the book (and the cover Updike chose for it)? And doesn't the epigraph (a quotation from Psalms, The Lord says "Seek my face") suggest a subject greater than one artist's life? If we can't grasp what Updike offers, then he's either trying to do something and failing, or he's achieved it, and we're the ones missing it. That's why I keep reading, to solve the riddle.

Here's a concise overview of the book, taken from Publisher's Weekly via, followed by what I've enjoyed apprehending about the book:
Couched in the form of a day-long conversation between 79-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, living in seclusion in Vermont, and a chic young interviewer from New York, Updike's 20th novel is an ambitious attempt to capture the moment when America "for the first time ever... led world art." As a fictional survey of the birth of abstract expressionism, pop art and other contemporary genres, the narrative offers a somewhat slick overview of the roiling currents of genius and calculation, artistic vision and personal ambition that characterized the art scene in the postwar years. Updike's ability to get inside an artist's psyche is considerable, as Hope's monologue convincingly demonstrates. Because he tries to distill and convey an era of art history, however, there is a static and didactic quality to the narrative; much of it sounds like art-crit disguised as exposition. 
As a reader can infer from an author's note in which Updike acknowledges his debt to the Naifeh and Smith biography of Jackson Pollock, Hope's life bears a strong resemblance to that of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Hope's memories recapitulate the dilemma of an artist whose personal expression is thwarted by marriage and the omnipresence of alcohol and drugs, and since this is Updike country, Hope is more than candid about her sex life with Zack (Pollock); her second husband, Guy Holloway (loosely modeled on Warhol); and her third, art critic Jerry Chafetz. Updike's descriptions of landscapes and interiors are painterly in themselves, closely observed and sensuous. On the whole, the novel is a study of the artist as archetype, "a man who in the end loves nothing but his art." On that level it succeeds, but readers who long for plot and action may be disappointed.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Well said. Now, what I appreciate about the book:

  1. I have not appreciated the art of Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, or many of their contemporaries. I do appreciate how Updike, an artist who started writing just to support his art habit, helps me to see beyond the obvious comment, "Geez, any five-year-old could have painted that!"
  2. A key to appreciating the novel may be something that the character Hope learned from her first art teacher. He showed her how two parallel black lines, alone on a blank canvas, generate the impression of movement -- as if the lines pull in opposite directions. We readers like a line of plot to pull us from chapter to chapter; but this novel has no chapters, only parallel lines of time. First, there's a line that proceeds in real time from Hope's sitting down on a sunny morning to be interviewed by Kathryn until the interviewer drives away after dark. (I wonder, if we read the novel aloud - would that take eight hours?) The other line stretches Hope's life span, seventy-nine years, in her answers to Kathryn's chronological questions, and in more abundant memories that she suddenly recalls and chooses not to say aloud. So, yes, there's no "plot or action" here, but there are those two lines of movement, and it's fun to see how one plays off the other.
  3. Seeking God's face has always been a theme in Updike's writing. That's what drew me to his work in the first place. In essays, Updike has said that any good work of art pays close attention to God's creation, and is, in this way, worshiping God. In this novel, our guide through the world is a woman considering her entire life and its value, a woman who is also a creative artist -- who put those creations on hold for most of her life, a woman with some religious background. I kept an index full of pithy observations and questions about faith and "hope."
  4. It's funny - especially the clash between 79 year old Hope and 29 year old Kathryn. From research into books and art exhibits, the younger woman knows everything there is to know about the older one; yet we see, again and again, how clueless she really is. Of course, Updike's own experience here as a much-published, much-interviewed, much-studied author must come into this. At different times of the interview, Hope despises Kathryn, is curious about Kathryn, eventually feels different kinds of love for Kathryn. Along the way, Hope's internal comments about life today among younger generations are sharp, true, funny.
  5. As Publisher's Weekly writes, there's interest simply in the recreation of a certain milieu - the New York art scene, late 40s and early 50s. The Jackson Pollack - type character certainly makes a strong impression in this novel, though he dies fifty years before page one.

July 5, 2005
[This is a re-posting from my personal website, SmootPage]

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