James Wolcott is the recipent of the 2014 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

“The Prince of Finesse: Hugging the Shore” 

“He ought to write with a crystal pen on silver paper,” observed Hazlitt of the Irish poet Tom Moore, and the same might be said of John Updike, who also writes with a rich, streaming ease, spraying the air with foam flecks of dazzle. But just as Hazlitt found the “strawberry ice” scintillations of Tom Moore a touch too ineffable (“His imagination may dally with insect beauties, with Rosicrucian spells; may describe a butterfly’s wing, a flower- pot, a fan: but it should not attempt to span the great outlines of nature, or keep pace with the sounding march of events”), critics have always harbored suspicions about the true reach and muscle of Updike’s art. To some, he is an airdancing dandy, the most regal butterfly ever to hover before Eustache Tilley’s monocle. “Need Updike’s fi ne mind be so much in evidence?” asked Alfred Kazin in Bright Book of Life, irked by the crush of “brilliant images” in Rabbit, Run, and in his review of Couples William Gass found much in Updike’s style to make him wince (though he did concede that at his best Updike can “condense an image until it becomes a hard fist of meaning”).

In recent years, however, the suspicions about Updike have subsided. Of his recent fiction, I found The Coup too lush and Rabbit Is Rich an elaborately faked orgasm of sour feeling; but those are definitely minority squawks—to most, Updike’s hard fi st of meaning has never been more in solid evidence. And now, as if to rout all straggling hints of dandyism, comes by far his biggest book—Hugging the Shore, a volume of criticism, reflections, and asides that runs to nearly 900 pages. Hefty as the book is, it lands in the reader’s lap with an agreeable, almost coquettish bounce.

Clearly, no living American novelist can match Updike in the range and responsiveness of his reading. Norman Mailer is scathingly shrewd when he takes the measure of his rivals in the room, but has seldom strayed beyond the combat arena; Gore Vidal has shown far more curiosity, roving from Italo Calvino to the Oz books to the thickets of structuralism, but in recent years he’s become an irritable scold, forever flogging the shanks of his most hated hobby-horses (America, academe). Styron? Bellow? Roth?—their scattered criticisms have tended to be investigations intended to enrich their work as novelists. Anne Tyler seems to see book reviews as opportunities to let her mind coast. Diane Johnson and Elizabeth Hardwick are dartingly astute when they catch a whiff of something hidden and dubious in a cultural phenomenon, but in praise both are given to a certain diffuse niceness, their lanterns casting a soft yellowy glow. No, almost alone John Updike has kept his sane, disinterested bearings and managed to write about literature with a generous sweep of attention and a fine, probing focus.

Now and then his conscientiousness goes beyond the call of duty—why, for example, did he insist on lugging a pair of (my God) German novels on holiday? They didn’t exactly brighten his afternoons. “I took these two slim volumes”—i.e., Gerhard Roth’s Winterreise and Hans Joachim Schädlich’s Approximation—“with me on a week in the Caribbean and must confess that, brief as both are, it took all the bracing counter-effects of sun, sea, and shuffleboard to get me through them.” On such occasions Updike doesn’t seem so much hugging the shore as lashed to the mast. But most of the time he is content scanning the horizon, there by choice and not obligation.

Two Nobel prizewinners—Saul Bellow and Günter Grass—earn a large chunk of Updike’s attention in this collection. With deft, polite scalpeling, Updike peels away the rugged prettinesses of Bellow’s style (which he rightly admires) and locates the “agitated sluggishness” that makes Humboldt’s Gift so busy and yet so inert, the “firm, simple center” that The Dean’s December sadly lacks. In both novels, shape, drama, and character development have been embedded in a fat of “worldly mass” as the narrator cocks nervous glances at the heavens and makes with wheezing ruminations. The result is talky, static. “Corde [Albert Corde, the dean of The Dean’s December] is too closely tied to his creator to be free, to fall, to be judged in the round, to have anything much happen to him. No stark Greek fate is going to flatten this coddled agonist, we can be sure.”

As Bellow’s novels have gone baggy, Günter Grass’s have taken on a terrible bloating. There’s something comic about Updike’s mannerly tone as he makes his way through The Flounder and The Meeting at Telgte, his tolerance for boredom sorely tested. On The Flounder:

Grass has not bitten off more than he can chew, for he chews it enthusiastically before our eyes. But, as he chews, our own empathetic relish dulls; my consumption, at least, of large portions of The Flounder was spurred on by no other hunger than the puritanical craving to leave a clean plate.

Finally, confronted with Headbirths; or, The Germans Are Dying Out (a book as dire as its title), Updike’s tolerance snaps and he brings the two Nobel prizewinners together for an instructive show of contrast.

It is hard to imagine an American writer of comparable distinction publishing a book so unbuttoned in manner, so dishevelled in content. Saul Bellow, his head as spinning with ideas as Günter Grass’s, yet dresses them up in fictional costume, as in The Dean’s December, or else presents them straightforwardly as journalism, as in To Jerusalem and Back. These are clean headbirths; Grass gives us pangs, placenta, and squalling infant all in a heap, plus a damp surgical mask and a bent forceps. Updike tries to end his review on a more considerate note, but those bent forceps are pretty damning.

Indeed, one of the unexpected pleasures of Hugging the Shore is seeing the Prince of Finesse occasionally dip into his quiver for an acid-tipped arrow. John Updike will never be considered a member of the slash-and-burn school of criticism (“Bring forth your maidens!”), but he is given to fits of eloquent pique.

While reviewing a posthumous collection of prose works by Flann O’Brien, Updike wonders, “First, why is it called, on the title page, ‘A Richard Seaver Book’? Mr. Seaver’s personal contributions to the volume are nowhere specified, so his name presents itself as a purely territorial assertion. . . .”* With this prickliness comes a searching eagerness to dig beneath the hype and confetti of a book’s reception and discover a writer’s true strengths and hollows. While all about him were losing their heads over Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Updike captured the political evasiveness underlying Kundera’s beguiling musicale.

The Communist idyll he youthfully believed in seems somehow to exist for him still, though mockingly and excludingly. He never asks himself—the most interesting political question of the century—why a plausible and necessary redistribution of wealth should, in its Communist form, demand such an exorbitant sacrifice of individual freedom. Why must the idyll turn, not merely less than idyll, but nightmare? Kundera describes the terrors and humiliations of the intellectual under totalitarianism with crystalline authority, yet for all he tells us these barbarities are rooted in the sky, in whims beyond accounting.

(Socialism holds no spell for Updike. When a character in a Heinrich Böll novel says that socialism must come, must prevail, Updike aptly comments, “As if it had not already crushingly prevailed over hundreds of millions. . . .”)

And while still other critics were bemoaning the fact that the director Joseph Losey was unable to raise sufficient funds to film Harold Pinter’s adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Updike took a thoughtful look at the Pinter screenplay and noted that Pinter’s paring down turned Marcel into “a surly stick” and garbled his involvement with Albertine. “As the novel frames the case, it is Albertine who is resolved on escaping, and the narrator’s cruelties are pathetic maneuvers to forestall her. In the Pinter version, Marcel, drained of the child’s vulnerability and sexual tentativeness that he carries through the novel, becomes— with kissing closeups and bareshouldered bed scenes— a standard cinema stud, a stag at bay in the woods of sexual freedom, a trapped lover tossing over his latest dolly.” He also notes, tartly, that “Saint- Loup would not breezily introduce his friend to his mistress with ‘This is Marcel. Marcel—Rachel.’” (Which has the rhythm of a Henny Youngman routine: “Take my mistress—please.”) Since Updike knows intimately every blade and pebble in Proust, he can alight like a robin and spot the worms in Pinter’s adaptation, removing them with a few light tugs.

This feathery fineness does result in a certain lack of heat and force. Essentially, John Updike is an appreciator, but not in the highvoltage style of Randall Jarrell, whose electric enthusiasm could send readers rushing to the shelves for confirmation. (Reading Jarrell on Whitman, you couldn’t wait to crack open Whitman to share the sublime buzz in Jarrell’s head.) Updike’s manner of appreciation is softer, more murmurous, more a matter of sighs and attentive ahhhs, but before his tone can turn too melting he pulls himself up and fixes the writer with an arresting phrase or judgment. He polishes the glass case of Nabokov’s butterfly collection, hops along the broken circuits of Henry Green’s neglected novels, shines a flashlight into Céline’s steaming gutter, takes tea with Barbara Pym and sandwiches with M.F.K. Fisher, inhales the fragrance of Colette, and discerns a tenderness of feeling beneath John O’Hara’s vain, gruff bravado—“To perceive the atrocity in Scott Fitzgerald’s flirting with his insane wife took moral imagination and courteous instincts; this sensitivity, one suspects, set O’Hara a little apart from the boys even during his roistering days.”

In the company of his favorites, Updike’s eyes gleam with admiration and gratitude, but every now and then his hand starts to doodle. When Updike writes about Anne Tyler, for example, he expresses his small qualms about her work with such Jamesian tact and hesitation that he seems to be standing above Tyler with a drink in his hand, fearful of spilling a drop. “It is true, no writer would undertake to fill a canvas so broad without some confidence that she can invent her way across any space, and some of Miss Tyler’s swoops, and the delayed illuminations that prick out her tableaux, have not quite the savor of reality’s cautious grind.” But although I would prefer more plainspokenness, even a whiff of wood smoke from the old slash—and burn, I can respect Updike’s disinclination to thump the table and scold. It isn’t simply a matter of decorum on Updike’s part. In his previous collection, the lewdly entitled Picked-Up Pieces, Updike wrote, “If a harsh Providence were to obliterate, say, Alfred Kazin, Richard Gilman, Stanley Kauffmann, and Irving Howe, tomorrow new critics would arise with the same worthy intelligence, the same complacently agonized humanism, the same inability to read a book except as a disappointing version of one they might have written, the same deadly ‘auntiness.’” So when Updike backs off it isn’t because he lacks steel but because he doesn’t want to be a sour geezer in the grandstand, shouting complaints through a megaphone. At ease among his equals, he has no need to raise his voice or issue marching orders. And his love of the luminous saves him from the frumps of “agonized humanism.”

In a book this crammed with goodies, there are trivial pieces that Updike might better have discarded. His salutations to other New Yorker writers are a little too kissy, becoming what we used to call in high school Public Displays of Affection; and he needn’t have displayed his medals in the book’s afterword, where he reprints acceptance speeches and whimsical self-interviews. And, as in Picked- Up Pieces, he flips over a blonde fluff-bunny—in Pieces, it was Erica Jong who inspired his mooniest prose (“On the back jacket flap, Mrs. Jong, with perfect teeth and cascading blond hair, is magnificently laughing”)—here it’s Doris Day, whom Updike dotes upon with eyes as dewed as Bambi’s. He pretends to be clear-sighted about her accomplishments, but like Norman Mailer on Marilyn Monroe he goes a little gaga—e.g., “The particulars of her life surprise us, like graffiti scratched on a sacred statue.” But in bracing contrast to the candles lit in honor of St. Doris of Day, Updike’s long meditation on the career of Herman Melville (“Melville’s Withdrawal”) is lucid, sympathetic, informative, spiced with bright observations, and handsomely thought out, the very model of an expansive literary essay.

Not that long ago Gore Vidal said with some justification that in the age of rock and apocalypse, the very word “literature” seemed paltry and weak. But reading Updike’s essay on Melville, warming my lap with this book’s pleasing weight, I felt—feel—that literature has managed to weather the last two decades rather well, and that it’s rock and apocalypse that have come to seem thin, flimsy, forced. Which is not to say that literature will ever again regain its cultural preeminence, just that its walls and brickwork seem sturdy enough to survive even the blinking dither of the Age of Video. It’s a house with many mansions, and in Hugging the Shore Updike gives a splendid, striding tour.

* This is an echo of F. R. Leavis’s famous complaint, in The Common Pursuit, regarding Harry T. Moore’s temerity in dedicating a collection of D. H. Lawrence’s letters. “Who is Professor Harry T. Moore, one asks, and what standing does he suppose he has in relation to the genius of whom he has taken academic possession, that he should dedicate a collection of Lawrence’s letters?”

Harper’s, September 1983


If it please the court, I ask that it be stricken from the record that I ever mocked/denigrated John Updike for his devotion to Doris Day, which I have come to share, though perhaps not with the same lambent intensity. 


Excerpted with permission from Critical Mass by James Wolcott. Copyright © 2013 by James Wolcott.

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