Book Notes: Due Considerations by John Updike

John Updike’s 2007 anthology of essays and criticism Due Considerations brings together the late writer’s short-form contributions over the last 5-10 years. It’s a masterful collection that shows off his breathtaking range.

JohnUpdike_promostillbw I include the best quotes below (separated by line breaks) and the rest of the best below the fold. I recommend reading each for wisdom-content and/or gorgeousness of prose. Some of the sentences deserve to be savored. Can you beat the vividness of his late-night jazz club image below? Anything not in quotes is Updike; anything in quotes is the person cited.


His writing does what writing should do: it refreshes our sense of the world.

The novel, traditionally a mirror held up to the Western bourgeoisie, to teach them how to shave, dress, and behave, has focused on adult moral choices and their consequences. Newer novelists…see childhood as the place where one invents the baggage — totems, rituals, lessons to live by — of a solitary one-person tribe.

The prose at spots feels dry and crabbed, detail after detail set down with the obligatory tight fit of tile-setting.

“Clean gay” are not the adjectives with which I would now characterize the prose, though there is considerable gaiety in the narration’s swift onward flow, its sudden pools of rumination and opinionizing, its pleasure in its own inventions, the impish leaps in time that telegraph crucial plot developments so quickly we can scarcely believe our eyes, and the globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic liftoff of it all.

So the novel becomes less an action than a disquisition, a wordy, wide-ranging array of voiced opinions, to which we settle like bleary customers in a late-night jazz club: the musicians are playing for themselves on the stand, there is a lot of excited, apparently hilarious talk at the surrounding tables, it is past time to go to bed, but, baby, it’s cold outside, and a stupefied kind of happiness comes with just being here.

“Love works backward in time, like all secrets. It colors memory and first impressions, dull evenings and late sleepless nights. It makes them glow with heat, like coals taken for dead.” – Andrew Sean Greer

Children assign too much importance to verbalization. Adults know more than they told. They know when they are loved.

“An imagined kiss is more easily controlled, more thoroughly enjoyed, and less cluttery than an actual kiss.” – E.B. White

“Love…ever unsatisfied, lives always in the moment that is about to come.” – Proust

Henry James recalled her cousin as “the very figure and image of a felt interest in life…the supreme case of a taste for life as life, as personal living, of an endlessly active and yet somehow a careless, an illusionless, a sublimely forewarned curiosity about it.” [One could spend hours analyzing what it means to have a “taste for life as life.”]

On Religion:

The welter of religious phenomena is not necessarily comforting to the professor of a specific faith; the very multiplicity and variety suggests that none of it is true, other than manifesting an undoubted human tendency.

Faith is not so much a binary pole as a quantum state, which tends to vanish when closely examined.

On Writing and the Art of Fiction:

 

The writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true — what feels true, what rings true in the fabrication being assembled on his desk. A career in writing begins with the sense that what has already been written, by others, has not been quite true enough; however revered, it lacks the latest information, the newest slant.

We look to fiction for images of reality — real life rendered as vicarious experience, with a circumstantial intimacy that more factual, explanatory accounts cannot quite supply. Yet the freedom to invent tempts the fiction writer to fantasy. Already, his manipulation of time, speeding it up and slowing it down according to the needs of his story, and his scanting of the routine and banality that make up most of life’s substance take unrealistic liberties.

White’s letters give us what a novel scarcely can: the dailiness of a life, its wearing parade of duties and decencies, its endless-seeming fending (though it does end); its accumulating pyramid of, amid errands, carelessly or alertly experienced hours; and the frequent if rarely stated discriminations whereby an artist picks his path.

“Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me…I was suddenly seeing, feeling, and listening as a child sees, feels, and listens. It was one of those rare interludes that can never be repeated, a time of enchantment. I am fortunate indeed to have had the chance to get some of it down on paper.” – E.B. White

Describing Prose:

The prose is a gas, bubbly, clean, often funny in its bursts of mock-mandarin social exposition.

In a polished but economical and unobtrusive prose…

The brainy, taut prose…

His prose hops with dropped names, compulsive puns, learned allusions, winks at the reader, and repeated bows to popular culture.

His hip wit sits on the narrative now less as delicious icing than as a nervous burden; self-consciousness threatens to block every simple feeling.

On Certain Novels:

…[the novel] opens itself to the digression, the sermonette, the stray inspiration that might capture the simultaneous largeness and smallness of the human adventure. Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.

His setbacks and humiliations merely graze the inner core of self-regard where, in “depths of coldness, callousness, caddishness” he circles the riddle of becoming an artist: “Does giving reign to his penchants, his vices, and then afterwards gnawing at himself, as he is doing now, help to qualify him as an artist? He cannot, at this moment, see how.” [Updike quoting J.M. Coetzee]

Greer presents life as essentially a solitude, an ever-renewed exile from the present, a shifting set of gorgeous mirages that nothing but descriptive genius can hold fast. Max [a character in the novel] writes, “Life is short, and full of sorrow, and I loved it.” His poignantly awry existence, set out with such a wealth of verbal flourishes and gilded touches, serves as a heightened version of the strangeness, the muffled disharmony, of being human.

Beauty and Love:

The beautiful is, from one perspective, simply what we need — a meal to the hungry, a bed to the weary, another body to the lusty.

The kiss here is clumsy, and perhaps all acts of love are just stabs at saying what we mean.

We value what we need to fight for. Secrecy is a great aphrodisiac. The Victorians found excitement in an exposed ankle; the Japanese, in the nape of a woman’s neck. If every beach becomes a meaty sprawl of near-nudity and every date a compulsory copulation, we risk allowing sex to seem paltry.

[Opening line to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores”:] “The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

Random:

Freud defined happiness as the relief of tension. To be human is to be in the tense condition of a death-foreseeing, vexedly libidinous animal.

“…the first time she found herself beneath the far-arching dome [of Saint Peter’s] and saw the light drizzle down through the air thickened with incense and with the reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze her conception of greatness rose and dizzily rose.” – Henry James

[A theory of Hollywood]: “What people don’t understand about this place is that the whole idea is not to make great pictures to enjoy life in the sun. They keep asking for works of art, but the picture-making from the beginning was secondary, starting with the Fairbanks-Pickford days when they entertained visiting royalty and statesmen. That’s why the pictures had their worldwide success. They were made without strain by happy, unneurotic people who were busy having a good time and who worked naturally out of their instincts, and audiences everywhere were intelligent enough to perceive this and treasure it. It’s the climate, the desert. It comes with the locality.” – character in Daniel Fuchs story

“The world always looks outward, I turn my gaze inward; there I fix it, and there I keep it busy. Everyone looks before him; I look within. I have no business but with myself.”

George Orwell cited Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a “supreme example of a ‘good bad‘ book”: “It is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true.”

The idea of reading a non-genre novel, with its stodgy domestic realism and sissy fuss over female heartbreak, repelled me then, but I could lose myself all morning and afternoon in narratives of skulduggery, detection, and eventual triumphant justice. And so, to judge from the best-seller lists, can millions still. Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events; we will go places our parents don’t take us; the protagonisit will conquer and survive; and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety, as he reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself. At this same age, I remember, I looked into Joyce’s Ulysses and Orwell’s 1984 and was badly shaken by the unmistakable impression that these suffocating, inescapable worlds could be the very one I lived in.

I am at the point where I have answered some standard questions so often that I have come to doubt the truth of my answers.

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