THE MASTERLY BLASPHEMER
A‘‘ BIG-BELLIED Lutheran God’’ within the young Updike looked on in contempt as he struggled to give up cigarettes. Many years later the older Updike, now giving up on alcohol, coffee and salt, put into the mouth of that God the words of Frederick the Great excoriating his battle-shy soldiers — ‘‘ Dogs, would you live forever?’’ But all the life-enhancing substances were set aside, and writing became Updike’s ‘‘ sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality.’’ In the mornings, he could write ‘‘ breezily’’ of what he could not contemplate in the dark without ‘‘ turning in panic to God’’. The plain facts of life were ‘‘ unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light — in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalising it — approaches blasphemy.’’
And now this masterly blasphemer, whose literary schemes and pretty conceits touched at points on the Shakespearean, is gone, and American letters, deprived in recent years of its giants, Bellow and Mailer, is a levelled plain, with one solitary peak guarded by Roth. We are coming to the end of the golden age of the American novel in the twentieth century’s second half. Henry Bech, Updike’s remote Jewish other, never immune to an attack of status anxiety, mused on the teeming hordes of his gifted and despised contemporaries — ‘‘ Those that didn’t appear, like John Irving and John Fowles, garrulously, Dickensianly reactionary in method seemed like John Hawkes and John Barth, smugly, hermetically experimental. O’Hara, Hersey, Cheever, Updike — suburbanites all living safe while art’s inner city disintegrated. And that was just the Johns.’’
This most Lutheran of writers, driven by intellectual curiosity all his life, was troubled by science as others are troubled by God. When it suited him, he could easily absorb and be impressed by physics, biology, astronomy, but he was constitutionally unable to ‘‘ make the leap of unfaith’’. The ‘‘ weight’’ of personal death did not allow it, and much seriousness and dark humour derives from this tension between intellectual reach and metaphysical dread.
In a short story from 1984, The Wallet, Mr Fulham ( who, we are told in the first line, ‘‘ had assembled a nice life’’) experiences death terrors when he takes his grandchildren to a local cinema. While ‘‘ starships did special-effects battle’’ Fulham’s ‘‘ true situation in time and space’’ was revealed: ‘‘ a speck of consciousness now into its seventh decade, a mortal body poised to rejoin the minerals, a member of a lost civilisation that once existed on a sliding continent’’. This ‘‘ lonely possession’’ of his own existence, he concludes, is ‘‘ sickeningly serious’’.
God makes no appearance in this story, but it is unlikely that an atheist could have conjured so much from the minor domestic disturbance that follows. First, a large cheque ‘‘ in the low six figures’’, a return on canny investments, fails to show up in the post. Fulham makes many phone calls to the company in Houston, the matter begins to loom too large — ‘‘ He slept poorly, agitated by the injustice of it.’’ He suspects a thief, a ‘‘ perpetrator’’, or there is a flaw in the mindless system. He is tormented by ‘‘ outrageous cosmic unanswerableness’’.
Then, the ‘‘ perpetrator’’ strikes again. His wallet — ‘‘ a friendly adjunct to his person’’ — vanishes. This being Updike, its contents are minutely, satirically listed, the credit, membership and hospital cards, the priceless clippings, photographs of family and one of a long-ago lover, the obsolete receipts. Who has not searched in vain, like Fulham, returning superstitiously to the same places, trying to recreate the careless self of yesterday? But ‘‘ the wallet’s nonexistence rang out through the rooms like a pistol shot which leaves deafness in its wake’’. In despair, Fulham exclaims to his wife, ‘‘ ‘ Without that wallet, I’m nothing.’ His tongue had outraced his brain, but once he said it, he realised this to be true: without the wallet, he was a phantom, flitting about in a house without walls.’’
At last, the cheque shows up, only after it has been cancelled, the granddaughter finds the wallet, but only after the accounts have been frozen. The nights are cooler now and something has shifted in Fulham. He has had a near-death experience, a rehearsal, and now is reconciled to his end.
Like much that appears secular in Updike, this story is suffused with his religious seriousness — the very spirit that Larkin, an atheist, famously acknowledged in his description of a church as being ‘‘ A serious house on serious earth . . .’’ It is no accident that Fulham’s moments of dread come upon him in a movie house. In the opening of the major novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, a movie is being made and at the same time, a clergyman is losing his faith and confronts ‘‘ the blood-soaked selfishness of a cosmic mayhem’’. For Updike, cinema and its brattish child, television ‘‘ became our religion’’. This was not a disapproving observation — in his youth, ‘‘ it was the movies that moved me, and gave me something to live for, to live toward’’.
And cinema was above all, for the young Updike, an exploration of sexual encounters. It was there from the very beginning, in his writing, that celebrated or infamous capacity for fastidious, clinical, visually intense, painfully and hilariously honest descriptions of men and women making love. However fleeting or disastrous the coupling, the metaphysical shadows are always on the wall — the same