The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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