Reading The Witches of Eastwick was slightly surreal for two reasons. One is that when I saw the film all those eons ago, I had no idea it was based on a book by Updike, and Jack Nicholson was so potent in his portrayal of Darryl Van Horne that his image haunts the book. The second is that Updike is one of my favourite authors, mainly because he can describe the mundanities of normal life with such perspicuity and acute perception that it makes my spine tingle. So I wasn't sure how I felt about him writing about witches - women with supernatural powers. Being on par with Richard Dawkins about this subject enflamed this disbelief.
Yet I greatly enjoyed The Witches of Eastwick. Most people will be familiar with its story through the eponymous film - three divorced women, Alexandra, Sukie and Jane, become swept into the life of Darryl Van Horne, a droll, unconventional and magnetically sexy newcomer to their small town. The divorcees have magic powers which they have used to avenge themselves in past situations - causing a dog to die here, a necklace to snap there. But their growing obsession with this suave man calls on them to increase the magnitude of their spells.
The first thing to say is that Jack Nicholson was Van Horne down to the hair on his back. The drawl, the slightly repugnant air, the staggering confidence, the je ne sais quoi which transformed this hirsute little man into an object of desire.
Updike's prose is as crisp and perceptive as ever. Whether he is describing the physical characteristics of a person or a landscape, he has the ability to make you draw in breath in admiration or suppress a chuckle. Here he is on an irritating old lady's throat:
'Mrs Lovecraft had adorned her wrinkled throat, collapsed upon itself in folds and gulleys like those of an eroded roadside embankment, with a strand of artificial pearls...'
Often, he is poetic:
'... of mist licking the autumnal surface of a woodland pond, and of the spheres of ever-thinner gas that our astronauts pierce without puncturing, so that the sky's blue does not leak away.'
As always, Updike has the power to see everyday objects with an unjaundiced eye so that the reader thinks, 'hey, that's really clever - it DOES look like that'. Here he is on pebbles under water:
'Brown pebbles stared up at her refracted and meaninglessly vivid, like the letters of an alphabet one doesn't know.'
Updike's sharp ability to encapsulate and articulate is as true of people's feelings as of physical descriptions. Here he is on the relief one feels when exposed and accepted:
'He knows my age', Alexandra thought, more relieved than offended. It was nice to have yourself known by a man; it was getting to be known that was embarrassing: all that self-conscious verbalization over too many drinks, and then the bodies revealed with the hidden marks and sags like disappointing presents at Christmastime.'
Or this on the path to that stage:
'Her prompt nakedness put her at a disadvantage; she had devalued herself.'
And there is much wry humour too. On a man's confidence to his mistress about his wife's sexuality, reported back to the mistress's gaggle of cackling friends:
'She had to have it once a week or she began to throw things.'
Or an observation on intonation:
'There was a quality men's voices had when you had slept with them, even years ago: the grain came up, like that of unpainted wood left out in the weather.'
As always, I was struck by the expertise with which Updike writes about such a range of topics. I don't simply mean his ability to turn his pen to describing life in its huge variety, although he does that too. I am referring to his knowledge about so many different fields. Tennis, Pop Art, Impressionism, Bach, piano and cello techniques, the intricacies of nature - yet never do you feel that he is stretching himself thin; there is always an impressive expertise about the subject he is dissecting. And he throws his knowledge in in such a light, airy way that there is never ponderous or didactic lecturing or self-conscious showing off, his knowledge is wafted in the breeze sweetly, like blossom in spring.
My only reservation about this book is my scepticism about magic and my questions related to that (eg 'if the witches could do X by magic, surely they must have been able to do Y, which would have solved all their problems at the beginning... and aborted the story'.)
Everything else is entertaining and wonderfully written, from the characterisation to the quality of the prose. But then, as far as I'm concerned, Updike is one of those rare literary geniuses that can do no wrong.