on 10 February 2006
Almost as soon as I began Marry Me, I was impressed and delighted with the sheer quality of Updike's writing - the opening chapter, a mere twelve pages, has so much truth and brilliance in it that it's no surprise that it was previously published as a booklet on its own in 1973. For all the truth and beauty of the writing, the subject matter - as with the Rabbit books and Couples (and probably others of his I haven't read), is the unhappiness of married life, and the itches that get scratched by those weak (or perhaps, in Updike's view, strong) enough to stray.
In the end I raced through Marry Me in two days - amazingly swiftly for an Updike - and loved all of it. It's really a series of long scenes between the two pairs of adulterers and adulterees, sometimes so long that you feel Updike is just turning the screws on these people (and on us) a little more than necessary. But it's devilishly entertaining to watch them perform at his whipstroke: arguing, making up, behaving predictably and unpredictably, deceiving and owning up, and never ever actually knuckling down to it and deciding what to do with their lives. The honesty and detail with which Updike presents them to us is breathlessly invigorating, the literary equivalent of sticking your head out the car window and feeling life rush by violently.
The characters are not admirable - the women alternately whiny, winning, sympathetic and pitiable; the men cruel, sincere, indecisive and confused - but they are plausible and fascinating. The combination of effortlessly elegant prose and wrenching emotional confrontations makes this the perfect marriage of heart and head.
on 6 July 2008
This Updike novel really deserves to be read as much as his later and more famous 'Rabbit' sequence. If it hasn't got the dark edge that those books have, it certainly has style, images and scenes that stay with you, as if you had lived them yourself. The novel is, as the sub-title indicates, 'a romance', though there is irony intended in this.
Two couple have affairs with each others' spouses. Ruth and Richard quickly get over their affair but Jerry and Sally are sure they are in love and have an on-off relationship throughout the novel that causes pain and suffering to them and their partners.
The novel focuses on Jerry's vacillations between the two women, his lover Sally and Ruth his wife. That's the plot. Which will he choose...What will he lose if he leaves his (long-suffering) wife and children, what will he gain if he follows his heart and marries Sally. None of the characters are likeable, all are presented as truly real, changeable, nasty, selfless and heroic by turns, just as we all might be. There are no easy answers for Jerry, who, as a Christian faces the dilemmas other Updike characters do, torn between faith and desire.
For me though, the star of the novel is Updike's descriptive passages, beaches, skies, a crowded airport, the mood of summer's evening, the changing light on trees, the sea. He describes the physicality of his characters, the smell of their skin, the movement of their bodies, the effect of sights, sounds and impressions on them. All this is powerfully felt by the reader as they are drawn into the novel.
Perhaps sometimes Updike reads like a parody of himself, there is an intensity to the writing in its desire to communicate what it felt like to be there, that person experiencing life as lived. Forgive that and enjoy the novel for its language and brave attempt to write out what it was to be human in that place at that time.
on 1 February 2009
Marry Me - John Updike
It would be easy to turn this review into a long eulogy praising the late John Updike's genius. Updike was one of those novelists that could perfectly capture the everyday and make it fascinating. He wrote, for the most part, about normal Joes and their families, their lives, their desires, their dreams, and so on. The jaw-dropping thing - one of the jaw-dropping things - about his prose was - is - that every few lines he would throw startlingly perceptive descriptions at you. Sometimes they were visual - he could turn a simile into an art piece, conjuring up sudden, vivid images, bringing the world he was describing into your head as if you'd not only seen it but noticed it for the first time, the way you notice leaves on trees when you first wear specs if you're myopic, or the way you drink in colours and images the first time you see a place, before you become inured to its natural beauty. And sometimes the descriptions he captures so succinctly - in words that you would never have thought of ,but now that you'd seen them, are obviously the apt words, the ONLY apt words - are of people's behaviour, actions, thought processes.
Often, with Updike, he describes something that you weren't even aware of before you read it, and you think `Yes, that's it! That's what people do in that situation.' The insights themselves - leave alone the beautiful, powerful prose Updike uses to describe them - are often so clever, so perceptive about human nature, that if anyone else had thought of them, they would make each one the centrepiece of a story and readers would admire and agree that it was indeed an insight worth devoting an entire story to. See how flustered I get when I try to describe his genius, I'm even ending sentences with prepositions. But Updike is never portentous or smug about his ability to use language to magical effect nor about his uncanny talent for seeing things that most people are too blinkered to notice. His capacity to turn out these sublime phrases and similes is unending; every page is peppered with them. It's as if someone's misunderstood the concept of a Christmas pudding and there are gold coins in every spoonful instead of one thrifty sixpence hidden in the whole lot.
When a writer is so amazingly talented, it raises your expectations. This is why I was sometimes frustrated at some of Updike's short stories, such as some of the ones in his 2000 collection Licks of Love, or the one he wrote a few weeks before his death for the Sunday Times magazine. It was like watching Roger Federer at his peak lose in a semi-final to Tim Henman. (Ok, ridiculous thought, but that's the point.). You knew he was capable of more, even if, objectively, the level he had reached still surpassed almost every other living player in that field. Once you've proved yourself to be the best in the world, anything that falls short is a relative disappointment. And the stories in Licks of Love were just not Updike at his best because they dealt almost exclusively with sex and the pull of infidelity. This is not to suggest Updike was wrong to write about sex - on the contrary, sex and love are such central parts of most people's lives that to ignore them would be odd. It was just that when Updike dealt with sex as part of the everyday fabric of life, as in the Harry `Rabbit' Angstrom books, it was in the context of the saga of people's lives. In the short stories in Licks of Love, it seemed that all Updike's males were soullessly horny, they all seemed the same cynical, unromantic, selfish person.
So onto Marry Me. Published in 1976, it covers similar domestic ground as some other Updike novels such as Couples, but it does so with Updike's unerring eye for detail. The novel centres around two couples, Sally and Richard, and Jerry and Ruth and their children. The novel starts as Sally and Jerry are having a romantic tryst on a beach. The ensuing complications and reverberations of their affair affect their partners and children.
I started reading with trepidation. Would this be another novel about middle-aged people falling in and out of bed, centred mainly on lust and not much else? But I was wrong to think Updike would be so simplistic. In his characteristic style, he captures the nuances of human behaviour. Each of the four central characters becomes alive and avoids being two dimensional. It would have been a lot easier to invoke cliche and have the wronged wife become hysterical and abusive, but Updike's careful, masterly strokes make Ruth emerge as a complex individual, torn between a husband she loves but doesn't respect and a future that would offer freedom from the torture of infidelity but which is also terrifying to contemplate.
Jerry is another Rabbit Angstrom. He is weak,selfish, easily led, indecisive, somewhat spoiled by those who love him. Yet he too is not a cartoon caricature. Many novelists writing about infidelity would submit to the temptation of drawing him as a monster, but Jerry is a real person with good as well as bad points - he loves his children, for example, and is cut up at the prospect of hurting them.
Sally receives less space to grow than Ruth but comes across as self-centred, greedy, materialistic and superficial. But again, she is no caricature - as with all the characters, her responses and actions sometimes surprise and one realizes that she has the necessary degree of unpredictability to make her a real person and not a cartoon character.
And it is not just the adults that Updike nails down with precision. He is achingly, acutely potent in his portrayal of children in a time of conflict. There is one scene where Ruth throws a glass to the ground and her young son Charlie runs into the kitchen:
`Charlie ran into the kitchen at the noise; Ruth had forgotten he was in the house. He was fine and small for his age, with an eager fine face and Jerry's uncombable cowlick. `Why did you do that?' he asked, smiling, in readiness to be told it was a joke. He was the most logical of their children, and without a theory of `jokes' grown-ups would not have fitted into his universe at all. He stood waiting, small and smiling. He was seven.'
Then, when Ruth tells Charlie that it's because `Daddy wants to leave us and go live with Mrs Mathias', who Charlie knows only as the mother of his occasional playmates, Charlie flees the kitchen `with the silent quickness of a whipped cat'. Jerry runs off in pursuit and finds Charlie crying. When Jerry asks his son why he's crying, Charlie says, with the heartbreakingly poignant ability that small children have to blame themselves
` `Mommy said - Mommy said you want to live' - a suppressed sob made his bony chest heave - `with those children.' `
And of course as with any Updike, the power isn't confined to major events. Updike's ability to describe everyday, sometimes mundane, objects in a way the reader has never previously visualized - but will forever do so from now on - is as evident as always. A man is 'so shinily bald that the sutures of his skull declared their pattern.'
Updike's interest in art (he studied for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford just after finishing his English degree at Harvard) adds a painterly touch to many of his descriptions. landscapes and objects look like Cezannes and Bonnards. Ruth's child who creeps in bed with her after a particularly bad night fills her with awe when Ruth awakens as she notices the perfection of the child's features, and she feels as if someone's slipped a masterpiece in her bed. Again, Updike captures a feeling that many people have had but never articulated. Who among us has never stared in reverence at a baby's perfection?
It's been a bad few months for the greats of American literature. David Foster Wallace died in his forties only a few months ago, and now Updike, the master of literature, is gone. The only comfort is that Updike has left a large body of writing that will keep millions of us engrossed for years to come.