Gratitude Unending 

Updike essay collection embraces the muse of happiness and the joy of the written word

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John Updike, whose beaked, deaconishly smiling face unglamourously adorns the cover of More Matter, his latest collection of occasional prose, is, like his beloved Nabokov, a deeply cheerful writer who, as a novelist, vividly conjures human misery. But as an essayist and memoirist, his real muse is happiness in its many varieties: gratitude, wonderment, grace, sexual pleasure, the lamplit warmth of literary bliss, the banked glow of domestic comfort, to name a few.

In the book's best essay, "Letter to a Baby Boomer," a gentle bulletin on turning 50, addressed to the generation that followed his own (and one that he calls, in a rare moment of rhetorical anger, "the most self-involved and self-righteous generation alive"), Updike writes:

"A quaint tidiness creeps over the latter decades, along with a long-dormant interest in the songs of birds and the names of plants. The annual return of barn swallows in our carport, for instance, and their subsequent rearing of three or four swallowettes have become principal topics of excited conversation between my wife and myself -- little natural miracles relieving the level quiet of our days. As the old biological missions ... slacken in urgency, the world itself in its multifarious and ceaselessly shifting non-human detail, sifts into awareness, imparting an innocent sense of witness like that of childhood."

Gratitude is a constant emotion in this collection. There are few writers who have been as precociously published, bemedalled and doted upon as Updike. And the punctilious novelist and essayist has not chosen to bite the hand that feeds him. Paying tribute to his mentor and protectors inspires Updike to heights of fond discernment. About William Shawn, his editor at The New Yorker for 30 years, he writes:

"Mr. Shawn -- as I always called him -- declined to compromise the dignity of his power with such unnecessary elaboration. Not that he was curt; on the contrary, infinitely patient expectancy, grandly non-directive, was the mood he conveyed ... it was part of his editorial genius to establish, in the manner of the classic Freudian psychoanalyst, an air of perfect listening in which you were encouraged to reveal and reconstruct yourself."

Of William Maxwell, fiction editor at the magazine:

"... it is rare to encounter such extreme sensitivity in so cogent, unassuming, and matter-of-fact a frame."

Updike has always been quite the polymath, and in More Matter, he expounds, at enviable length, about a range of extra-literary subjects from cosmology to the Titanic to the U.S. Constitution, to the problem of evil to Andy Warhol, entertainingly and with sympathetic curiosity, if not always with great penetration.

Camille Paglia, who writes with an invective not seen since the internecine quarrels of '30s leftists, elicits a surprisingly evenhanded assessment. Updike praises the "considerable worth of her learning, ingenuity, and fearlessness" but deplores her love for the "hard glitter" of celebrity culture.

Popular culture is a topic that fills Updike with uneasy fascination. Having grown up in the '40s and '50s, on a rich and varied diet of high-modernist classics, Algonquin humor and liberation theology (in what was straight-facedly called the Age of Criticism), Updike has seen movies, pop songs and advertisements change from subjects for bemused attention to pretty much the only game in town.

Although still widely read, Updike has slightly ceded his place on the stage to more contemporary, harder-edged talents and has seen some of his great themes -- the messy collision of religion and sexuality; the mystique of women's bodies -- fade into cultural irrelevance. But if a note of pleading creeps into this book, it is not a famous writer's fear of obscurity, but a happy man's sorrow that fewer and fewer people seem to share his special ardor.

In the collection's final piece, a speech before the National Book Foundation, Updike affirms:

"The book industry scarcely needs glamour when it has at its command something better, beauty -- the beauty of the book. Though visual imagery is in a sense more absolute -- more vivid, less arguable -- than the printed word, electronic projectors are clumsy and prone to obsolescence compared to the physical object that bounds paper forms. ... We assembled here should rejoice in our venerable product; a book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human brain, and to the human spirit."

John Broening is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs. He is also the chef at Primitivo.


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