(1932-2009) was a
prolific writer, he published 15 collections of short stories, 24
novels, including the famous ‘Rabbit’ series, children’s books, poetry
collections, essays, memoirs and criticism as well as a play. Amongst
his many awards were a Pulitzer Prize.
He was a staff writer at the New Yorker.
the fact, discovered by two independent teams of researchers, seemed to
be that deep space showed not only no relenting in the speed of the
farthest galaxies but instead a detectable acceleration, so that an
eventual dispersion of everything into absolute cold and darkness
could be confidently predicted. We are riding an aimless explosion to
Reviewed by James Murray-White
This is a masterly collection of stories that explore growing old
through the lenses of relationships, marriages, and the daily nitty
gritty of life. They didn’t immediately leap out and grab me by the
neck, but as I leisurely read the collection three times over a few
months, I started to understand Updike the reflective revealer of
experience and wisdom as he wove these stories looking back upon
characters' rich lives.
He wrote them in his last few years, and it
would be too easy to say he is all of the characters, and that they
are thinly disguised elements of his well-lived and well-chronicled
He is a better writer than that. A reader looking for Updike
might do better by exploring his last collection of poetry, Endpoint, which was featured in the New Yorker in the months
before and after his death.
choice of title for this collection, My
Father's Tears and other stories,
doesn’t seem an easy fit for all of the collection, but the story
itself, which contrasts the narrator’s parents with those of his
ex-wife’s, interweaves time backwards and forwards and back again
with wonderful storytelling. It concludes succinctly:
hung up and shared the news with Deb. She put her arms around me in
the bed and told me, ‘cry’. Though I saw the opportunity, and the
rightness of seizing it, I don’t believe I did. My father’s tears
had used up mine."
might be seen as the core story of the collection, and which has been
highlighted as such by other reviews, is Varieties
of Religious Experience, Updike’s
literary response to the tragic events of 9/11. A father and
grandfather, Dan Kellogg, happens to be in New York on that day,
visiting his family, and has a direct view of one of the planes
hitting the tower. Other narratives of the same event blend through
the 30-page story – an office worker in the tower has a last phone
call with his wife; two of the terrorists drink in a bar and wait for their call to arms,
and a woman on board one of the hijacked planes is witness to the
panic and atrocity close up. Dan Kellogg is forced to deal with the
unfolding events and his difficult relationship with his family
through the lens of his own faith, and Updike sets this up as the
tension of the story, set against the straight telling of the real
life events. It is an uneasy piece, given that it reads almost like
one of the media stories of that day, into which Updike has blended
stories delve into quirky relationships that may or may not be happy
and fulfilled. In German Lessons,
for example, Ed has moved to a new town for a while and his marriage
and business are put on hold. While pondering what to do, he enrolls
on a language course, run by the charismatically Teutonic Hedwig
Mueller, who describes herself as a "Hitler bitch", and drifts
into a relationship with a fellow student:
"Ed found German
disagreeable and opaque – its closeness to English addled his mind.
He might have quit but for Andrea." Ed gets what he can out of his
time with her and the crazy company they mix in, and then drifts back
to his wife. He is a cold creature, utterly lost in 1960s America,
and I think Updike mockingly places him at the end on holiday in
Germany, allowing his character such small, insubstantial memories of
a life not much lived.
in a key theme running throughout many of the stories, including
where male protagonists burn up with memories of extra-marital
affairs and try desperately to resurrect them. Updike’s men do
often seem to hark back to their earlier years of virility and
stealth, and yet for Les in Delicate
Wives the affair was recent, and he
becomes blinded by it:
was….the intimacy he had coveted, legitimately his at last; but he
felt befouled by things of the body and wanted merely to turn away,
while knowing he could not."
well as affairs outside marriage and flirtatious relationships before
marriage, and the early fumblings of youth, as retold seductively at
a school reunion some 50 years later in The
Walk with Elizanne, Updike firms in
upon the intricacies of intimacy, as his characters, such as the
aging male character known as Fairchild in The
Accelerating Expansion of the Universe
find ways to live together and accept
each other's foibles.
After they are robbed on holiday in Spain, he
yells at his wife: "Will you stop focusing on my blood? You knew
when you married me I had blood." This heat of the moment exchange,
coming from the lips of a very placid man firmly down the road of a
contemplative retirement, set upon reaching a companionable and yet
largely unspoken understanding with his wife, seems to somehow
underpin all the characters across the 18 stories. Indeed, the
narrator gently continues, before Fairchild has an unpleasant
encounter with a door, that: "she was teaching him, this late in
his life, feminist inclusiveness."
first reading, the only story which didn’t seem to sit amongst the
others is the opener, Morocco.
Eventually this saga of hapless misfortune suffered by an American
family with young kids traipsing around this utterly foreign place,
made sense to me. Whether many thousands of miles away from home, or
in the place we grew up, and might keep returning to, we might, as
Updike’s characters all do, experience the same quasi-cultural
misunderstandings, fears, and motivations.
Many of the characters
throughout the book feel the call of return to something or someplace
past, to try and understand something, or join up the dots of long
lives drawing to conclusions.
not so familiar with the parts of America where many of the stories
are set – Boston, Pennsylvania and Updike’s own Massachusetts,
and while they have a flavour of the local community and the land –
is the only story which is very firmly rooted in one person's
particular small estate, with tendrils of history stretching back
across it; this in no way hampers the reading of them.
Updike, intentionally or otherwise, is able to really create an
everyman in each one of his protagonists. They are by and large male,
this is clearly his strength and where he succeeds, and he ploughs up
traits and flaws, and several strengths as well, that many readers
will identify with. I would say, by way of conclusion, that in this
glorious collection, Updike has left us with not so much a manual by
which to live life, but stories which show us how to reflect upon
life from the vantage point of maturity.