More Matter by John Updike
As a university student, from whose chrysalis of interest in books had emerged the imago of devotion, I spurned dry academic criticism for those essays and reviews written by practitioners. I did so because I knew that, by having an unliterary childhood (I still cannot read Jane Austen), a firm grounding in the agonistic universe of literature was essential for my own professional development. The novelists also had an important quality lacking from the academics: they loved books.
I devoured the non-fiction of Burgess, Nabokov, Amis, Lodge, Eliot, Bradbury, Bellow, even Burroughs (whose essay on woman as an error I still recall with admiration); I stole ideas for conversation and tested their opinions against my own nascent critical sensibility. With especial affection do I remember lugging home John Updike’s vast tomes from the city library. Here was someone who balanced exquisitely the pressure to be open to new experience, whilst retaining well-thought-out and noble principles, allied with a belief in the integrity of art altogether absent from my peers. To say that these books were friends is an understatement; they were my Virgil, guiding me past the poets, sodomites, and monsters of the inferno.
It was with this burning glow of nostalgia that I greeted the arrival of another breezeblock of Updike’s essays and reviews, More Matter. Even the title, plucked from Hamlet (“More matter, less art,” says Gertrude to Polonious) continued the modesty of Picked-up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, and Odd Jobs. In those books I had delighted in discovering avenues into previously unknown writers who would later give much pleasure. One can rarely be sure of when one first heard of a writer (Updike, I think, was recommended to me by Nabokov in Strong Opinions as, with Salinger, one of the two great writers of the fifties/sixties generation), but I believe that without Updike I would have had to wait a while longer to be aware of the existence of Calvino, Borges, Barthes, John Barth, Kierkegaard, Roth, and many others. This time, as I flicked through the pages, I saw many unfamiliar names (Helen Keller, Marguerite Yourcenar, Thomas Mallon . . .) but, as I read the tepid reviews (good but uninspired), I realised that I needed a different aim in reading.
At first, I read for the quality of the prose, reminded of Nicholson Baker’s point (in U and I) that some of Updike’s best writing was in his reviews. It is true; one is rewarded by great swathes of pitch-perfect sentences. Nevertheless, there is also much bad prose, as he freely confesses ‘My thoughts have become not only fewer and smaller but more spiteful and timorous.’ This just about sums up his relative decline from the heights.
Reviews of Updike tend to end with an admonishment against over-production and after reading this one can see why. No other living author has seen their entire words freely available in this way; they have edited out that which they regret. Updike, alas, is much too forgiving.