If John Updike had written nothing but novels, his career would still have an almost Victorian amplitude. Since 1959, he has published 22 stout, supple fictions crammed with the minutiae of American life and perfumed, much of the time, with sexual effluvia. The "Rabbit" series alone would make him a major novelist. Yet the bright book of life, as D.H. Lawrence called it, has never been sufficient to devour all of Updike's prodigious energies. Short stories, light verse, children's books, art appreciation, an anthology of musings on golf -- all have poured forth from the atelier in Ipswich, Mass., in the sort of industrial quantities that once prompted Martin Amis to call Updike a "psychotic Santa of volubility."
Then there are the essays. Updike assembled his first collection, "Assorted Prose," in 1965. This was a fairly modest volume, as was its successor, "Picked-Up Pieces," which appeared 10 years later. Since then, the pace has grown more rapid and the books much heftier. "More Matter" (1999) ran to 928 pages, and at that point even the author wondered whether he was coming to the end of his essayistic tether, referring to it as "my fifth such collection and -- dare we hope? -- my last."
He spoke too soon. "Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism" is, to be sure, smaller than its immediate predecessors -- a 736-page welterweight. As Updike, 75, notes in his preface, he had hoped for a more compact collection. But not even the "dwindling powers of old age" managed to stopper his expressive itch. "My hope, as I sorted and rooted through my deposits of old tear sheets and typescripts ('hard copies,' as we now call them), was slowly dashed," he writes. "There was no escaping the accumulated weight of my daily exertions." For Updike, this may well be the Sisyphean chore his tone suggests. For the reader, it's something else entirely: a prolonged exposure to one of the best essayists and critics this country has produced in the last century. The prose is clean, elegant, exquisitely calibrated. There's little of the preening that can creep into Updike's fiction, probably because the need to focus on the subject at hand -- a book, a place, a personality -- keeps the author's fabulous fluency in check. It would be a stretch to call him an essayist first, a novelist second. Yet skeptics (and there seem to be plenty) might do worse than to start with the controlled ignition of the essays and only then dip into the more expansive fictional fireworks.
Notwithstanding the author's exertions, we owe much of this collection to the New Yorker, which has functioned as Updike's boot camp, polishing school and court of appeals. The heart of "Due Considerations" consists of 60 book reviews and 10 essays published in the magazine during the new millennium. As always, the author has ranged widely: There are pieces about Orhan Pamuk and Peter Carey, Muriel Spark and Mo Yan, J.M. Coetzee's wretched youth and Michel Houellebecq's sexed-up maturity. The roster is heavily tilted toward the contemporary novel, especially toward those loose-and-baggy monsters that emulate their Victorian forebears. ("Nineteenth-century novelists," Updike observes, "catered to a more generous, less nibbled attention span; they breathed with bigger lungs and naturally wrote long, deep, and wide.")
But this ecumenical reader also takes on a brace of biographies (Kierkegaard, Byron, Proust, Goya, Coco Chanel) and a pair of books on the Lusitania. Updike finds time for Robert Alter's daunting translation, "The Five Books of Moses," which strikes him as a long, dusty trek in the wilderness: "Reading through this book, or five books, is a wearying, disorienting, and at times revelatory experience. Our interest trends downhill."
The jab at Alter is somewhat atypical. For Updike is the kindest of critics, whose authentic generosity toward his peers can sometimes blunt the edge of his perceptions. In the new collection's preface, he mounts an amusing defense of his penchant for positive thinking: "A critic, most gratefully regarded when he dismisses a new book from any obligation of ours to read it, performs a nobler social service in urging authors upon us." That said, some of the best pieces find Updike in a more combative mood. He's formidable even in repose, like a crocodile sunning on a rock, but it's those snapping jaws that really grab our attention.
Stanley CROUCH's "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome," for example, clearly exhausted his patience early in the game. Acknowledging Crouch's "loosely buttoned and highly figurative English," Updike nonetheless abhors his endless riffing about his protagonists' racial dilemma. Indeed, white Carla and black Maxwell strike him as cardboard cutouts, whose idealized perfection robs the book of any real narrative torque. Her love for him "has no flaw, nor his for her, but for the intruding sour note of segregationist politics. So the novel becomes less an action than a disquisition, a wordy, wide-ranging array of voiced opinions, to which we settle like bleary customers in a late-night jazz club."
Updike employs an identical truncheon on Henry James -- in, bizarrely enough, a new introduction to "The Portrait of a Lady." Despite his hemming and hawing, he's clearly dismayed by Isabel Archer's lack of "palpable vitality" and the molasses-like progress of the plot. Here, too, there is less action than disquisition. James seems reluctant to confront the messy phenomena -- sex and money -- that he insists on putting at the center of his novels. "His grand tone," writes Updike, practically wagging an admonitory finger, "veils an ignoble scramble for money among people incapable of earning any. The bare facts glint through, now and then; beneath the exquisite frescoes that James executed on European models lies a coat of plain Puritan whitewash." (Speaking of bare facts, one is reminded of the Angstroms rolling around on a pile of gleaming Krugerrands in Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich," a conflation of eros and bling that would have given James an instant coronary.)
There is some hilarity at the thought of Updike, our De Tocqueville of tumescence, marching under a Puritan banner. Yet even a libertine has limits, and Updike reached his in a 1999 review of Alan Hollinghurst's "The Spell." He tut-tuts at how penis "sizes, tilts, tints, and flavors are registered with a botanical precision," as if his heroes didn't regard female genitals with the same sort of quasi-scientific relish. What bugs him even more is Hollinghurst's blithe disregard for the dynastic rhythms of heterosexual life -- his unwillingness to play it straight. "Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family," writes Updike, in a sentence that raised more than a few eyebrows when it first ran in the New Yorker. Dock him 10 points and move on, recalling that Updike, a self-proclaimed "Proust-lover," seems to have forgiven the author of "In Search of Lost Time" for not reproducing.
Putting aside this pitch for family values, Updike is refreshingly free of dogma. Unlike, say, the gifted James Wood, a recent New Yorker arrival who may ultimately fill Updike's shoes, his approach to the novel is seldom prescriptive: He sees books for what they are, not what they should be.
Yet certain principles, or at least preferences, can be deduced from the vast bulk of "Due Considerations." He loves the domestic novel, "accreted of small, walled-in events and mostly subdued emotions." He praises stylistic suavity. Most of all, he craves the friction between spirit and matter, between metaphysical yearning and anthropological exactitude.
This is, Updike suggests, a distinctly American ambivalence. "It is the conflicting fate of an American artist," he concedes, "to long for profundity while suspecting that, most profoundly, none exists; all is surface, and rather flimsy surface at that."
Which is to say that, in a pinch, this lifelong Christian will take matter over spirit. Like Thoreau, the subject of a probing essay in "Due Considerations," Updike is ultimately bowled over by the quiddity of things, the divine details that may or may not gesture toward some deeper reality.
This insatiable curiosity accounts for much of his greatness as novelist and critic. Although he does register some prejudice against his sheer output ("Posterity tends to give novelists a longer ride on one or two big books than on a raft of smaller ones"), he has little to worry about on that score. His flotilla has been built to last, and the biggest, most buoyant creations look to be virtually unsinkable.*
Marcus is the author of "Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut," translator of several books from the Italian and proprietor of the blog House of Mirth.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times