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His habit of mind

Due Considerations Essays and Criticism; John Updike; Alfred A. Knopf: 710 pp., $40

October 28, 2007|James Marcus | James 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.

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.

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