John Updike’s impressive sentences

We are all so assimilated. Last Saturday, Hope was watching the evening news and the newscaster instead of Tom Brokaw was a perfectly stunning young woman, light topaz eyes as far apart as a kitten’s, sharp-cornered wide mouth pronouncing everything with a perfect rapid inflection, more American than American, crisper, a touch of that rapid barking voice of the     thirties gangster films and romantic comedies, and when she signed off her name wasn’t even Greek, it was more like Turkish, a quick twist of syllables like an English word spelled backward. The old American stock is being overgrown. High time, of course: no reason to grieve.—John Updike, Seek My Face

Recently, after reading John Updike, I was driving on an interstate and, because of him, wondering how I’d describe the bruised horizon ahead and the mountainous white cloud rising from it—and I realized, from miles away, that I was driving into rain. It turned out to be a storm, a whopper. I could barely see in the downpour but felt I’d been more awake because of Updike’s prose.

I just read Seek My Face, his 2002 novel, which must be required for anyone deeply interested in American art and especially the postmodernists. Updike tells the story from the point of view of an elderly woman painter (not in first-person but in very close third-person omniscient), and he sets the novel during a day-long interview between the woman and a young art journalist from New York. Both these feats—the opposite-sex point of view and the restricted, present-tense time frame—are impressive in themselves. The art theme allowed Updike to deploy his considerable knowledge and passion for art—he began as a visual artist—and although that subject sometimes caused the novel to drag for me, I was enthralled with his spooky ability to portray interpersonal dynamics. The way Updike captures his characters’ shifting feelings toward themselves and others is remarkable, delicious.

Throughout the day in Seek My Face, Hope is irritated by brusque Kathryn “with that easy New York knowingness that withers all it touches,” but sometimes curious and sympathetic toward her. Hope’s inner life is hidden to Kathryn but revealed to us:

The visitor’s voice, insistent with a certain anger yet femalely flexible, insinuating itself into her prey’s ears, asserts, “You were raised as a Quaker.” . . . Hope imagines Kathryn’s naked body—the swing of hip into thigh, the rose-madder-tipped breasts floating on the rib cage, the pubic triangle pure ivory-black and oily as in a Corot—all in a flash, then renounces the image: of the creature. Her susceptibility to beauty, Hope has always known, is what has kept her minor as an artist. The great ones go beyond beauty, they spurn it as desert saints spurned visions of concupiscence and ease: the Devil’s offer of world as reward.

I really read him for his beautiful, complex sentences and for his inspiring eye. He’s been called a lyric writer for the way he could paint life’s look and its feel. His sentences are unabashedly lush compared with today’s more pervasive plain style, a refreshing break from it and an inspiration to enhance my own considerably plainer style. He also makes me want to see better, to look at the world and capture it.

She rarely sits in this room; the kitchen, her bedroom above it, and the studio beyond it contain her usual orbit. Each evening, having added the supper plate and glass to those already in the dishwasher for it to be full enough to run, she thinks of coming in here and drawing the curtains behind the plaid chair against a draft and reading her book of the week, or even looking into one of the art books growing dusty, but she rarely does, drifting upstairs to the warmth of her bedroom instead. Climbing the stairs—“climbing the wooden hill,” her grandfather called it—hurts her knees and left hip but helps keep her mobile, she believes, helps keep her for another year out of one of those assisted-living facilities with rubber floors and off-limits stairwells where her two sons would like to see her settled for the ease of their own consciences, it would make them look bad if she were to die alone and broken on the stairs a la Edna St. Vincent Millay. She so rarely sits in the front parlor that the space from her standing, momentarily light-headed perspective appears startled, its corners jarred into flight, elastic and awry like the corners in rooms by Van Gogh or Lucien Freud. There is something lavender, a psychedelic tinge, in the papered walls, in the thin warped windowpanes, that at moments enters Hope’s eyes from the side, as if the room’s inhabitants in the century now gone had breathed a hint of their lives onto these surfaces.

When I was young Updike put me off—I said he was “cold toward his characters”—and I’m not sure what I meant, maybe that he intimidated me. Now I just take off my hat to him. He was some kind of genius (i.e. brilliant plus seemingly always inspired) and he inspires me. He could tell a story too. You might not like it, or his characters, or his preoccupations, but very early in life he learned what he was doing. You sense his confidence, the sureness of purpose of someone who’s mastered his medium.

And if a novel or memoir or collection of poems, stories, or essays fell short, if critics hated it, no matter: he’d hand-write another and then type up two drafts (with a typewriter for years, on a computer late in life), and only one year later there it would be, a new book. Because of his productivity, I think he was taken somewhat for granted.

Last month The New York Times published “John Updike’s Archive: A Great Writer at Work” that shows how he revised one of his manuscripts.


Filed under NOTED, style, syntax, working method

6 responses to “John Updike’s impressive sentences

  1. Oh great, another book to add to my summer reading list! Thanks for posting this review since I doubt I’d have taken a look at this book otherwise. I loved Updike at an early age but fell away from reading him in recent years, so I’m not as well-acquainted with his later works. The man was an indefatigable sentence artist.

    I saw the NYT article and was surprised by how much he left behind by way of artifacts given that he retained such tight control of his life otherwise. I can’t wait to read whatever comes into public view.

    If you’ve not read his piece “At War with My Skin,” do. It’s an autobiographical masterpiece.


  2. Thanks, Mary. I believe I know that essay, collected in his Memoirs, which I reviewed here, but in the book he also goes into his dental problems and his stutter. It is a marvelous memoir.

  3. Richard,
    I love your blog, and this beautiful entry was one of my favorites. My only question is: Could John Updike’s impressive sentences have contained a typo? In the graf about Kathryn’s naked body, there is a sentence that refers to her “public triangle” that I suspect was intended to refer to her “pubic triangle.” A highly amusing discovery for this former proofreader; until my first book (a collection of short stories entitles WISE AS SERPENTS, HARMLESS AS DOVES) was sold in March, I used to work for a business magazine, where the fear was a typo that would operate in the reverse direction, i.e. “initial pubic offering” in lieu of “initial public offering.”
    Many thanks,

    • Alethea,

      Good catch. Fixed. I also regret I was unable to use his diacritical marks. Such typos and technical errors make a writer look so dumb. It’s karma: the other day I was reading the draft of an essay by a writer who has published five books and was appalled at the “it’s” error and something else. The very thing Peter Elbow preaches not to worry about so much, at least until the very very end, and of course this is why God created copy editors!


  4. PS Ha! There’s a typo in my post about typos; serves me right. Make that “entitled.”

  5. Your post made me want to pick up “Seek My Face,” and then, on reflection, I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Updike’s novels. Gasp! Time to remedy that! Thanks for the hint of the great writing I’m missing.