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Updike
Updike
Adam Begley
Harper, 2014
576 pp., $29.99

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John Updike: The Collected Stories (Library of America)
John Updike: The Collected Stories (Library of America)
John Updike
Library of America, 2013
1872 pp., $75.00

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Scott Dill


Updike: A Life in Motion

Amiably coaxing us to pay attention.

In an author's aside from La Rouge et le noir, Stendhal preemptively chides his reader: "Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral!" More than once accused of carrying around such immoral mirrors in his pack, John Updike would often cite the passage in his own defense. He claimed to write with a precise, innocent realism that portrayed the full range of human experience.

Most of all, Updike relished the mirror's arbitrary details. He once summed up a strain of American painting that depicted, in a phrase lifted from Jonathan Edwards, "the clarity of things." The clarity of things certainly inspires Updike's own painterly flair for embellished description. Yet it is not merely the blameless exactitude of Stendhal's mirror that distinguishes Updike's realism: he carries his mirror down the road. It moves. Motion characterizes Updike's prose as much as mimicry.

First, his sentences seem to flow unhindered. They are often described as elegant or effortless, in part because of how smoothly they appear to roll from word to word in a faultless tumble of consistent pacing. Their rhythms convey the motion of an eye's roving gaze or a hand skimming across surfaces. In one of Updike's best early stories, "The Happiest I've Been," the young John Nordholm careens down the Pennsylvania turnpike only to discover a landscape so abundant with meaning it brooks no punctuating period: "There was the quality of the ten a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility—you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element—and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state—as if you had made your life." The sentence spreads itself ...

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