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By Larry Woiwode
Updike's Melancholy Hymn
"In the Beauty of the Lilies"
By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf
491 pp.; $25.95
John Updike's book of memoirs, "Self-Consciousness," one of his least-read books according to a personal, informal poll, contains this statement:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea--this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as a title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.
Updike's seventeenth novel and forty-sixth book, "In the Beauty of the Lilies," seems a summation of that opus. It is the only generational novel Updike has published, spanning four generations of a specific family over a space of 80 years. (The novel is divided into quartets, each allotted to a specific person in each generation.) It is not as though Updike hasn't written about the effects of one generation on another, as he has done ably in "The Poorhouse Fair," "The Centaur," "Of the Farm," "Roger's Version," the Rabbit quartet, and other novels. But those books usually span a number of days, or a season or cycle of seasons at the most, and the generational influences, though felt, are never worked out in increasing complexity down through decades to some sort of resolution that falls near our nonfictional present. So Updike's new novel represents, in form and intent, the dramatic exception to his entire oeuvre.
In the spring of 1910, during D. W. Griffith's filming of "The Call to Arms" in the sweltering heat of Paterson, New Jersey, the 17-year-old star, Mary Pickford, faints dead away, and just at that moment, as Updike relates it, the Reverend Clarence Wilmot, standing in the rectory of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, "felt the last particles of his faith leave him." Wilmot has been ...