“Sound feminist or something grounds”

The New York Times‘ book blog, Paper Cuts, points to David Updike‘s eulogy for his father, John Updike, at a March tribute at the New York Public Library. David is, pretty much inevitably, an underrated writer, and his new story collection, Old Girlfriends, is worth tracking down. He’s inherited a lot of his dad’s themes but his stories don’t feel like mimickry, as if having that last name freed him instead of overwhelmed him. (The time-pressed might head straight for “Kinds of Love,” in which a man attends church with the woman with whom he’s having an affair.)

The nice thing about the Paper Cuts post is that it also points to a complete transcript [PDF] of the New York Public Library Tribute. The usual kindnesses were voiced by Knopf and New Yorker cohorts like Sonny Mehta, David Remnick, Roger Angell, and others. But Ann Goldstein, who edited Updike’s book reviews for the magazine, provided some of the most interesting commentary—it’s a window into how Updike came off as somebody openly willing to accept editing without having to change a damn thing. Goldstein reads a couple of examples of his reactions to edits:

From 1992: “My criticism inspires me with an increasing impatience. It seems simultaneously timid and reckless, a callow papering over of an invincible ignorance. Toward the end, on galley 12, I wearily brushed your suggested revisions aside, unable to rise to the occasion and finding my own phrasing more succinct and natural.” (laughter)

From 1989: “I noticed that somebody went through and deleted the Miss on I’m sure sound feminist or something grounds. It just seems a little discourteous to an elderly fellow like me to call her ‘Dillard,’ like some androgynous housekeeper or gruff governess. (laughter) The one beginning the paragraph on galley 9 seemed especially curt. It was our way in the days of Shawn to give all living female authors the courtesy of a Miss or Mrs.—Mrs. Spark, Miss Murdoch—but I am happy to go with the new ways if it seems important.”

Editing, for Updike, was “scraping off the fuzzballs”—something dutiful, fussy, perhaps even a little unnecessary (if you’re Updike, anyway). And though he liked the fussing, according to Goldstein he particularly loved it when a piece needed a quick turnaround—as any writer who’s written for a print publication knows, a signal that your copy won’t be mucked with much. “What fun, this sudden shuttle of proofs back and forth,” he’d tell Goldstein in those moments, “as though I live in the real world after all.”

Links: Dirty Old Men

Playboy will publish an excerpt of Vladimir Nabokov‘s final work, an unfinished novella titled The Original of Laura. Don’t look so shocked: The magazine interviewed him in 1964.

Ernest Hemingway: KGB spy?

The Second Pass takes a look at ten books that need to be tossed out of the canon. First up, Don DeLillo‘s White Noise: “DeLillo sacrifices any sense of realism for dull, thin polemic.” I’m not buying the “polemic” bit, and who said he was shooting for realism anyhow?

The Iowa Review has a new editor.

Politico rings up Ward Just for a quote about the death of Robert McNamara.

Eudora Welty‘s estate pulled her name out of the running for the renaming of her alma mater, the Mississippi University for Women.

The Atlantic has a modest proposal: Give tax breaks to publishers who support new and little-known writers. M.A. Orthofer retorts, “don’t ‘not-for-profit’ publishers (many of the finest small publishers in the US) already get obscene tax breaks ?”

John Updike‘s longtime home in Beverly Farms, Mass., sold last month for $2.5 million.

Jim Harrison has a pretty fancy house too, though his actual writing room looks like a cubicle in an abandoned real-estate brokerage.

George Pelecanos doesn’t know jack about writing about shotguns, according to a Field & Stream gunblogger: “Pelecanos in particular will put characters in a tense armed standoff, then have someone say ‘I can shoot you before you have time to rack that pump.’ In real life the immediate reply would be ‘Boom.'”

Links: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

John Callaway, longtime host of Chicago Tonight, the news program of the city’s PBS station, died this week. Among the videos on the tribute page is an interview with John Updike, circa Terrorist.

Jim Thompson discusses his path of going from bartending in Finland to publishing his new novel, Snow Angels

Austin-based hip-hop producer David Williams makes a valid point: “You know what’s a shame about calling your band The Airborne Toxic Event? If that band’s fans haven’t read Don DeLillo, they’re just gonna think, ‘Fart.'” Discussions of Saul Bellow and Walter Benjamin ensue.

On a related note, DeLillo’s next novel comes out next year.

Ha Jin discusses writing in English as his second language.

There’s something charming about the fact that one of the people leading the charge to preserve Ernest Hemingway‘s home in Cuba is Bob Vila.

A group of Ohio University students have made a film version of Russell Banks‘ 1981 collection of interlinked stories, Trailerpark.

Parents in Litchfield, New Hampshire, are outraged that stories by Stephen King, Laura Lippman, David Sedaris, and Ernest Hemingway are being taught in high school. The story ends with a hell of a kicker: “The parents objected to satirist Sedaris’ ‘I Like Guys’ because they do not want their children learning about homosexuality in school.”

Oh, and a couple of school-board members are still blowing a gasket over Song of Solomon in Shelby, Michigan.

“I’m a police.”

Since February the Guardian‘s TV blog, Organ Grinder, has been hosting a nerd-out about The Wire—FX is airing it there, and hopefully they’ve found a way to show it without bleeping out Clay Davis. (Or, perhaps more precisely, bleeeeeeeeeeeping.) The latest entry covers series creator David Simon‘s appearance at the Hay literary festival last weekend. Much of the ground Simon covers is familiar to anybody who’s heard him speak, but I hadn’t heard the anecdote he broke out about a squabble between Martin Amis and John Updike over some Wire-y language:

He also recalled the time Martin Amis was criticised by John Updike for using the phrase “I’m a police” in his 1997 novel Night Train. Amis told National Public Radio that Updike “should get a copy of David Simon’s Homicide”. Simon, who was listening to the interview in his car, thought: “Here are these actual literary lions arguing over some small part of a police procedural; it was the most exciting day of my life.”

(Street slang definitely isn’t Updike’s thing; Roger’s Version has plenty of acute observations of the projects in its Boston-like city, but practically no dialogue between people who live there.)

Most authors have a way of disappointing Simon, even the ones in the realist tradition. He told the Hay crowd, “I like Dreiser, but the guy couldn’t write a human being to save his life.” I’m curious what books by Theodore Dreiser he’s read; I can see his complaint applying to An American Tragedy, which hasn’t aged well and makes clear how much its characters are part of the book’s plot mechanics, but I’ve always admired the portrait of George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, which is one of the more effective descriptions of a slow mental breakdown in fiction.

Last Proofs

John Updike was well-known for being fussy when it came to revising his work. As he wrote in the introduction to a 1995 collection of his Rabbit novels: “Rabbit, Run, in keeping with its jittery, indecisive protagonist, exists in more forms than any other novel of mine.” If you want to see just how obsessive he could be, the Penn State library has a online exhibit that shows the various tweaks performed on the pages of his 1974 play, Buchanan Dying, from early drafts through final proofs.

I’ve been thinking about that process as I finish reading Updike’s forthcoming story collection My Father’s Tears, which would be among the last works Updike revised before his death last January. (The Maples Stories, a collection that includes the contents of 1979’s Too Far to Go plus some newer material, comes out in August.) My Father’s Tears includes some of the last stories that Updike published in the New Yorker before his death; because those stories are readily available online, it’s fairly easy to compare the magazine version of the story to the book version. There are plenty of small differences, for instance, between the version of “Outage” published in January 2008 edition of the New Yorker, and the one in the book. Some are minor: The main character’s name changes from Brad to Evan. Some are head-scratchers: A description of a poster showing a woman draped in a “tiger skin” on a Lamborghini becomes a woman draped in a “python.” (Perhaps he caught Britney Spears on YouTube sometime between proofs?)

But many of his adjustments seem designed to better sell the main plot of the story, which involves Brad/Evan hooking up with a neighbor, Lynne, during a power outage. It’s not one of Updike’s better stories, and his fussing seems to reflect a concern that the strange, mutual seduction going on isn’t very convincing. There aren’t many adjustments, but the ones there are attempt to more strongly integrate sex into the story. Living room furnishings that were all “all mixed with Orientals and family antiques” are now “promiscuously mixed with Orientals and family antiques.” Soon after, in the magazine version, he wonders if Lynne pulls off her sneakers “to avoid bending over beneath his eyes”; in the book, he wonders if she’s doing it “to avoid bending over, ass up, beneath his eyes.”

There are more sizable, and more effective, changes in the “The Road Home,” which first appeared as “The Roads of Home” in the New Yorker in February 2005. The story, like the majority of the stories in the collection, deals with old age, following a man named David Kern as he navigates the streets of his childhood home. For the book, Updike inserts the word Olinger into the story, making it a part of the body of stories he set in the mythical Pennsylvania town early in his career. And a new passage reveals an urge to better embed the story in the past:

[Kern’s mother] had maintained, with the earnestness with which she advanced her most fanciful theories, that this had always been a woman’s house. She cited as proof the fact that its first owner was recorded, in 1816, as being a woman, named Mercy Landis. Nothing was known of her but her name on the old deed; she existed where history shaded into myth . . .

Kern felt the tracks of his ancestors all around him—generation after generation laboring, eating, walking, driving within this Pennsylvania county’s bounds, laying down an invisible network of worn paths. Only he had escaped. Only he, of his boyhood household, now lived to witness how the region was changing, gradually consuming its older self, its landmarks disappearing one by one in the slow-motion tumult of decay and substitution as the newer generations made their own demands on the land.

His cuts mattered as much as his additions. The last story that Updike published in the New Yorker while he was living, “The Full Glass,” appeared in the magazine in May 2008. It’s among his thinnest stories in terms of plot, a light description of the infirmities of aging framed around a memory of an old affair. The protagonist wants to remain optimistic yet knows the end is coming—what’s critical isn’t the storytelling but the tone. A Updike seems to have found the following sentence, beautiful as it is, perhaps too glum to appear in the final book:

I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach—that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars.

Of course, I’m working off a couple of assumptions here. The stories in My Father’s Tears, as written, could have predated the New Yorker versions, and editors at the magazine could have made their own adjustments. But, as Roger Angell points out in his essay about editing Updike, he took no change lightly, and he routinely made additions and subtractions right up until the magazine went to press. Also, it’s my duty as a book reviewer to note that I am working with an uncorrected proof of My Father’s Tears, and that its text may differ from the final hardcover version that Knopf will publish next month. But who would dare change a word?

Jewish-American Lit 101

I’ve been killing fair bit of time clicking around the online companion to Josh Lambert‘s book American Jewish Fiction: The JPS Guide—the database includes publication information on a raft of books dating back to 1867. (That would be the year that Nathan Meyer‘s Differences was published. I haven’t heard of it, but Lambert points out that it’s available online.) Though the site has little in the way of commentary, it’s still interesting to see some of the connections between authors and publication dates; Saul Bellow‘s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for instance, appeared the same year as John Updike‘s Bech: A Book, in temperament flipsides of the same coin and reflecting a surge of interest in Jewish themes. Or, as Lambert put it regarding Bech: “By the late 1960s, Jewish writers so dominated the field of American literature that non-Jews began to get jealous.”

The book itself, which I haven’t seen, includes comments by Lambert on 125 books. A few months back he explained his process of arriving at that number. Much of his time was spent talking with Jewish literature scholars, but he also cast a wider net:

Alan Wald, a leading scholar of writers on the American Left brought obscure and wonderful novels to my attention, including Vera Caspary’s epic of a Sephardic family in Chicago, Thicker than Water (1932). Scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature directed me to the critical books about America written in those languages.

Some of the best suggestions came from Eileen Pollack, an extraordinary novelist and short story writer. She pointed me to, among other things, Steven Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), which has not generally been appreciated, as it should be, for the very subtle and powerful story it tells about what it means to be a Jewish writer in America. If Roth, Bellow, Bashevis, and Ozick can be considered the Taillevent and La Tour d’Argent of American Jewish fiction–that is, the deservedly famous Parisian gastronomic temples–books like Millhauser’s and Caspary’s are the hidden gems, the unsung fromageries of the Rue Mouffetard or the tiny café on the Ile St.-Louis that serves incomparable hot chocolate.

God’s Work

Writing at the Web site for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, David E. Anderson ponders the role of religion in John Updike‘s work, specifically through Updike’s final collection of poems, Endpoint. As Anderson points out, Updike was a deeply religious writer who enjoyed writing about New England and Pennsylvania Protestants, but changed his denomination a few times, and always seemed to approach the subject tenuously, as if his faith would crack easily. “I feared it might empty out of me the last drops of what feeble faith had got me thus far,” he writes of taking an assignment for the New Yorker on the future of faith. What finally bolsters Updike is, to be perhaps a little reductionist, a pretty show that God puts on for him in Florence, Italy:

“Lightning. Hectic gusts. The rain was furious. I was not alone in the universe. … I was filled with a glad sense of exterior activity. My burden of being was being shared. God was at work—at ease, even, in this nocturnal Florentine commotion, this heavenly wrath and architectural defiance, this Jacobean wrestle…. All this felt like a transaction, a rescue, an answered prayer.”

Anderson has a healthy run-down of many of Updike’s more religion-oriented writings, from his poem “Six Stanzas at Easter” to his 1989 novel S.. But surprisingly he doesn’t mention the 1986 novel Roger’s Version, which in many ways exemplifies Updike’s concerns about keeping faith while living in the modern world. The core of the story is a tussle between a divinity scholar, Roger Lambert, and a programmer, Dale Kohler, who believes he can prove God’s existence via computer. Lambert isn’t buying it, partly because he still wants the pretty show:

“I must confess I find your whole idea aesthetically and ethically repulsive. Aesthetically because it describes a God Who lets Himself be intellectually trapped, and ethically because it eliminates faith from religion, it takes away our freedom to believe or doubt. A God you could prove makes the whole thing immensely, oh, uninteresting.”

That’s not to suggest that Updike’s faith was shallow—he certainly read more than his fair share of theology in his time. But even to the end, in late novels like In the Beauty of the Lilies, he seemed to be based on a relatively simple worry that faith could easily slide into mere superstition. That was certainly part of the inspiration for Roger’s Version, as he told a reporter in a contemporary interview included in Conversations With John Updike: “I was sitting at my word processor one day, and I noticed this scramble of numbers that it throws up. The notion of there being a magical secret in that code of numbers occurred to me, being a superstitious sort of person.”

Links: Get It Right

I’ve just finished Marlon James‘ second novel, The Book of Night Women, which is every bit as good as Maud Newton says it is. (If you’re in D.C., he reads at Borders L Street on March 3.)

An excellent blog post by Dave Tabler on the contretemps between Sinclair Lewis and William Stidger, the model for Elmer Gantry. (h/t Whet Moser)

Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner‘s birth. The New York TimesTimothy Egan recalls how Stegner was screwed over by the Times.

The film version of Revolutionary Road tanked at the box office, but the book’s doing fine.

Scott Esposito crowdsourced his decision about which John Barth book to read first.

Michael Dirda writes an appreciation of John Updike for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And that’s it: I’m done with John Updike appreciations until the biography comes out.

Links: Government Work

Propaganda alert: America.gov, a Web site of the State Department, is publishing essays from the latest edition of its eJournal USA, which this month focuses on multicultural aspects of American literature. Among those included are Ha Jin (whose excellent essay collection The Writer as Migrant is excerpted), Marie Arana, Gerald Early, and Akhil Sharma.

Responding the Stuart Everscelebration of American English in the Guardian, D.G. Myers has a few thoughts on how the language shifts depending on whether you’re in the South or whether you’re Philip Roth.

Harriet E. Wilson, author of what’s presumed to be the first novel by an African American woman, 1859’s Our Nig, was recently learned to be a hair-product entrepreneur.

Wyatt Mason follows up on the Joseph O’Neill firmament kerfuffle not once but twice.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Ian McEwan studies how John Updike invented Rabbit Angstrom’s middle-class nobility: “Harry’s education extends no further than high school, his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, and yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure, and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, “and not chop them down to what you think is the right size.”

Lastly, if your reading choices are largely dictated by the number of awards a book has pulled in, this should come in handy.

Links: Crunching the Numbers

For about another week, the great works of American literature come dirt cheap: The Library of America is having a 50-percent-off sale.

Edgar Lee Masters had it in for Abraham Lincoln (and Carl Sandburg too).

Paul Theroux wore bell bottoms in the 70s.

Mathematician Manil Suri spent seven years working on his second novel, The Age of Shiva—by his accounting, 64.19 words a day.

Bob Hoover finds a few connections between John Updike and William Dean Howells.

One of the better takedowns of a book I’ve seen in a while is Benjamin Alsup‘s assessment (not online, best as I can tell) in Esquire of Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust: “[I]t sounds like an Ivy Leaguer mimicking the speech patters of white working-class people. It’s one part Woody Guthrie, one party All the Pretty Horses, and 98 parts Hillary Clinton.” (I haven’t read it.)

On a more positive note: Newsweek catches up with Yiyun Li, whose debut novel, The Vagrants, is one of my favorite novels of the young year.

(And while I’m playing tipster, Peter Stephan Jungk‘s Crossing the Hudson, out next month, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in quite some time.)