Friday

Mar. 18, 2011

Religious Consolation

by John Updike

One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple, A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

"Religious Consolation" by John Updike, from Americana and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy at Amazon.com now)

Today we celebrate the birthday of French novelist Madame de Lafayette (books by this author), who was born in Paris and baptized on this day in 1634. Her parents were members of the lower nobility. She got some instruction in Latin and Italian, and read Petrarch's sonnets and the epic poems of Torquato Tasso. When she was a teenager, she was chosen to be a handmaiden for Queen Anne of Austria. A few years later she married a widowed noble twice her age and was firmly established in the Parisian aristocracy. An early biographer described her as "eminently beautiful."

She met the writer François de la Rochefoucauld, and they became best friends. They saw each other every day for 25 years, until Rochefoucauld died, which broke her heart. In the meantime, she and her husband lived separate lives — he on his country estates, she in Paris. They didn't formally separate, but he allowed her to control her own finances and have her own life.

Her foray into writing came when her friend Henriette d'Angeleterre — originally Princess Henrietta of England, now married to King Louis XIV's brother — asked Madame de Lafayette to write her memoir. She enjoyed writing so much that she decided to try fiction and turned out several successful novels, which she published anonymously. Her most famous novel was La Princesse de Clèves (1678), sometimes considered the first modern psychological novel because it was the first to truly analyze emotions. It was a historical novel — Madame de Lafayette invented her heroine, but the rest of the characters were based on members of the 16th-century French court. La Princesse de Clèves is the story of a rich and naïve young woman, Mademoiselle de Chartres, who is brought to court to find a husband. She ends up the victim in a complex series of rivalries and has to settle for the boring but solid Prince of Clèves. After she is married, she falls in love with a dashing duke, who loves her back; but she is faithful to her husband. So although she and the duke acknowledge their love, they never act on it. Her husband the prince finds out anyway, thinks she has been cheating on him, and dies of a broken heart, his final request being that she does not marry the duke. After the prince's death, the princess and the duke are free to pursue their love, but she is torn between love and guilt and ends up going into a convent. The duke gives up, and the princess dies young.

La Princesse de Clèves was incredibly popular when it was published — everyone gossiped about the identity of the author. It's been less popular for the last few hundred years, although still taught in French literature classes. Then, in 2009, it made news again. The president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, had complained about the novel several times over the years. He said that he suffered reading it as a schoolboy, and another time he said: "A sadist or an idiot — you decide — included questions about La Princesse de Clèves in an exam for people applying for public-sector jobs." Literature-loving French people did not take kindly to his remark — he had already been the target of scorn for announcing that he preferred jogging to literature. Nor did people who felt that his comments were elitist, suggesting that ordinary workers had no business reading the classics. Unfortunately, his remarks came at a time when anti-Sarkozy sentiment was high and workers were on the verge of striking over his economic policies. So plenty of French people who didn't like Sarkozy anyway had a good excuse for another dig at him. At the Paris Book Fair, every copy of the novel sold out, and badges "I'm reading La Princesse de Clèves!" sold out in just a few hours. Politicians and public figures announced their support for the novel. The director Christopher Honoré made a film called La Belle Personne, based on the book but set in a contemporary Parisian high school. At public universities and theaters, angry students, actors, and professors staged public readings from the novel. And a national poll of 100 French writers asking for their favorite novels of all time listed La Princesse de Clèves as number three, after Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce's Ulysses — the group that conducted the poll admitted that they doubted La Princesse de Clèves would have made the cut without the boost from Sarkozy.

It's the birthday of John Updike, (books by this author) born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). He grew up with a stutter. He wrote: "My first memory of the sensation is associated with our Shillington neighbor Eddie Pritchard, a somewhat larger boy whom I was trying, on the sidewalk in front of our houses, to scream into submission. I think he was calling me 'Ostrich,' a nickname I did not think I deserved, and a fear of being mistook or misunderstood accompanies the impediment ever since. There seems so much about me to explain — all of it subsumable under the heading of 'I am not an ostrich' — that when freshly encountering, say, a bored and hurried electrician over the telephone, my voice tends to seize up. If the electrician has already been to the house, the seizing up is less dramatic, and if I encounter not his voice but that of his maternal- and amused-sounding secretary, I become quite vocal — indeed, something of a virtuoso of the spoken language. For there is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam. [...] Viewing myself on taped television, I see the repulsive symptoms of an approaching stammer take possession of my face — an electronically rapid flutter of the eyelashes, a distortion of the mouth as of a leather purse being cinched, a terrified hardening of the upper lip, a fatal tensing and lifting of the voice. And through it all a detestable coyness and craven willingness to please, to assure my talk-show host and his millions of viewers that I am not, appearances to the contrary, an ostrich."

And he said: "My father thought that I had too many words to get out all at once. So, I didn't speak very pleasingly, but I never stopped speaking or trying to communicate this way, and I think the stuttering has gotten better over the years. I have found having a microphone is a great help, because you don't have to force your voice out of your throat, just a little noise will work. You write because you don't talk very well, and maybe one of the reasons that I was determined to write was that I wasn't an orator, unlike my mother and my grandfather, who both spoke beautifully and spoke all the time."

So he turned his gift with words to writing. He was a good student who worked hard, and after graduating from public high school he got a full scholarship to Harvard. There he had to work even harder. He knew he wanted to be a writer so he majored in English, but he never liked the classics — he knew so little about them that Harvard almost didn't award him highest honors. He was kicked out of one writing seminar that he had desperately wanted to take because the professor, a well-known novelist, didn't like Updike's work. When he was 19, he wrote to his parents: "We do not need men like Proust and Joyce; men like this are a luxury, an added fillip that an abundant culture can produce only after the more basic literary need has been filled. This age needs rather men like Shakespeare, or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic. Whatever the many failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born."

After graduation, he moved to New York and got a job at The New Yorker. But he didn't like the city, and only lasted a couple of years before moving to the small town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he lived for more than 20 years. The townspeople of Ipswich thought of him as a regular guy. As his fellow citizen Bill Wasserman wrote in the local newspaper after Updike's death, the great novelist liked to play golf, poker and volleyball; volunteered for the Congregational Church; wore corduroy pants and turtlenecks and sweaters with holes; and "at a party once he slid down the entire stairway on his backside."

It was in Ipswich that Updike wrote Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of his novels about Rabbit Angstrom. When Rabbit, Run opens, Rabbit is 26. His job is demonstrating a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeel Peeler, and his life doesn't live up to his glory days as a former high school basketball star. With the Rabbit books, Updike did manage to write an epic out of the Protestant ethic — by the end of the series, Rabbit had been through marriage, parenthood, retirement, and death. Rabbit Is Rich (1981) won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and Rabbit at Rest (1990) also won a Pulitzer.

John Updike said, "I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody's head."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of a writer described in his New York Times obituary as "a lanky, urbane man possessed of boundless energy and perpetual bonhomie": George Plimpton, (books by this author) born in New York (1927). He said of himself: "I am built rather like a bird of the stiltlike, wader variety — the avocets, limpkins, and herons." He came from an old, wealthy family, went to Phillips Exeter, Harvard, and Cambridge, and served in World War II. He was the founding editor of The Paris Review, a job that he held for 50 years, from 1953 until his death in 2003, and he conducted long, insightful interviews — including one of only two interviews that Hemingway gave in his life. He lived in an apartment above the Paris Review offices, and it never made money so he didn't get paid for his work. He said: "I can't help but be hands on. It's my life, my love. There are other things, fireworks, as you may know, birds and finishing books and articles and God knows what else, but my primary fascination and love is this magazine."

He was equally famous for the exploits he staged in order to write about them. He fought with Archie Moore in a boxing ring, and cried when he got his nose bloodied. He played baseball with Willie Mays, tennis with Pancho Gonzalez, and golf with Arnold Palmer. He scrimmaged with the Detroit Lions and played goalie with the Boston Bruins, during which he caught a puck with his hand and badly hurt his finger. He played percussion for the New York Philharmonic and hit the gong so hard that Leonard Bernstein, who was conducting the piece, stopped to applaud him. He auditioned for the circus on a trapeze, played bridge against champion players, entered piano contests, and helped design a fireworks display for the city. He lost or did badly at almost everything, but he enjoyed it, constantly proclaiming that things were "Marvelous!" And he wrote clever, funny pieces about his misadventures.

It's the birthday of poet Michael S. Harper (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1938). His books include Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970), Images of Kin (1977), Honorable Amendments (1995), and most recently Selected Poems (2002).

He said, "My poems are rhythmic rather than metric; the pulse is jazz; the tradition generally oral; my major influences musical; my debts, mostly to the musicians who taught me to see about experience, pain, and love, and who made it artful and archetypal."

It's the birthday of the poet Franz Wright, (books by this author) born in Vienna (1953). His father, the poet James Wright, used to walk him to preschool and sing him German folksongs and Goethe's poems set to music. On one of these walks, Franz Wright wrote his first poem and recited it for his father: "I see the shining wind / I see the shining cookie up in the tree."

And he went on to write many collections of poetry, including The Night World and the Word Night (1993), The Beforelife (2001), and Walking to Martha's Vineyard (2003), which won the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book is Wheeling Motel (2009).

He said, "You're a poet or you're not (and if you're not, count your blessings)."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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