Essays and Criticism
Like its predecessors, Picked-Up Pieces (1975) and Hugging the Shore (1983), the title and author's introduction here again have Updike minimizing his critical exercises--while, at 928 pages, neglecting the reiteration of nary a one. As Updike ages and his eminence grows, there is a clear shift, though, in the focus of his nonfiction labors. Fewer book reviews, less polymathic curiosity; more speeches, long essays, a writer at the top of the heap legitimately looking more down than around. There's a kind of literary-autobiographical stock-taking secreted in three separate appreciations of John Cheever; as well as one in the book's finest extended essay, "How Does the Writer Imagine?," and a related essay, "Should Writers Give Lectures?" By now case-by-case books appear to interest Updike less than careers, a whole literary corpus; and thus he is especially revealing about Kafka, Melville, Calvino, and Roth (though about Roth, as well as Malamud, Updike remains flummoxed by and unable to quite understand Jewish identity in the absence of Christian-type assent). There are superb smaller pieces too--on Robert Pinget, on Russian glasnostera novels, on Bruce Chatwin, on Vargas Llosa. Updike's approvals and demurrers are never predictable, and this gives a fine pliability to his whole critical enterprise--only helped by his never-less-than-excellent prose. A necessary pleasure.