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Saturday, June 16, 2012
Hamish Hamilton, £25;
E-book, $22.08 USA/Europe
Review: Billy O’Callaghan
It has been said, perhaps with less hyperbole than might initially seem evident, that with the death of John Updike in January 2009, America lost its last great Man of Letters. His reputation, even at surface level, was well-earned: a bestselling and multi-award-winning novelist and lauded, alongside the likes of William Trevor and Alice Munro, as one of the world’s foremost exponents of the short story form, he was also an esteemed poet and venerated for his astute and wide-ranging commentaries and criticisms on subjects that spanned the gamut of art, sport, politics, religion and literature.
’Higher Gossip’, can best be viewed as a taste of Updike. This 500-page sampler comprises a generous cross-section of essays and book reviews, and offers a decent entry point for anyone keen to explore the man’s broad output of non-fiction and the range of his prodigious intellect. Posthumously collated, it may lack the wise, intentional cohesion of the author’s previous offerings, ‘More Matters’ and ‘Due Considerations’, but still stands as eminently and at times compulsively readable.
For the sake of sensible structure, the collection is divided into five parts. ‘Real Conversation’ offers some true delights for the long-time fan: a couple of late essays, a handful of poems and, best of all, three previously uncollected short stories that far from being throwaways read as pure, sparkling Updike.
‘Book Chat’ covers not only analyses and appreciations of authors such as Hemingway, Kierkegaard, Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver, but also offers a scouring of recent and classic novels. As the likes of John le Carre, William Maxwell and Flann O’Brien come under scrutiny, he proves gentle but unfussy, thoroughly compassionate, in isolating flaws and shows an endearing childlike ebullience in his delight at every new-turned trick.
‘Gallery Tours’, finds the author holding forth on one of his life’s great pleasures. A long-time student of fine art, it is a subject he has explored before, in fiction as well as criticism. The enthusiasm he brings to his commentaries on Turner, Van Gogh, Edward Lear, El Greco, William Blake and a whole plethora of other painters and sculptors makes this section perhaps the joy of the collection.
Next comes ‘Pet Topics’, dominated largely by thoughts on golf, a subgenre in which Updike has long since emerged as an unlikely master. Under titles as pithy as ‘Lost Balls’, ‘Walking Insomnia’ and ‘In Love With A Woman’, these essays read as whimsical, light-hearted fare wallowing in their own absurdity, yet are somehow insinuated with the sort of twists that grants them depth.
The final section, ‘Table Talk’, concludes matters on something of an anticlimax. Without the necessary supporting context of the books for which they were written, it is inevitable that this grouping of sundry forewords, introductions, commentaries and lectures feel stripped of their full impact. Yet even then, there are moments of interest, even enlightenment, and the approach does achieve a palpable sense of closure, not only to an admirable collection but to a brilliant career.
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