Updike's prose reads like somebody who writes too cosily. Greene and Wolfe prefer to get their hands (and notebooks) dirty.
In anticipation of the Spear's Book Awards, for which the initial round of judging will be starting shortly, I have been catching up on some reading whilst being stranded in Antigua on Jumby Bay. The only drawback about being on a private island for an extra unscheduled week is that the local supply of decent books has become as limited as my supply of contact lenses.
So far I've read Rabbit, Run by John Updike (buy it here), a book I have been battling through for months due to my annoyance with Updike's glittering prose but so acutely self-absorbed and self-conscious style. His books are a strange literary cocktail of self-love and self-loathing and I can't be alone in wishing he didn't take his position as a New Yorker staff writer and soi-disant Important American Novelist so damn seriously. His books just aren't satirically that funny, or even savage enough.
Whilst I realise it is regarded as almost a criminal offence in high literary circles not to profess admiration for Updike – Martin Amis still fawned over Updike even after being given a scabrous review of his novel Night Train (buy it here) – I have a problem with his characters simply not being especially likable, let alone 'lovable' as the all-American anti-hero and Magi-Peeler salesman Rabbit Angstrom keeps reliably informing the reader that is what people always say about him. And his use of 'hey' in bed. I can't imagine more of an erotic turn-off.
I swiftly moved onto safer literary territory with a re-reading of Graham Greene's The Power and The Glory (buy it here), incidentally, David Cameron's favourite novel, for reasons that I assume are to do with Cameron's identification with Greene's vague and moral ambiguity.
I had forgotten that it was only written as a result of a trip to Mexico in 1938 – I would not use the word 'holiday' – that was extended by Greene's publisher not because of volcanic ash polluting the skies but rather because Greene needed a good excuse to be out of the country to escape from the threat of a nasty personal libel action after Greene had written a salacious and defamatory film review about the child actress Shirley Temple in Night and Day.
His publisher had warned him that should he return, he might be locked up so suggested he stay out considerably longer than planned.
The result was Greene started to think of a novel about the effects of the religious persecution in Mexico instigated by the likes of Garrido Cannibal (what an impossible name for a fiction writer to improve on), the puritan dictator of Tabasco who made Thomas Cranmer suddenly look like a saint.
Reading the novel after Updike, I realised why – should I be stranded as a castaway on a desert island (as I am) – I would definitely prefer to have with me the collected works of Greene rather than Updike. The former has a much grittier and real sense of lived detail, just like Balzac, Zola and Dickens.
With Updike, you feel he never gets out enough – one reason perhaps why in his 'Afterword' to Rabbit, Run he tells the reader about the intensity of writing the book through 1959 at his little upright desk in his 17th century home in Ipswich, Massachusetts. During the 'excited months of composition', the effort of writing the book 'wore two bare spots in the varnish' of the soft pine floor. He revised and proofed the novel on holiday on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, not far from where I type this blog this morning.
Too literary bourgeois by half. That would never have been Greene's style. In his introduction to The Power and the Glory, Greene refers to his Mexico trip as being 'not a very happy journey'. He travelled across the Gulf of Mexico in a little boat in which all the passengers – men and women – slept on wooden shelves and there was a single lavatory ('the door was detached from its hinges') which was never cleaned once.
Contrast this to Updike who is at pains to tell the reader how comfortable his existence. Am I being too harsh here?
No. Because what I dislike about Updike is that for all his prolific talent, and his brilliance as a prose writer, he simply doesn't seem that interested in the world outside of his own imagination. There is no sense of anything else really going on, no sense of the great raw beast of America, no sense of social satire or criticism, which is why I have always so much preferred Tom Wolfe to Updike when in comes to contemporary American writing.
Both were journalists but Updike sold out his edge and ambition to do any serious reporting leg-work not long after joining The New Yorker. Updike was one of his literary establishment targets that Wolfe so mercilessly mauled in his vicious attack to commemorate the 40th anniversary of The New Yorker.
'Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead' screamed the cover headline of the April 11 issue of New York magazine, for which Wolfe wrote under editor Clay Felker. New Yorker editor William Shawn was portrayed in 'Tiny Mummies!' as a funeral director of a literary mortuary, his writers – such as Updike and JD Salinger – the walking dead and his staffers the 'tiny mummies'. I have to agree.
Updike's prose reads like somebody who writes too much, too long and too cosily. Greene and Wolfe prefer to get their hands (and notebooks) genuinely dirty, with no detail – however squalid or low-life – escaping their radar. When the dictator Cannibal closed down the local cathedral, he turned it into a children's playground although no children ever played there because the the iron swings were too hot in the searing, unmerciful Mexican heat to swing in.
I recall once putting a similar note in my own notebook during a visit to Caracas after I noticed that Chavez had ripped out the civic flowers that once decorated the mini-roundabouts and parks of the city and replaced them with a sculptural garden of metal chin-up and press-up bars (designed to turn the party faithful into pro-Chavez He-Men revolutionaries) that were also too hot to use during their state-sponsored lunch hour. But then who would expect anything dreamt up by Chavez to actually work?