Sunday, July 12, 2009

Style Isn't Everything

I didn't catch Martin Amis's Guardian review of John Updike's posthumous collection of stories last weekend, but my curiosity was aroused when I saw the letters this week strongly disagreeing with his assessment that in this final book Updike had lost his ear.

Some readers of this blog will be aware of my own ambivalent feelings about Updike's writing. My repeated reading of Rabbit, Run at the age of fourteen was most surely one of the things which set me on the path of writing - I couldn't keep away from the book and its breathtaking prose, fluid yet concretely vivid; it was like stepping into a new way of being, which is of course what every teenager wants. Needless to say it is thus a fundamental part of my own mental/creative landscape, and if I have learnt anything as a writer, some of it I learnt from him. However, while I still cannot look at many of its paragraphs without, as Amis says, 'incredulous admiration', revisiting the book as an adult has been a troubling experience, and some of the reasons for this are unintentionally implicit in Amis's piece, which I've now read.

Amis begins his piece by quoting a small section from the new book and pointing out what he deems 'one infelicity and one howler' (which I'll discuss in more detail below), and goes on later to quote many apparently 'clunky' sentences and phrases. Dismayed for both Updike and himself (he says it's of 'increasingly urgent interest to the present reviewer, who is closing in on 60'), Amis calls this book and its apparent loss of form 'the portrait of the artist as an old man'. 'Age waters the writer down', says Amis, and his 'broad impression is that writers as they age lose energy (inspiration, musicality, imagistic serendipity)' but make up for this in craft. The loss of Updike's energy he accepts as given, therefore. The loss of craft he perceives puzzles him, and he wonders if this is due to Updike's increasing physical deafness - as if Updike, of all people, would ever lose his memory of verbal sound.

Well, now, excuse me while I put my face in my elbow and try not to laugh at the psychic precariousnes of literary machismo. If we do accept that this book represents a loss of form, why should it not be the result of illness rather than age per se - Updike died of lung cancer, with which he battled, and there must have been a period of loss of health before he was diagnosed? Amis does indeed refer to the need to copyedit and is aghast that the errors he sees in this book have slipped through this necessary stage. Personally, I'm getting a picture of Updike too ill to do that work (though one senses a deeper horror on the part of Amis at this indication that the superman writer may have ever needed to do it rather than having sprung fully-formed with cryptonite verbal immunity intact). But also why should it not have been the result of a lifetime of stratospheric literary success - getting written out (and it is maybe this which is worrying Martin). What about those older writers with no such ennui, whose lives have prevented them writing the stuff which, by the time they reach their sixties, they still have backed up? What about Marilynne Robinson? What about those who get older and madder and stronger, like Milton? It's true that old people get ill more often than the young, but Amis is wrong to conflate the two, infirmity and age, and in doing so he provides an unfortunate boost to the regrettable cult of youth and the dismissal of older writers which dominate our literary life.

But what if, as the first letter-writer suggests, the prose in this book of stories represents rather a deliberate change of style on Updike's part? When we experiment we often fail; was Updike merely failing in order to fail better? Indeed, as Amis points out, the stories in this collection are arranged chronologically, and the final story - towards which, in the writing process, Updike would have been working - is, according to Amis, 'quietly innovative'.

And what if, as all three Guardian letter-writers suggest, the prose in this collection is not, after all, bad?

Here is the first section Amis quotes
... Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land
pointing out the rime riche of 'prior' and 'prime' and the clunkiness of both sentences ending with 'his land'. And here are some others, full of the rhymes and repetitions with which he charges Updike:
ants make mounds like coffee grounds ...
polished bright by sliding anthracite ...
my bride became allied in my mind ...
except for her bust, abruptly outthrust...
Let us end these painful quotes with what may be the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen (and one so easy to fix: change the first "fall" to "autumn", or change the second "fall" to "drop"): "The grapes make a mess on the bricks in the fall; nobody ever thinks to pick them up when they fall." The most ridiculous thing about this sentence, somehow, is its stately semi-colon.
Well, I must say that here, out of context, and in the context of Amis's criticism, these sentences do seem to me pretty dire, but if you haven't read the book (and I haven't) they are out of context. And what strikes me about Amis's criticism is that he is not allowing for context. To Amis, it seems, repetitions and rhymes must always be bad and must always be unintentional. Well, now, tell that to a poet. Tell that to a writer of lyrical prose rather than the kind of pared-down yet glittering, forward-thrusting prose Amis himself writes, and previously written by Updike (and which of course I admire). It's a matter of style, and of mood, and of the things you need to say. Sometimes you do need a moment of clunkiness, you need to pull the reader up short, create a sense of dissonance, upset the world of your own prose, sacrifice its musicality for something deeper. Sometimes you want to loop the reader back to a previous moment, to reassess an earlier meaning - the major function of rhyme and repetition. I don't agree with Amis that the mere sound of the repetition of 'prior' and 'prime' in the first piece he quotes is offensive. I agree that it doesn't work, but this is because the two concepts linked by sound here are opposite, the sound pattern therefore cutting across the logical meaning of the prose rather than strengthening it.

I find it very interesting that Amis finds that (woops, two 'finds!)
now, denuded of a vibrant verbal surface, [the stories] sometimes seem to be neither here nor there - products of nothing more than professional habit. Then, too, you notice a loss of organisational control and, in one case, a loss of any sense of propriety.
Well, to get back to my earlier point, it's that lack of propriety that has latterly disturbed me about Updike's writing. Yes, I admire his prose, but I can't read this kind of thing in Rabbit, Run without wincing:
When confused, Janice is a frightening person. Her eyes dwindle in their frowning sockets and her little mouth hangs open in a dumb slot
not out of any knee-jerk feminism, but because of the way the beautiful, biting, wondrously precise prose (that 'dwindle', that 'slot'!) makes love to the mentality, Rabbit's, giving rise to this viewpoint.

Style isn't everything, you know.
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