Some if not most of us are irksome creatures, bound for whatever reason to our petty habits and beliefs, unwilling to expand our small-mindedess because of fear. What do we fear exactly? I suppose we fear failure or dissatisfaction; but on a more profound level we fear success and happiness as they are both so readily whittled away by time. The old adage about loving and losing does not apply, since we would rather not have anything to lose. One may deem this world view cowardly or overly practical, it matters little. You and I know many among us who endorse this behavior in themselves and, ultimately, also in others. We acknowledge this truth, and nevertheless enjoy this fantastic story in this collection.
Our hero is Leonard Hartz, a perfect name for an almost perfect soul. As our story opens we are given not his past, simply his future: he has arrived at the Constable school, one of the three British art institutions covered by the G.I. Bill, and we remember the middle of the century yet see Leonard's idealism unshattered. Perhaps this is just as well; there are probably enough stories about weary and damaged soldiers. He enrolls to "draw the antiques," recognizes one masterpiece from a similar shape depicted on the pencils he uses, and finds startling beauty in these wordless daily exercises, as if he were meditating with a paintbrush. Three of the other four Americans at the school are married and happy in their little nests, to which Leonard is initially invited, but there is only so much fun to be had with a bachelor guest. So he retreats to his easel under the tutelage of a stuffy old aesthete by the name of Seabright. Seabright appreciates him in his droll way, but does not think as much of Robin, "a tall English girl ... with a pertness that sat somewhat askew on her mature body." Soon Leonard and Robin begin their relationship in that most common fashion, commiseration, and just as rapidly realize that they do not fit all that well in each other’s worlds:
Their subsequent conversations sustained this discouraging quality, of two creatures thrown together in the same language exchanging, across a distance wider than it seemed, miscalculated signals. He felt she quite misjudged his earnestness and would have been astonished to learn how deeply and solidly she had been placed in his heart, affording a fulcrum by which he lifted the great dead mass of his spare time, which now seemed almost lighter than air, a haze of quixotic expectations, imagined murmurs, easy undressings, and tourist delights. He believed he was coming to love England.
Was Leonard perchance not involved in the European campaign? Did he come to love England because he had never been anywhere near it before, or has he erased what he knew of Europe in those dark days? We never get questions much less answers about the subject and all the better so: Leonard is discovering beauty in its most basic manifestations – in woman and in the creative sensation we call art.
Their courtship is deterred by Seabright's decision to promote the duo to still life, a reward merited by Leonard but not by Robin – and both of them know it. An added complication, and one dealt with so expertly that there does not seem to be another possible resolution, arises in the form of Jack Fredericks. Jack takes to Robin as gigolos simply must because they always feel it is their hidebound duty to make eyes at a lovely woman. Leonard only accentuates Jack's attractiveness by being aware of it, and we assume the arc of the story will be an untender one. We are, wonderful to relate, quite wrong. And for a few moments we do indeed catch a glimpse of a prior Leonard:
Jack lay down on the shallow ledge designed to set off the exhibits, in a place just behind the table supporting the still life, and smiled up quizzically at the faces of the painters. He meant to look debonair, but in the lambent atmosphere he looked ponderous, with all that leather and wool. The impression of mass was so intense Leonard feared he might move and break one of the casts. Leonard had not noticed on the street how big his fellow West Virginian had grown. The weight was mostly in flesh: broad beefy hands folded on his vest, corpulent legs uneasily crossed on the cold stone floor.
We can imagine Leonard in high school where Jack was a year younger and not "really in the same social class"; where Jack could be nice enough in snatches so as to reinforce the hope within the idealistic and trusting Leonard that all men are inherently good. Childhood teaches us that bullies will use kindness as a gift to dissolve momentarily their victims' resentment, but this is all a tactic to coerce the victims, now mocked anew, to blame themselves for their ills. We see all this flash behind these two characters like a stage illumination, and so we are hardly surprised when Jack decides to "audit" the class and then offer to paint Robin. In the nude, of course, because anything less would again offend that most inviolable gigolo code.
Updike has so many wondrous stories but Still Life remains one of his very, very best. The finest scenes describe the awkward courtship of these two fluttering souls, their opinions on other people (but never themselves), their odd discussion towards the end of the story when Leonard comes back from an unannounced trip – unannounced at least to Robin, but whom else could he possibly tell of his travels? – and the vicissitudes of trying to copy works of infinite genius (when Leonard considers buying Jamaican walnuts for their still life class, Robin replies, "All those horrid little wrinkles, we'd be at it forever"). A whimsical attempt at meeting each other halfway through the cinematic medium of a "delicately tinted Japanese love tale, so queerly stained with murders" only results in increased discomfort for both parties, so they give up trying to have a regular romance and instead focus on the world of art, as represented by the redoubtable Seabright:
Lesson by lesson, Leonard was drawn into Seabright's world, a tender, subdued world founded on violet, and where violet – pronounced "vaalet" – at the faintest touch of a shadow, at the slightest hesitation of red or blue, rose to the surface, shyly vibrant.
Robin does not or cannot endure such a realm, and that is sufficient to convince Leonard of their incompatibility. Yet he also suspects that this incompatibility may exist between him and almost everyone else in the world, and he and we both know why. He contemplates their co-existence with more than a wistful sigh:
After lunch they began to mark with charcoal their newly bought canvases, which smelled of glue and green wood. To have her, some distance from his side, echoing his task, and to know that her eyes concentrated into the same set of shapes, which after a little concentration took on an unnatural intensity, like fruit in Paradise, curiously enlarged his sense of his physical size; he seemed to tower above the flagstones, and his voice, in responding to her erratic exclamations and complaints, struck into his ears with grave finality, as if his words were being incised into the air.
It is at times insurmountably difficult for those committed to art's grandeur to lead a normal life replete with normal events and normal joys. Try as he might, Leonard cannot shake his interior shades and sunsets, the whispered glories of memories to come, or the intoxication of creative achievement. He should never have to do so, even if it costs him a girl or two. And especially if he and those girls are as different, say, as apples and oranges.