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Monday
Jan122015

Home

There is something about being a rootless cosmopolitan that makes those with undebatable homes and homelands shake their heads. Doesn't everyone need a home? Isn't a well-run, caring family the only proven way to remain happy all your life? The answer to both these questions is probably yes, but we should ask ourselves why that is. Postwar Western Europe emitted a romantic glow about it because the worst had been endured and now Europe was moving towards being a conglomerate of languages and nations that shared more or less the same recent history. That feeling – which could sublimate into heaven on earth as easily as it could lapse into kitsch – is what some of us call home, an affinity with a time and place, with wondrous memories coalescing into a crystal castle (for some of us, without a moat or drawbridge). Home is, in short, where you are unquestioned and unadorned, a full composite of all your selves, past, present, and future without the slightest fraudulence or embellishment. An appropriate segue to a work from this collection.

Our time is the 1950s and our hero is Robert, a young American father of humble origins. As the story opens Robert is standing upon an ocean liner deck tacitly resigned to having to behold, for the first time in a year, that unusual and iconic symbol of America that bears the simple name of Liberty. It was a fast, unforgettable year at this university, much like, we suppose, the year the story's author spent across the pond before embarking on one of the most productive careers in the history of American literature. Robert's wife Joanne gave birth to their daughter Corinne in a noisy, efficient ward whose curators had asked "healthy women ... to have their babies at home"; in a way, Joanne and Robert are the tired and weary who have headed the wrong direction. Joanne would cry a lot that fateful day, and "the welfare state ... [would] clasp her to its drab and ample bosom," and Robert, too, would cry, but the baby was perfectly healthy and soon enough his year away from all the parochial shabbiness that makes every ambitious youth cringe was over. Now he has two months, July and August, to split between his parents, whom we will get to know, and Joanne's family, who doesn't really matter anyway since Joanne's musings of what is truly home have been long since overtaken by an infant's constant needs. Robert gazes upon his parents and finds his mother little changed ("her face was wide, kind, flushed, tense, and touching – the face of a woman whose country has never quite decided what to do with its women"); no, it is the other parent that catches his eye:

It was his father who struck him as new, as a potential revelation. There had been nothing like him in Europe. Old, incredibly old he had had all sixteen remaining teeth pulled while Robert was away, and his face seemed jaundiced with pain and partially collapsed he still stood perfectly erect, like a child that has just learned to stand, his hands held limply, forward from his body, at the level of his belt .... His father was always so conspicuous. He was so tall that he had been chosen, on the occasion of another return from Europe, to be Uncle Sam and lead their town's Victory Parade in the autumn of 1945.

It would not be hasty to conclude that the "potential revelation" here is of a future self that does not appeal to Robert one bit; yet a careful reader will notice the juxtaposed "Europe" and "old" and wonder whether Robert views such a revelation as a choice or fate, which he might wisely interpret as the sum of all choices. He will later recall, as they all drive off towards his parents' semi-rustic Pennsylvania house, that "in the year past, his mother's letters had often seemed enigmatic and full of pale, foreign matter," a sentiment we might indeed expect from a small-town boy lifted and placed for a year at one of the greatest centers of learning in modern times. What do we not expect, however, is the brief melodrama that ensues during that car ride westward, along the emerald expanse that was once the only reality our protagonist knew – and curious readers will already have decided whether to pursue that lonely vehicle on its lonely path.

Reading Updike, who died six years ago this month, I am reminded each time I return to his lush and prodigious oeuvre, requires a lot of patience because his beginnings are invariably mild. His characters do not burst onto the scene; in fact, if there's any bursting to do, it is more often than not implosive. A slow accumulation of evidence, usually daily minutia or the blandest of dialogues, leads to subtle portraits, not of people we might happen to know (the calling card of second-rate literature), but of deep sensations and thoughts that we either know from life experience or through the enjoyment of books, film, music, and painting in other words, the summits of artistic bliss. A sampling will suffice:  "Ah, the dear rosy English; he began, with a soft reversal of blood, to feel homesick for them"; "Shaken by more and more widely spaced spasms of sobbing, [Corinne] mercifully dragged her injury with her into the burrow of sleep"; "His father nodded, swallowing a fact"; "He released, like an ancillary legal argument, another spasm of lavatory-wall words"; and getting out of the car, Robert "felt his slender height, encased in his black English suit, unfold like an elegant and surprising weapon." Those who accuse Updike of being overly prolific – his fifty-two years of literary activity yielded just as many tomes – are simply greedy for the ease with which he constructs his microcosms. Moreover, the egregiously silly notion that Updike's works are somehow less profound because of his tendency to repeat motifs, symbols, and storylines is best countered by what this author (charged with the same crimes) said about genius and copying. And what about Robert and those "folds of familiarity" he comes to espy as the lonely vehicle passes emerald field after emerald field? Let's just say he will never forget that summer month. 

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