Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Updike Redux - "The Widows of Eastwick"

I last wrote about John Updike shortly after he died. He was one of the first well known authors I had a chance to meet personally. Here is what I wrote last year:

"Updike has always been a mythical figure to me. I read his novels and short stories in prep school and college. I also knew him a bit. His first wife, Mary, sang in the Newburyport Choral Society. I was one of two high school age students admitted to this group, and I would often encounter Updike at our rehearsals, waiting to pick up Mary. The Updikes lived in the neighboring town of Ipswich. While I was still a member of the Choral Society, Updike created a sensation amongst the literati with his novel, "Couples." It was a thinly-disguised roman a clef, chronicling in fictionalized form the secret lives and hidden liaisons of several couples in the mythical town of Tarbox, Massachusetts. Everyone knew it was really Ipswich. It was a bit titillating as a teenager to know that I recognized in the fictitious characters some of the denizens of Ipswich whom I knew in real life."

It had been a while since I had picked up an Updike novel, so I recently took the time to read his last published novel, "The Widows of Eastwick." In this work, he revisits the trio of women he created in his acclaimed "The Witches of Eastwick." The Updike I rediscovered in this novel from the end of his career is the same wordsmith and arch commentator on American suburban life that I recall from his earlier works. Here is a wonderful sampling of his delicious prose. The setting is that two of the protagonists, Jane and Alexandra, are traveling together in Egypt as part of a tour group, and are forced to share a room.

"Safe in their own room, Jane and Alexandra agreed they were on their own and would ignore everybody else. Jane swiftly undressed and inserted herself in the bed away from the room's one window, and five minutes later Alexandra discovered something she had never known about her old friends, for all the hours, at parties and committee meetings and sabbats, over coffee and tea and cocktails, they had spent together in Eastwick: Jane snored. In Alexandra's experience, Ozzie Spofford, a seasonal hay-fever sufferer, had sniffled in his sleep, and Jim Farlander, especially when loaded for slumber with whiskey and beer, could descend into a snort so loud it would wake him before she resorted to an exasperated poke that would produce, within his cocoon of dreams, a muting change of position. Husbands you could poke; lovers left you before falling asleep. Jane, out of reach in her own twin bed, deep-breathed with an audible friction of inner membranes that knew no let-up. Each long intake arrived at a place of reverberation, a dip into nasal resonance at the exact same insistent pitch, it seemed to Alexandra, as her daytime conversation. Awake or asleep, Jane insisted, with a relentless and unforgiving will, on being heard; there had always been something unstoppable about her, whether she was playing the cello or making a pun or casting an evil spell. As Jane slept, she sucked the oxygen from the air in the inflexible rhythm of a mechanical pump, monotonous and insatiable, each breath attaining a kind of abrasive wall where it scraped and dipped before turning back in the shape of a hook, tugging Alexandra's brain another notch wider awake; she tried pitting herself to sleep by counting these breaths, and then by focusing on the ceiling floating above her as it received, ever fewer, the flickering, wheeling traces of taxi lights on the streets below. But nothing distracted her enough from the sibilant insult of each emphatic snore as Jane's body steadily rowed its way through the night, storing up energy for the coming day's strenuous, once-in-a-lifetime sights." (Pages 53-54)

If, in the long history of English literature, there exists a more evocative description of the phenomenon of snoring, I have yet to discover it. Far from causing me to snore, this novel kept me wide awake and alert to Updike's description of the denouement of the intertwined lives of these three fascinating women who haunted the denizens of Rhode Island's fictional seaside town of Eastwick.

I will be going back and filling in the missing pieces of Updike novels I have yet to read, and will be revisiting old friends I first read many years ago. I am confident they will speak to me now in ways that they could not when I read through a younger man's eyes and with the perspective of a more limited world view.



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