CAN THERE BE too much of a good thing?
Hugging the Shore takes its bulky place as John Updike's 27th book, checking in at nearly twice the length of his previous collection of essays and book reviews, Picked-Up Pieces (1975), which in its turn was twice as long as Assorted Prose (1965). Even devoted readers, shaken by such exponential doubling, may cower at the prospect of Updike ever trading in his typewriter for a 128 K, RAM-charged personal computer. This man-of- many-letters might then fill whole issues of The New Yorker himself: not only reviews, but also stories, interviews, light verse, Talk of the Town features, pieces on golf or baseball, translations, memoirs, parodies, chapters from new novels, cartoons. Everything. If Updike ever decides to take up watercolors, Semp,e and the magazine's other cover artists will have to look to their paint brushes.
Despite this passion for his craft, and a production rate that even Joyce Carol Oates might envy, Updike is remarkably, consistently good. Especially in his critical prose. As he says of Auden, he brings "intentness and originality . . . to every piece of job work." The novels and stories may vary from the merely diverting (the Bech books) to the truly wonderful (the Maples stories), but the nonfiction maintains a steady excellence--a cool assurance coupled with thoughtful critical judgment, both grounded in wide reading and buttressed by the practical experience of authorship. In Hugging the Shore even Updike's enviable gift for metaphor proves muscular, setting up scaffolding and reinforcement for ideas rather than filigree for its own --albeit delightful-- sake. "The writer of a novel or a history," observes the urbane essayist, "holds over his reader the tyranny of a plan, of withheld secrets and staged revelations. The writer of a journal is at sea in his tides of detail, and after enough immersion with him we develop a kind of infantile, preconscious sensibility, which knows at least where the warm spots and the cold spots are." Not only true, but also, as we used to say, nicely put. Elsewhere, having delicately clarified Anne Tyler's delicious gift for fiction, Updike sums up the insubstantial something that is missing: "Her books, their dazzlements subsided, leave an unsettling impression of having been writ in water, with a cool laser of moonlight."
Naturally, Updike's practice follows his own ideals of book reviewing (enumerated in the foreword to Picked-Up Pieces): He tries to understand what the writer is doing, quotes liberally, describes a book's action without revealing too much, and compares an author's new work with his old. No gush, few asides; Updike eschews the baroque exuberance of a Marvin Mudrick as he does the endearing vitriol of a John Simon. This latest collection, though it opens with a series of Theophrastian character sketches and closes with award-acceptance speeches, focuses almost unblinkingly on books, to the exclusion of those more personal pieces--on Ted Williams, a Pennsylvania childhood, the writer's life--that lightened the two earlier compilations. Here the tone adopted throughout is middle Olympian, though this epithet implies no real criticism: it is a pleasure, after so much colloquial journalism, to share company with a deliberate and precise mind, where even the factual achieves a certain dash. One example, about the writer's psychology: " 'Why not?' is the most potent question an artist can ask himself; in the fabric of aesthetic imperatives, holes develop and wait undiscovered until a spirit sufficiently reckless or driven dives through them."
Unlike many reviewers who remain fierce isolationists and America-firsters, Updike writes repeatedly (and by preference) about European, African, and Asian literature. Alongside such perennial home team favorites as Saul Bellow and Edmund Wilson, he fields the fashionable and playful Calvino, Lem, and Barthes; but also the unfashionable and underappreciated Robert Pinget, Bruno Schulz, Shusaku Endo, and Buchi Emecheta. To many readers these last may only be funny names, but after Updike performs his necromancy, he leaves us eager to buy and enjoy their books.
Updike clearly belongs with those who would take all knowledge for their province, and he reads eagerly, it would seem, through a writer's complete work to write a 1,500 word book review. Few beyond V.S. Pritchett and George Saintsbury, in modern times, have possessed such an appetite for fiction. By sheer industry then, he earns an authority that readers can trust (and that other reviewers will envy). Moreover, despite his reputation as a chronicler of down-to-earth and earthy suburbanites (Couples, the Rabbit books), Updike the essayist also enjoys the occasional flight in the higher ether: there he theologizes with Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, savors L,evi-Strauss' account of the origin of table manners, disagrees with Peter Gay on art and history, aphorizes about death with E.M. Cioran.
In Hugging the Shore this happy critic nearly always finds new things to praise in even familiar writers. Not that he worships any lowing herd of sacred cows: He devastates Carl Sagan's ramshackle The Dragons of Eden. Of Jonathan Raban's Arabia he notes that, since Raban was refused a visa to Saudi Arabia, his book is "a Hamlet without Hamlet, and since for unspecified reasons the author also did not visit Kuwait, Oman, Syria, or Iraq, it is one without Horatio, Claudius, Polonius or Laertes as well." Elsewhere he observes of Gunter Grass, apropros of a book called Headbirths: "Here is a novelist who has gone so public he can't be bothered to write a novel; he just sends dispatches to his readers from the front lines of his engagement."
Still, the best of these essays are the appreciations: of novelist Henry Green, of Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County,, of poets L.E. Sissman and Wallace Stevens, of a history of American illustration. In these one feels a warmth tempering the cold steel of the mind and damascene style. The essay on American illustration harmonizes several of Updike's major themes: his love for telling visual detail; a high standard of professionalism in a commercial market; nostalgia for boyhood and youth; identification with American middle class life; and an obsession with the making of beautiful books.
This last provides an unexpected leitmotif for Hugging the Shore. Updike's pleasure in the physical world --seemingly as great as Wallace Stevens' own--carries over repeatedly to the tactile and visual qualities of books. (It is no accident that he has designed the dust jackets for some of his own works.) This one-time art student at the Slade vigorously makes the unorthodox case for telling quite a bit about a book from its cover:
Of two French novels from New Directions: "Both books have black-and-white jackets, which is soothing, and neither boasts a seven-figure paperback-rights resale, which comes as a cool breeze in these overheated days of the print-media industry. We are reminded of innocent times when publishing houses owned themselves and authors' ambitions were bound, as it were, between hard covers."
Of a collection of essays by Roland Barthes from Hill and Wang: "In a time when books are churned out like chunky little tabloids, full of fake urgency, and a few months later shredded into insulation without a qualm, New Critical Essays serves to remind us what a book can be--elegant and simple in production, serious and delightful in content. . . ."
Of Kafka's Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors from Schocken: "And the print seems small and the price big; soaking the captive audience of the college libraries also dampens those few devotees who wish to come privately to the Kafka chapel."
In Assorted Prose Updike once defined an author's oeuvre as giving the impression of "a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly." Certainly, Updike will take his own position less as the maker of a single masterpiece than as the possessor of a style and sensibility we cannot do without. For such writers the voice matters most, the enchanting fall of the unexpected verb, the flight of a revealing metaphor. In spite of Hugging the Shore's daunting 900 pages, every one of them bears the Updike impress. For this reader at least, there can't be too much of such a good thing. CAPTION: Illustration, John Updike by Ray Driver; Picture, John Updike. Copyright (c) by Peter Simon