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Last rites

John Updike’s final collection is a moving setpiece on time, faith and religion, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

books Updated: Aug 21, 2009 22:40 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

The Full Glass, the story that closes this posthumously published collection — and, is, therefore, the last story we shall ever have from John Updike — begins with its narrator saying: “Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a distance, as a man I know but not intimately.” That observation could be the coda for My Father’s Tears & Other Stories.

Updike, killed by cancer in January this year at the age of 76, knew of his impending death as he worked on this book, and that awareness plays like a lambent flame beneath the stories.

He was acutely aware of the fact that these stories (and his collection of poems, Endpoint — also published after his death) would be the last things he would ever write in his glittering and superabundantly prolific career.

My Father’s Tears & Other Stories
John Updike
Hamish Hamilton
* Rs 499 * pp 292

The material that nourished and enriched one of the most magnificent oeuvres in American literature is all here — the foibles of suburbia, the wealth of detail, the delight in burnishing the quotidian with magic, the joy and pathos of boyhood — that material and those tropes are all here, but refracted through the prism of an old man’s sensibility, underlit by the approach of the end.

All through the stories, people are suffering, dying, or being remembered after they are dead. The pleasure of living, of being alive, was one of Updike’s strongest themes. Here, we encounter that joy either in retrospect, or shadowed by the mournful consciousness of its evanescence.

Updike returned time and again to the Pennsylvania in which he grew up; as he has said in his memoir, Self-Consciousness, that was the ore he repeatedly mined. The narrator of the title story articulates this awareness: “Sylvia, knowing me in my old age, recognizes that I have never really left Pennsylvania, that it is where the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition."

Updike checks on that condition all the time, but the trouble with this uneven collection is that the checking sometimes turns out to be like list-making of the things that he wants to remember and he thinks are significant; often those things are not imbued with the transcendental quality that is the hallmark of the master at his best.

But Updike, even when not quite at his best (and he isn’t in stories like Personal Archaeology) is a writer far more formidable than most, and his prose can make you catch your breath with admiration. “She half-smiled - her smile was rarely more than half, diluted by a nagging wariness…” “Alton was a dying city, but its occupants persisted in living.” But when it all does come together (in stories like The Walk with Elizanne or Outage), the kaleidoscope of delights Updike can offer us, remind us of the glories of the stories in Pigeon Feathers, of the intimations of genius in the early novel, The Centaur, and the power and sweep of his most redoubtable achievement, the Rabbit quartet.

Unsurprisingly, My Father’s Tears has a strongly valedictory tone; it is also a constant conversation with Updike’s (astonishingly long) backlist. If you haven’t read Updike, this may not be the best one to start with. (Go to the Rabbit novels.) But for his admirers, this is a reminder of what he could be like — and that he will never write again.