Updike's new novel, 'Memories,' weaves the historical and the personal

November 01, 1992|By Stephen Margulies



John Updike.


369 pages. $23.

John Updike is an angel with acne. Although the blond-haired, squeaky-clean, middle-class America he seems to celebrate is not part of my own mental neighborhood, I have been enthralled most of my life by the tireless perfection of his descriptive ability, by his power to love and exalt whatever he sees. Like Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust and Nabokov, he has described things never described before. Perhaps he has seen things never really seen before: the exact way metal shavings curl with heavy gaiety around a lathe, the exact way lifeguards sit on their tall useful thrones. He makes you feel what you see and see what you feel. All our dust is precious in the wry keen light of his smiling eye. For Mr. Updike, anything can be a vessel of grace.

Yet this angel of a writer can be devilishly annoying -- flip, smug, gleefully sarcastic like the grinning adolescent that he, at 60, still resembles. Norman Mailer, for instance, is as much a believer in the identity of sex and soul as Mr. Updike -- but Mr. Mailer has allowed pain to turn him into an aged hulking prophet, wounded into near grandeur by both wisdom and absurdity.

In his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," Mr. Updike predicts in a kind of optimistic lament that he will continue to turn out the stuff he has always turned out. But adolescent or not, what he oozes is continual life. If I and many other non-Anglo-Saxons continue to read him all our lives, it is because he as much as anyone can caress the very texture of time, from the Age of Eisenhower to the Reign of Reagan.

NTC John Updike has hoarded the bright debris of life the way other people save pennies. And yet he has said: "I've touched a kind of bottom, when I've felt existence itself was an affront to be forgiven." Nowhere is this clearer than in his new novel, "Memories of the Ford Administration." Funny, ambitious and, for the most part, reliably exquisite in style, this may be his darkest and most problematic book -- a crack, albeit a neat crack, in the enduring dike.

What the Trojan War was for the ancient Greeks, adultery is for John Updike -- the supreme arena for mythical and moral conflict. This is especially true of "Memories of the Ford Administration," the very title of which mocks heroism (Gerald Ford our Hector, our Lincoln?). In fact, the novel is about the adulteries and intellectual failures of catty academics, a much-recycled subject (but so was Troy). What gives the novel its value is that Mr. Updike the realist is being influenced by Vladimir Nabokov the fantasist, and that Mr. Updike is allowing a black hole of doubt to expand at the core of his leafy faith in language.

The novel's protagonist is the terminally catty Alfred Clayton, a moderate failure of a professor who still teaches American history at Wayward Junior College, which was all-female in the '70s (what a Nabokovian name!). The college is located in New Hampshire, the state whose motto is "Live Free or Die" -- the theme of "Memories" could be described as "Live Free and Die." For only during the erotic and personal freedom of the middle 1970s -- the years of the Ford administration -- did Alfred Clayton feel alive and hopeful enough to do substantial work on his biography of James Buchanan, the president of the United States just before Lincoln.

Put together in the less hopeful but more erotically stable present, "Memories" purports to be Clayton's attempt to respond to a request from a scholarly association for memories and impressions (the very idea is somehow hilarious) of the Ford administration. Like the more magical heroes of Nabokov's "Pale Fire" and "The Gift," Clayton confuses the historical with the personal. He submits his never-to-be-completed massive pages on Buchanan because they were his work during the Ford years, and alternates them with sweatily intimate slices of his largely adulterous life at that period. As in Nabokov's novels, the historical material forms a kind of parallel universe with the personal, enriching our sense of a single human life, which is lived simultaneously in more than one realm.

At his happiest and most anguished in the Ford years, Alfred Clayton could laboriously rejoice in both his love for the slightly absurd Buchanan as well as his love for his mistress, Genevieve, "The Perfect Wife." Of course, he also loves his real wife, the chaotically normal Norma, "The Queen of Disorder." His loving confusions extend to other faculty wives and colleagues, and the blowzy mother of one of his students, with whom he makes love simply because she shares the first name of James Buchanan's elegantly doomed fiancee, Ann Coleman.

Clayton -- that man of clay -- seeks a sexual Grail because "We are, each man and woman, doors that open to disclose an Oz, an alternate universe of emerald forests and ruby reception rooms."

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