“Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism” by John Updike (Knopf, 501 pages, $40)
John Updike, who died in January 2009, is one of the 20th century’s greatest American writers. He was prolific and multitalented, authoring more than 60 books, including novels, short stories, poems and criticism. He is also, I confess up front, one of my favorite writers.
This posthumous book of essays and criticism was put together and edited by Christopher Carduff at the request of Martha Updike, the author’s wife and literary executor. Yet, writes Carduff in his Foreword, “the notion of such a volume was on Updike’s mind during the weeks before his death.”
The title comes from a comment of Updike’s in his earlier collection “Hugging the Shore,” where he called a review done well “gossip of a higher sort.”
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Carduff notes that Updike’s books of criticism (this is his seventh) were not merely corrected tear sheets. Many pieces “were much expanded from their published versions.”
He has arranged the many pieces in five sections: “Real Conversation,” which includes memoir, humor, short stories and poetry; “Book Chat,” which collects literary tributes, speeches, introductions and reviews; “Gallery Tours,” which is comprised of Updike’s art criticism; “Pet Topics,” which includes short pieces on the universe, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and golf; and “Table Talk,” snippets about his own life and works.
This is a book that can be picked up at random and read in pieces; it need not be read from beginning to end (though I did). Readers will follow their interests. I perked up at the book reviews, all of which I’d read in their original appearances in the New Yorker, but my interest lagged while going through the art reviews. However, I did learn much about certain artists and historical trends in art. I only wished for more illustrations.
Fans of Updike’s work will especially appreciate this book, though it holds many rewards for both the casual reader and especially for writers. Updike is noted for his stylistic excellence, and he is an incisive reviewer with many insights into the writing process. For example, he writes that “memories, impressions and emotions from your first twenty years on earth are most writers’ main material; little that comes afterward is quite so rich and resonant.”
And this from the same essay: “Prose should have a flow, the forward momentum of a certain energized weight; it should feel like a voice tumbling in your ear.”
Updike’s writing can be summed up by Joseph Conrad’s definition of the artistic impulse as “a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.” He describes his own work this way: “My own concern gravitates to the intimate, where the human intersects with something inhuman, something dark and involuntary and unsubmissive to man-created order.”
His knowledge and insight is prodigious. For example, in an essay on the artist Rene Magritte, he writes that “surrealism suffers the danger of any art of ideas: the delivery of the idea exhausts the content.”
And Updike’s prose is often exquisite. He writes about the tools of golf almost erotically: “the tender way the leather grips invite the fingers to curl around them and adhere, the grainy bag, the flexing elegance of the tapered shafts, even the merry dimples on the ball and the tiny sensation of ‘give’ when the wooden tee penetrates the turf.”
“Higher Gossip” is not for everyone. But for those who enjoy the writing of John Updike or who enjoy good writing, period, this is a treasure that can be dipped into at leisure. But be warned, once you enter its pages, it may be difficult to tear yourself away.