"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lines I wished I’d Written: Elizanne, from John Updike’s Short Story, “A Walk with Elizanne”

I completed reading my final short story for 2014, John Updike’s “A Walk with Elizanne” and as it happens I came across an article on a new biography on Updike.  The article is from Commonweal magazine and titled, “TheCharms of the Conqueror: How John Updike Made It Look Easy.”  The article has just about everything you wanted to know about John Updike and his work, but I wanted to focus on these two paragraphs. 

Is it difficult to see why some resented him so heartily? From the start Updike’s detractors derided him for empty aestheticism and, worse, a privileged complacency. Alfred Kazin called him “wholly literary...the quickest of quick children.” To Alfred Chester he was “profoundly untroubled.” Garry Wills criticized his “reactionary dandyism,” blasting his novels as “profligate with pretty writing.” Updike’s fictional portrayals of women, critics asserted, amounted to a kind of soft misogyny, the obnoxious ramblings of a man obsessed with sex and given to writing about it with frivolous poeticality—“a penis with a thesaurus,” jousted David Foster Wallace. Updike’s inveterate use of his own life for fiction, combined with his habit of writing luxurious sentences that conveyed the feeling of having been cherished by their creator, left him vulnerable to charges of self-love while saddling him with the paradox of being a writer routinely condemned for writing well.

Defending Updike against such criticisms is a chief goal of Adam Begley’s excellent biography, Updike (Harper, $29.99, 576 pp.). Begley’s father, novelist Louis Begley, was a Harvard classmate of Updike’s, and in his preface Begley fils (former books editor of the New York Observer) confesses that one of his “fondest wishes” is to champion Updike, who died six years ago at age seventy-six, and help prod “a surge in his posthumous reputation.” But his larger challenge is to tell a life spent mostly in the library and study, and moreover one that Updike himself wrote about relentlessly. This relentlessness complicates Begley’s task. How can a biographer work a field already so thoroughly plowed by the subject himself?

The first presents the negative reviews Updike’s work has received over the years, and the second champions Updike’s career, albeit you’ll have to read the biography to get the rationale.  I too have had mixed reactions to Updike’s work.  There is no question his prose is of the highest quality.  Updike’s writing always reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s, and Updike himself mentions Nabokov frequently, always with the highest regard.  If I remember correctly, Updike was a student to Nabokov when Nabokov taught at Cornell University.   When one says that one’s prose reminds you of Nabokov’s, that’s saying that the prose is elegant, beautiful, and precise.  But where Updike falls short is in what he says.  I had a college professor who said Updike can write beautifully about an ashtray, but it says nothing.  Now I don’t think that’s fair.  There are many profound themes in Updike’s work, but whether the grandeur of the work matches the depth of the themes is arguable.  I can say that I enjoy reading Updike, but despite the pleasure, I tend to have the feeling that the work missed greatness.  But time will tell.  Critics need distance to fully assess a career.  That quote from Davis Foster Wallace—that Updike is a “penis with a thesaurus”—is funny but true.  So much of Updike’s work revolves around sex, not in a crass way, but still not deeply penetrating, excuse the pun.  Perhaps that is why Updike might not achieve greatness status.  Sex is so integrated with our culture that ultimately writing about it borders on the superficial.  Still we live in superficial times, and Updike captures our times and mores well.

Let me present for your reading pleasure this passage from the short story, “A Walk with Elizanne.”  Some background.  David is attending his fiftieth high school reunion and meets a woman, Elizanne, who he had forgotten but who has never forgotten him.  She tells him of their walk together one night back while they were in school where David gave her her first kiss, and not only has she never forgot the kiss, but the kiss represented an initiation into life for her.  David bit by bit pulls that walk from his memory and ponders over it.  Within this context is David’s anxiety of approaching death since they are all in their upper sixties in age.  The story starts with David visiting a school friend in the hospital, Mamie, who has terminal cancer and cannot make the reunion.

If Mamie was right and we live forever, David thought, he could imagine no better way to spend eternity than taking that walk with Elizanne over and over, until what they said, how they touched, whether or not he dared hold her hand in his, and each hair of that fine black down on her forearm all came as clear as letters deep-cut in marble.  There would be time to ask her all the questions he had been too slow-witted to ask at their fiftieth.  Was this her first husband, or the last of a series?  Had she had affairs, in that suburb of her choosing?  Had there been a lot of necking, as he had heard there was, on the band bus back from the football games?  Was it in the bus where she went on with her kissing, the groping that comes with kissing, the flush and hard breathing that come with groping?  Whose girlfriend had she been in her junior and senior years?  He dimly remembered her being linked with Lennie Lesher, the track star, the five-minute miler with his sunken acne-scarred cheeks and tight ridges of hair soaked in Vitalis.  How could she have betrayed him, David, that way?  Or was it with those faceless members of the band?  Why had they, David and she, drifted apart after walking through Olinger into the region of more light?  Or had it been night, after a dance or a basketball game, her white face with its strong eyebrows and quick smile a nocturnal blur?

Elizanne, he wanted to ask her, what does it mean, enormity of our having been children and now being old, living next door to death?  He had been the age then that his grandsons were now.  As he had lived, he had come to see that for a man there is no antidote to death but a woman; yet from where, he wanted now to ask Elizanne, does a woman draw this antidote, this cosmic balm?  And does it work for her as well?

For days he could not let her afterimage go, but in time he would, he knew.  He could not write or call her, even if Mamie or Sarah Beth provided him with her address and number, for there were spouses, accumulated realities, limits.  At the time, obviously, there had been limits in their situation.  He had had little to offer her but his future of going places, and that was vague and distant.  The questions he was burning to ask would receive banal answers.  It was an adolescent flirtation that had come, like most, to nothing.

Much to my surprise, you can read the story on the internet, posted by the original publisher, The New Yorker magazine.  It’s not a very long story.  You can probably read it in half an hour.  I would love to hear what your thoughts are.  But it’s an abridged version.  Updike in the collected stories version changed it quite a bit, and for the better.  That middle paragraph I quoted is not even there, and that paragraph is the key to the story.  Still you can get a feel for it.

Updated, 31 Dec 2014 at 3:50 PM: I just read the entire story posted on the internet that I linked above.  It's not very much different.  The only difference that I can see (I didn't go sentence by sentence) is that one paragraph I said was added--and I still think it was that added for the best--that the high school graduation year was changed from 1952 to 1950, and therefore the current date of the story was 2000, and that Updike for some reason changed Betty Lou's name to Sarah Beth.  Otherwise it appears to be the same story as in the collection.


  1. By the way, I wrote this post on my old computer and it's running so slow that it took me over four hours to write these couple of pages. Urrgh.

  2. What can "I" say Manny, exept hope that the rest of 2015 goes better for YA!...lol

    God Bless