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Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton (eds), European Perspectives on John Updike

Rochester (NY), Camden House, 2018, 220 p. ISBN: 978-1-57113-972-6. $80
Scott DILL
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Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton (eds), European Perspectives on John Updike. Rochester (NY), Camden House, 2018, 220 p. ISBN: 978-1-57113-972-6. $80

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1Is the American novelist, poet, and essayist John Updike read differently—perhaps more favorably—by academic critics in Europe than in the US? Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton’s new edited collection of essays, European Perspectives on John Updike (Camden House, 2018), poses precisely this question. According to their introduction:

The possibility that European critics might not be so heavily influenced as their American counterparts by prejudices against Updike’s open profession of his religious faith, or by the (misguided) notion that he is politically conservative, prompted us to ask, How do European critics contribute to an understanding of Updike’s work […]? (2)

2The essays Mazzeno and Norton have collected do not offer a simple answer to that question, but complicate it in a number of ways.

3The first of the book’s four sections considers the various ways Updike’s work addresses aging. Teresa Botelho begins it with an original reading of one of Updike’s most explicitly political novels, Terrorist, but frames its themes firmly within the tradition of the bildungsroman. Where some critics berated this late novel for its problematic representation of Muslim-American life, Botelho argues, “Reading Terrorist as not only a novel about suicidal violence but also as a coming-of-age story in dialogue with the American tradition of adolescent novels may help clarify the ways in which Updike created a character who is more than a cliché” (18). Two more essays follow, one by Eva-Sabine Zehelein on transcendence and Rabbit Angstrom’s life course and another by Sylvie Mathé on the “intimations of mortality” that were no less than Updike’s “lifelong preoccupation” which “wormed its way into his writing from his earliest publications until his last” (52). These three essays weave together Updike’s concern with the anxieties of growing up with the fears of growing old.

4Part II, “Love, American Style,” probes into the idiosyncrasies of Updike’s depictions of sexuality. Sue Norton reads Updike’s famous 1968 novel Couples as a foray into the “sexual avant-garde,” one that leaves readers with “the question of whether the text suggests unwaveringly that open marriage—or polyamory, or swinging—as a way of life is patently infeasible in respectable twentieth-century American society, with its dentists, bankers, and academics, or whether Updike as author simply cannot imaginatively sustain or else morally countenance its endurance” (58-59). Norton suggests that the novel’s apparent rejection of such radical filiation is not necessarily a moral judgment on open marriage as it is a stinging critique of American society’s “provincialism” (60). Yet Brian Duffy wonders why Updike, after so many feminist critiques of his work in the wake of Couples, is still so provincially sexist in his return to the field of suburban sexual liaisons, the 2004 Villages. Updike’s search for symbolic resonance in the female characters of Villages seems to have blinded him to their caricature. Karin Ikas looks at two more fully developed female characters in her reading of Seek My Face. The painter Hope Chafetz and the much younger journalist who has come to interview her, Kathryn D’Angelo, recount romantic relationships reduced to the material and economic forces of cultural production. In an essay that draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural theory, Ikas shows how love in the novel is caught up in the same modes of cultural production as its works of art. Hope’s romantic encounters seem so many exploitations by a male-driven social system, and Ikas wryly concludes, “what Updike has done in rendering Hope’s endurance is to expose this violence in artistic, writerly bas-relief and allow us to condemn it” (101).

5If condemnation seems the moral conclusion of Seek My Face, Andrew Tate argues otherwise in the first essay of Part III: “Amazing Grace, American Faith.” For Tate, Updike is a “psalmist of the everyday” (105). “For the psalmist,” Tate writes, “an encounter with the creator of all reality motivates the artistic endeavor of poetry; Hope is witness to the disappearance of this kind of spiritual assurance from everyday discourse” (114). In this novel and across the full range of Updike’s late work, Tate discovers Updike’s sensitivity to the language of praise, and his attempt to renew it—even if to witness its disappearance. Aristi Trendel takes up Updike’s short fiction in the following essay, revealing how Updike weaves together guilt, shame, and hope as signifiers of social obligations. Trendel evokes Ikas’s conclusion when she argues that Updike’s sense of hope “can derive only from the awareness of a moral shortcoming” (132). A fascinating reception history of Updike’s work in what was Yugoslavia (and then Serbia) closes out this third section. Biljana Dojčinović traces the “signs of omission” in Updike’s critics and translators. Even though the Serbian translations sometimes deliberately misrepresented religious themes so as to secularize them, the critics who wrote about them completely ignored the religious element in Updike’s work entirely. She conjectures that this “socialist erasure of religion” may have led critics to focus more on the aesthetic elements of Updike’s work, and that this critical emphasis may help explain the continuing importance of Updike’s work in the Serbian academy.

6The fourth and final section, “Old World Myths, New World News,” adds a final turn of the screw to the collection’s transatlantic dynamic. Ulla Kriebernegg argues that the apparent stereotypes of Terrorist are in fact self-consciously deployed discursive models. “By presenting various models of Americanness in the novel, Updike indirectly offers a concept of identification for Ahmad that is not essentialist, but recognizes the discursive constructedness of identity in a post-modern world” (158). Thus, Kriebernegg avers, the novel offers a complex investigation into the ways that language constructs identity—an exercise in subtlety missed by many readers. Judie Newman, whom the editors single out in their introduction as authoring “an indispensable guide” to Updike’s early fiction in her 1988 John Updike, offers an erudite and elegant reading of the intertextual resources at play in Gertrude and Claudius. Finally, in the closing essay of the volume, Kasia Boddy observes how Rabbit Angstrom—the complete collection of all four Rabbit novels—seeks to incorporate and transcend the contemporary events covered by the local and national media. Boddy concludes by noting, “Updike recognized that his, or any, Great American Novel can only ever do so much, both in transmitting the nation’s news and in ritually holding it together” (192). No matter how much it tries—and it certainly tries—Rabbit Angstrom cannot encapsulate a society’s newsworthy events any more than it can keep Rabbit going forever. Hence Boddy surmises that the tetralogy’s final word is a resigned benediction on the strengths and weaknesses of the novel form itself: “Enough.”

7Yet this collection of new, insightful, and revelatory criticism, makes it clear that critics have not yet had “enough” of Updike. In addition to providing a creative and essential collection for scholars of Updike’s work, they have brought together an important sample for reckoning how scholarly arguments over Updike’s legacy may or may not differ across the Atlantic. Indeed, in their introduction Mazzeno and Norton ask the reader to consider if “globalization [has] affected literary study to the point where nationality no longer plays a discernable role in literary criticism” (2). The reader of these fine essays is invited to question to what extent anything like a “European perspective” ever emerges in European Perspectives on John Updike.

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Scott DILL, « Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton (eds), European Perspectives on John Updike », E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 21 juillet 2019. URL :

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Scott DILL

Case Western Reserve University

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