In the pages of Palimpsest, however, which I read as a high schooler in the full flower of my adoration, I began to detect something else-- something that was worse than just playful bohemianism in Vidal's moral stance. I suppose from a distance I had imagined Vidal to be a modern day Oscar Wilde or Andre Gide-- a representative of the sort of arch anti-Victorianism that thumbs its nose at Puritanical morality in the name of something higher and more authentic in human relationships. But Palimpsest, unlike the work of the other great "immoralists" of literary history, conspicuously lacks this "something higher." The relationships it describes are hollow and inhuman. The characters in its pages are manikins standing around in various states of undress and which happen to bear the names of famous people. The few memorable passages in the book mostly gain their mental traction for the wrong reasons-- usually because they are scurrilous and concern public figures and well-known authors of various kinds. And shot through the whole production is something very close to malice.
Reading Vidal's essays now in the edition recently edited and published by Jay Parini leaves me with a similar mental hangover. The essay "Rabbit's Own Burrow"-- a notorious toppling of competitor and other "last great man-of-letters" John Updike-- has put me especially on the defensive, intruding as it does on my budding love affair with the latter's work. Now, there are plenty of valid reasons, both ideological and artistic, for criticizing Updike, as will become clear. And Vidal's aggressive drubbing seems to hit most of the right notes. Indeed, the first part of "Rabbit's Own Burrow" is a raucously funny and apparently deserved take-down of Self-Consciousness (1989), a memoir. But this is immediately followed by an extended mocking paraphrase of Updike's 1996 multigenerational saga In the Beauty of the Lillies, a novel I just finished and greatly admired, and Vidal's essay on this score so completely and balefully misses the mark, so tonelessly misconstrues the novel it is attacking, that I am left wondering whether his remarks on the memoir should be trusted either. I am left with the impression of the same fundamental mean-spiritedness that Palimpsest formed in me years ago.
Is Vidal giving Updike in either book a fair reading? The brief snatches of Updike's own voice we hear in the essay are subjected to remarkably uncharitable interpretations, suggesting the answer is "no." We read Updike's claim: "my models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green-- dialogue and meditation as I read them[.]" These are two very different writers, as I understand them (knowing both by reputation only): Proust is remembered for his thoughtful, meandering prose, Green for his crisp dialogue, concision, and striking absence of extraneous scene-setting. Updike is therefore suggesting, I take it, that he got his taste for "meditation" from Proust and for "dialogue" from Green, and not both qualities from both authors. I would imagine that any moderately sympathetic reviewer would assume this as well, and assume that Updike has in fact read the authors to whom he refers. But Vidal does not give him the benefit of any doubt, and makes play several times with the innocent ambiguity of his sentence. 'Dialogue and meditation'," quips Vidal, "is how Updike, inaccurately, describes the manner of his early 'model,' Henry Green."
Vidal eventually gets onto Updike's political views, and here he is in a position to make much more substantive criticisms. Updike's blunders here are indeed quite laughable-- in a morbid, to-keep-from-crying sort of way. Updike was an apologist for the Vietnam war who swallowed uncritically the government's line that it was a war to provide "free elections" to the people of South Vietnam, for instance. Vidal points to the US government's evident opposition to such democratic elections in Vietnam the '50s, spurred on by the fear that Ho Chi Minh would win hands-down. Vidal has much good fun with Updike's various other hypocrisies: his expressed "relief" as a young man, for instance, when a skin condition kept him out of the army during the Korean war-- a "relief" which he, apparently, is allowed to feel, but which, when expressed by younger servicemen called up for Vietnam, reflects mere spoiled privilege and a lack of proper gumption.
Indeed, Updike's support of the war seems to have rested, ultimately, on nothing more substantial than an aesthetic distaste for the anti-war movement. What he failed to explain-- and what no one who appealed to a similar repugnance was ever able to explain-- is why the Vietnamese should have been made to suffer for the artistic sins, the deplorable fashion sense or taste in music or whatever it was, of the resented student radicals.
The hypocrisies continue. Updike is quoted further on as saying that he benefitted, in his eyes, from some of the new emancipations of the 'Sixties. His own early work is often held up as characteristic of the early sexual revolution, and he writes in Self-Consciousness that in the midst of the Vietnam War, he "smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads, and frugged [himself] into a lather while the Beatles and Janis Joplin sang away on the hi-fi set. I was happy enough to lick the sugar of the counterculture; it was the pill of antiwar, anti-administration, anti-'imperialist' protest that I found oddly bitter." This, if it represents Updike's considered opinion in light of experience and not a criticism of his former self, seems to combine rather the worst of both worlds-- the narcissistic libertinism of "free love" along with the moral torpor of mainstream America in the face of massive destruction of life in Southeast Asia.
These failings are grave enough to raise sincere doubts about Updike's moral and intellectual depth. One owes it to a novelist, however, to judge him, at least in part, on the merits of his novels, and here Vidal-- usually a perceptive guide to creative fiction (see his "American Plastic," e.g. published in the same volume) has left firm ground.
For one thing, Vidal does not show signs of having read any of Updike's work, apart from the early succès de scandale Couples, the ludicrous memoir, and In the Beauty of the Lillies, the book under review. His reason appears to be that he has "never taken Updike seriously as a writer"-- an attitude that was unlikely to be revised if he never read any of his work. There is no mention in Vidal's essay of the Bech books, of Roger's Version, of The Centaur or The Witches of Eastwick, or, except indirectly, of the Rabbit tetrology. In short, he has left out all the evidence that is usually adduced to prove Updike's stature as a serious writer of fiction.
As to In the Beauty of the Lillies, Vidal has clearly read enough of the book to get the characters' names right and to quote maliciously a few lines of overblown dialogue, a few corny passages of purple description ("the adamant bosom of the depleted universe," etc.), and a few items from Updike's notorious "descriptions" ("We are spared nothing," groans Vidal, not entirely without justification.) Yet beyond this, Vidal displays an almost complete misapprehension of the themes and significance of the novel. It is "easily the most intensely political American novel of the last quarter-century" he writes. When in fact, I can scarcely think of a less ideological novel, or one in which the views, religious and political, of the author are more difficult to tease out from the diverse perspectives of its characters.
Vidal insists that Updike's purpose in the novel is "to dramatize the forces that have driven the United States ever leftward, even further away from the marching, lily-born God, away from family values and obedience to Authority [...]," etc. This is patently false on any reading of the book. It is true in a vague way that Updike's story is one of decline, both familial and national, though he identifies no particular culprit. It is also true that Updike is a Christian, albeit of a Barthian-Kierkegaardian kind so nebulous in matters of doctrine as to shade into unbelief. Moreover, I don't think I've ever read a novel that described a loss of Christian faith, a painful transition into atheism (which is the chief plot point in the first of the four generational episodes that comprise the novel) as lovingly and sympathetically as Updike's.
If anyone thought the author might be religious in any doctrinaire or simple-minded way, the description of Clarence's slow realization of his incapacity to accept Calvinist dogmas ought to have convinced her otherwise. Says Clarence:
"My very voice rebelled, today, against my attempting to put some sort of good face on a doctrine that I intellectually detest. Ingersoll, Hume, Darwin, Renan, Nietzsche-- it all rings true, when you've read enough to have it sink in; they have not just reason on their side but simple humanity and decency as well [...] that bloody tit-for-tat of the atonement, the whole business of condemning poor fallible men and women to eternal hell for a few mistakes in their little lifetimes [...] I've twisted my mind in loops to hold on to some sense in which these things are true enough to preach, but I've got to let go or go crazy."Is it likely this passage was drafted by a hand as bumptiously fundamentalist as Vidal's caricature would imply?
Vidal's paraphrase of Clarence's struggle for atheism, unlike the allegedly Bible-thumping Updike's humane and tolerant description, drips contempt: The character, says Vidal, "ponders free will and predestination, the sort of thing that at a church school like St. Albans [...] most boys had pretty much wrapped up before the onset of puberty." The reference is to one of the many elite prep schools Vidal attended as a boy. By the age of graduation, it would seem, he had already "thought of everything" an author might have to say to him about faith and reason. The gesture is meant to stagger us with the depth of Vidal's precocity, but in fact, like all deeds of arrogance, it reveals a basically immature and stunted outlook.
If there is a moral center of gravity to the novel, it is Clarence's son Teddy, who shares his father's atheism as well as his basic "fear of life." Teddy aspires to safety and ordinariness. He is content with family, with a handful of close relationships, with a sense of place in the world surrounded by familiar faces. He therefore interests Vidal not at all. "He is passive and not very bright," says Vidal shruggingly.
Had Vidal paid more attention or had less visceral contempt for the values described in the last paragraph, he might have realized that Teddy comes closest to speaking for the author's moral sense of any character in the book. Teddy is skeptical about the fundamental benignity of the universe. He is conservative in a non-ideological way and laments the fact that "people don't have the loyal sense of community they used to." But he also shares his liberal daughter's contempt for McCarthyism and applauds her courageous resistance to it. He resents the absurd "loyalty oaths" he is compelled to take as a minor civil servant in the Truman years and is disarmingly frank about the reality of racial injustice in the Delaware town he inhabits. If there is anyone in the book who is presented in a wholly sympathetic light, it is Teddy.
Yet Vidal fixates on another character as the Updike stand-in, that of Danny, a bespectacled CIA agent and the brother of Teddy's liberal, movie-star daughter (Essie). Danny is given various right-wing platitudes and Agnew-esque clichés to spew. Vidal even quotes an exchange between Essie and Danny in which the latter accuses Essie of pursuing a frivolous career in Hollywood, to which she replies: "Well, Danny darling, the movies have never pretended to be anything except entertainment. But what you're doing [in the CIA] pretends to be a great deal more."
Vidal takes this line, bizarrely, to be a sign of how low Essie has fallen in Updike's estimation-- not realizing that Updike has handed the Hollywood "pinko" character a rather apt and sympathetic line here. Danny, on the other hand, at least until he matures toward the end of the novel, is consistently depicted by the author as a sadistic and contemptible twerp. He spins his sister fantasies about American soldiers in the pacific dropping Japanese soldiers into the propellors of ships-- to her disgust and ours. When a civil rights bill inches closer to being signed into law in the 1950s, Danny is contemptuous of its progress, remarking that it should "interest" his sister, who has recently starred in a movie featuring an interracial kiss. "I don't know why you think that would especially interest me," says Essie. "I think it would please any American. It's about a hundred years late." Again, this seems a pretty good come-back on her part.
Perhaps Updike, despite the evidence, is on the side of the Dannys of the world rather than the Essies and the Teddies. But if that is so, it is all the more testament to his seriousness as an author that he has managed to portray opinions so different from his own with apparent earnestness and sympathy. In short, he has succeeded in the task of artistic compassion, even though it is for a lack of "empathy" that Vidal most excoriates him.
Perhaps Updike's intelligence is not a political or philosophical one, but it is clearly a novelistic one-- so much the better, then, that he has made his career chiefly as a novelist rather than a philosopher. Whatever else he is, he is capable of inhabiting many different skins, of seeing through many different sets of eyes, which is an artistic gift worth cherishing.
I don't think any critical take on Updike is an honest one unless it acknowledges this real vocation of his for creative fiction. Martin Amis, for instance, is both more charitable and most honest than Vidal in his essays on Updike in The War Against Cliché. Amis there is merciless-- and rightly so-- about Updike's Vietnam writings-- and about the ignorance (pitiable, almost, if the moral stakes of it hadn't been so high) they betray. "The peace movement becomes, for him, an inexplicable excrescence [...] rather than a direct symptom of what the war was actually doing to America," writes Amis. "Updike's prose [on the subject of Vietnam] writhes in jargon, sentence-length cliché, and prissy sarcasm." Yet Amis has honesty enough to hold this belief while simultaneously administering this apt verdict: "John Updike has that single inestimable virtue: having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes." That's precisely it. Updike may be a political hypocrite. Such people are common. But he is also something very rare: a good writer. He is so swelteringly good, in fact, that from the moment I picked him up I realized that I now had a trove of undreamt treasures to explore that would last me years-- maybe decades: a tiring observation, since there is often more comfort in reading a few pages of an author and discovering that she or he has nothing to say to you, but also an inspiring observation, leaving me with an authorial friend for life.
Vidal, however, was a great one-upper, who could not bring himself to acknowledge the genius of a rival, even if this were followed by a deserved evisceration of his politics, as it is in Amis. His means of upping Updike is to cast the latter in the role of bumptious bumpkin, of corn-fed, dough-faced dupe of American hegemony and the Christian God.
One of the particular kisses of death he bestows upon Updike in this vein is that of being a "middlebrow" novelist-- which is far more humiliating than being labeled "low-brow," for this can have its own bluff democratic charm, its broad humor, its proletarian authenticity. "Middlebrow," by contrast, is not content with itself: it reeks of upwardly-mobile self-reproach and cultural insecurity. "Middlebrow" wants to keep up with the Jones'. The implication is that Updike is a big faker whose claim to high literary stature is founded on a second-hand pantomime of intellectual seriousness.
The irony is that it is Vidal-- in my eyes-- who comes across as the fraud in this essay. His invocation of "empathy" belies his own failure to comprehend nuance in literature. His equation of what characters say with what the author thinks reveals a petulant literal-mindedness. His inability to comprehend a crisis of faith or the fear of being alone in the universe shows a shallowness on his part-- the sort of pat atheism that was arrived at without struggle or sincerity. In short, his criticisms of John Updike start to read like autobiography.