|Jan/Feb 2006 Fiction Special Feature|
Updike messes with the wrong steward
Blue, it showed greener than the sky
Here is John Updike at his gnomic best, talking about a building. The sentence makes no logical sense. Even on a metaphorical level I'm struggling to work out what it means. In fact, what the hell, I would venture to suggest that it has no "meaning" at all, as a human being understands the word.
I saw John Updike a couple of years ago. He was talking about his Rabbit series, and the interviewer, James Nauchtie, asked him what happened to the hero in the interim periods between the novels.
Updike turned his lip into a sneer--it's a sneer, but I don't think he means it; I think he's just born like that, in the same way that some people are born with raised eyebrows--anyway the sneer appeared to grow more pronounced and deliberate, and he said, "Nothing. He's a fictional character."
The crowd went wild. I felt sorry for Nauchtie, and suddenly I felt a surge of dislike for this American, with his lip, and his lip, coming over to a festival in our country, and so, even though I was just a steward and I had absolutely no right to ask any questions--I was supposed to be blocking the view of people trying to watch the show for free through the fire exit doors--despite all this I grabbed a microphone and shouted out:
"Mr. Updike, how can you possibly think that this was a literal question? I mean, you of all people. Shame on you, John. Can I call you John? But how can you do that, ask a question like that, and then in one of your most famous stories, selected by yourself to go into a collection called Best American Short Stories of the Century, write the line: "Blue, it showed greener than the sky"? Hm? Now, I realize that you're extremely well-regarded, possibly one of the world's most highly respected living authors, and I'm just a steward, so my opinion is worth nothing, but don't you think this is a bit inconsistent? And while I'm about it, how do you explain that line, anyway? What does it mean? Do you just put stuff like that in stories to mess with people's heads, orů"
At that point I was bustled out of the marquee in a headlock by the head steward--Pete from Builth Wells--stripped of my tabard, and relieved of my pass. It is with more embarrassment than I feel able to describe that I trudged out of that festival venue. How would I get over something like this? I had tried to question a great man, our generation's equivalent of Sherwood Anderson, or something like that, not that you can make comparisons like that, but anyway, I was well out of order.
I could not face the world's opprobrium just yet. I sat down for a coffee and wondered how I could start to piece together the shattered fragments of my life when the great man walked over and sat down opposite me.
"Mind if I join you?" he said. He was surrounded by questioners, all of whom knew perfectly well that Rabbit was a fictional character, no doubt, and had many questions of far greater pith and fancy, but he ignored all these people and took a sip of my double mocha.
"That was a good question you asked," he said.
"No it wasn't. I mean I'm not trying to be rude, but it wasn't a good question, and anyway it was several questions all garbled into one. That's why I'm a steward and not an author or an interviewer."
"Still and all, you're right. It was a cheap shot, and no one has a right to make a cheap shot, not even someone as old as me."
"Well, that's quite alright. I thank you for your candor."
Hands were grabbing at Updike's jacket and hair and nose. As he fought his way out of the crowd, I was filled with awe.
"What will you do now, John?" I shouted after him.
"That's up to you."
Shock and awe
There is in America a tremendous awe of Jesus Christ, Son of God. People claim to see him everywhere. Here's what one man, a very successful preacher, said about a vision of Jesus that he had while in a nursing home. He saw Jesus sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket over his knees:
"People have wanted to know exactly what the Lord looked like," said the preacher. "I really can't tell you how tall he was, since most of the time he was sitting down."
There came a point several decades back, perhaps around the time that an atomic bomb was dropped in the name of peace, that satire was no longer effective, nor necessary. We appear to have moved so far beyond that point now, and satire has become so pervasive, that not only do most things satirize themselves, but it is difficult to find a shred of sincerity hiding anywhere, no matter how many rocks we turn.
A few years before the atomic bomb was dropped and killed satire dead, a sincere man called William Saroyan roved around California being amazed by everything he saw and felt, amazed to be alive, wondering at the ugliness and glory of it all, the greatest preacher you ever heard, saying things like this:
"Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough."
What more do you want from a preacher, than this? He was saying nothing new of course, but it hits me in the heart every time I hear the words, and some other words that do this to me, words that mean the same thing, have been written by people who are usually mocked in their own time, and they tell us things like this: "I see colours like you hear jet planes," and "Life is no way to treat an animal," and "Still full of blood and hopes," and "Do not go gentle into that good night," and "Till human voices wake us and we drown," and "May flights of angels sing you to your rest."
There are not many important things to learn in the world, but we need to keep learning them over and over again, it seems, and some people keep trying to tell us what they are, finding new ways to say the same things all the time, to help us fight against forgetting. These are lessons that don't stick easily unless you have been put right through the wringer, or if you are able to sit in your comfortable home and imagine the smell and the sensation of going right through the wringer, and in any case come out blinking, breathing hard, with your hands groping all around you, and, if you're lucky, maybe a scrap of poetry flitting and buzzing around in your mind.