Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Even if I didn’t have a new novel coming out in six months—meaning the nerves and stomach butterflies are starting—I’d still be interested in reading bad book reviews. There is something mesmerizing about a truly scathing review, especially when it’s for a book you’ve determined that you absolutely loved. It only proves yet again the subjectivity of criticism, as well as the resilience of the author. If the author was, or more importantly now is, almost universally envied and admired, all the more interesting. It’s like hearing that Angelina Jolie was considered ugly as a child, or that a younger Brad Pitt couldn’t get a date (yeah, right); we are comforted to know that even the beautiful, as well as the brilliant, are not universally praised.
I stumbled upon a review of this type recently after finishing John Updike’s The Centaur (1963). It’s a very different novel from his Rabbit books, and not one I had heard as much about. I bought an old battered copy, read the first page, and was bowled over by the assuredness of how it starts: a Pennsylvania schoolteacher named Caldwell explodes in pain and indignation after one of his students shoots an arrow into the teacher’s ankle. The school and the students are described in considerable realistic detail, as is typical with Updike. But yes, it becomes clear on page two, with a reference to clattering hooves: Caldwell really is a centaur.
For the next 40 pages, the descriptively-dense, myth-saturated prose (the novel includes a mythological index) almost lost me. Almost. Then we turn a corner, and an even greater realism prevails. No centaurs, no gods cavorting in hallways, only a sensitive boy and his ailing father (still Caldwell, yes), struggling with life over a few winter days, in one of the most poignantly-depicted father-son relationships I’ve seen in print. Now I was hooked. (The novel continues to alternate, but with a lighter touch, between the regular world and a mythological one.)
Finishing the book, I felt a delicious solitude, deeply enjoying what I’d just read while also yearning to hear from someone else who had read the same book, to compare notes. That’s why I look up some old reviews. I’ve enjoyed something—or conversely, I’m troubled by something—and I want to see how someone else has found words for the pleasure or frustration I can’t quite explain.
I fully expected the main Centaur reviews to be effusive. After all, the book went on to win the National Book Award. A perusal of amazon reader reviews suggests that modern readers are still touched by The Centaur.
But here is what Orville Prescott in the February 4, 1963 New York Times had to say about Updike’s use of mythological characters and themes: “What in the name of artistic common sense does such useless ingenuity have to do with the writing of good novels? The answer is not a thing. Ever since James Joyce wrote Ulysses … bemused young writers have been misled into thinking that if they imitate Joyce’s dangerous precedent they will add something of value to their novels. They could not be more mistaken.”
The criticism doesn’t let up. Prescott accuses Updike of pomposity and pretension. Updike is “over-praised” and “still groping for his own natural means of expression.” The book is “marvelously dull.” The review ends, “One other aspect of The Centaur must be pointed out. It contains numerous obscenities, no more loathsome than in many recent novels, but entirely unnecessary.”
That last line prompts a 21st-century snigger: Okay, so Prescott was an old-fashioned reader. Maybe that was his problem.
But the next review I found, by Jonathan Miller in The New York Review of Books (February 1, 1963), shoots just as many arrows into the young Updike. Miller starts just as Prescott did, irritated to the extreme that Updike used mythology in a realistic novel, and calls The Centaur “flounderingly portentous and pompously intoned, like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.”
(Another snigger: that pompous little book by Hemingway also proved to have a pretty good shelf-life.)
These two reviewers were not merely critical; they seemed personally affronted by Updike’s experiment. My husband Brian noted that the world has changed, and fantasy in general (as well as genre-bending) is much more accepted today. I have a different spin. I think the average intellectual reader was much more formally educated in the 1960s, was much more familiar with the mythology Updike uses, and might have felt the author was forcing it too strongly down the reader’s throat. (I already had my share of Achilles and cod liver oil at prep school, that reader might have thought; now give me a novel about real grown-ups living in big cities.) Today, though, the weave feels esoteric and fresh. And I still maintain: even without any of the myth, The Centaur works. One scene involving the father, son, and a hitchhiker they pick up on the way to school has the self-contained, poignant brilliance of a modern short story as written by Tobias Wolff or Raymond Carver.
I found myself imagining how Updike reacted to those reviews, especially the first one, before the National Book Award provided a little reassurance. Did he question himself? Regret his bold experiment? Think back to the college professors who had questioned his writing skills as well as his familiarity with the classics? Want to hide at home and not answer the phone for a week? Or did he just shrug and keep working on the next novel, remembering his own promise to himself that he would write about a book a year, and keep developing his own voice and his own fictional approach, regardless of what the reviewers said?
I hope so.
Giving Updike the last word, here is his 1964 National Book Award acceptance speech.