Sunday, July 27, 2008

On Updike, Joe Boruchow, and the unnavigatable light

Joe Boruchow-poster (2008 S. Phila.)

Special thanks to my good friend, and the estimable artist, Joe Boruchow. He rather intuitively, and quite graciously, linked me to a handful of New York Review of Books essays in an attempt to legitimize John Updike out of my ignorance and resistance. Quick work was made.

Joe and I had been discussing American artists as I was newly aware of Alsatian-American illustrator/artist, Tomi Ungerer. (I urge you to check the link, especially you graphic-period Warhol enthusiasts.) As is so often the case Joe steered us into the earnestness (or at least matte silverness) of America, tapping into, and sharing, my love of Ben Shahn, Max Fleischer, and George Herrimann. Eventually he alit on Updike, whom as I explained a moment ago, had never worked high in my regards. What he (Joe) really loved were these essays Updike wrote as art critic for The NYRoB. So he sent me a few. I had been drastic in my opinion of John Updike. He's always been too much of a golden calf to really enjoy, too expectedly loved; somewhere there's a back issue of Informed Audience Member Quarterly with him on the cover standing between Joni Mitchell and David Hockney smoking a Churchill. On the wall above the fireplace: Raphael.

The essay, which is sturdy as an Amish nightstand, is called "The Clarity of Things", and it concerns the definition of American Art: For such a presumptuous topic I totally enjoyed it.

I mentioned to Joe that I was moving back to Pittsburgh for a while. In his wrathful halcyon Andrew Carnegie had acquired himself a lion's share of the great American paintings of the 19th century. Certainly I gushed over John Singer Sargent's epiphanous Venetian Interior 1882, and how one of the maids depicted, in her diagonal journey across the canvas, meets with only the tip of her toe a cross-current of sunlight. And how the meeting is no less flagrant and stimulating than when Eve met the Snake. Hearts destroyed, boners attained, privileges lost, etc., etc.

And there were the neo-Classicals--categorical or by warp of history, like Ingres, Courbet, and David who practically fathered the American style (add Walt Whitman and a bay leaf and you're there). In their times they were inflammatory, and at least in Courbet's case, considered somewhat garish for his stylistic determination. I remembered hearing Elizabeth Schumann's sillysad Lieder when I discovered a book of David in a thrift shop years ago. My initial reaction, doubtless emphasized by the metered loveliness of the song--which is why I mention it, was how stealthily David had been an influence on Edward Hopper. The signs are not instantly met. But look in each, and you can find the shared light of abandonment on the figures. It is as if David had taught the American pastoralist a kind of vocational cruelty: you drive them out to the middle of nowhere, in your case Maine, and you leave them there to navigate the light. The results were ecstatic.

So I've made my peace with John Updike, occupation: essayist. My ambivalence for the novelist endures. But then, I don't seem to care for any novelists. Their demands go unrewarded; which of them knows how to finish something he started?! Not so many. Not even the greats. Joe has been reading Willa Cather, and I still tote around Speak, Memory returning to it like a grocery list: I don't want to be surprised, I'm practically 33. How do I feed myself? You'd be surprised how rapid and reliable an answer I get. Perhaps it's not a novel, though it satisfies the demands of one with out griping.

Maybe all style is griping; I still haven't settled on a way to write this thing in a way that satisfies me. A friend, and writer, whose work I respect very much recently said to me, "I enjoy your blog, though I'm not sure I always "get it"". You know, that film is on the insides of these windows too. You scrawl not because it makes sense, but because with your fingers you've, sloppily and with the last mechanical vestiges of being a child, found a way to invite a thing in.

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