Today, I’m pleased to name another of John Updike’s extraordinary book reviews to my “Top Ten.” Updike is the only New Yorker book critic to have two pieces listed. This is as it should be because Updike is the greatest of all book reviewers – where greatness means analytical, appreciative, perceptive, poetic, subtle, sensitive. As Sanford Schwartz says of him, in “The Kid Who Got Straight A’s” (Artists and Writers, 1990), “No critic passes finer, more specific judgments on so many aspects of a book, right down to its merits as a piece of craftsmanship.” I confess I’ve struggled with the question of which Updike review to choose. There’s such a richesse of remarkable pieces. Here, for example, are three that I short-listed: “The Cuckoo and the Rooster” (The New Yorker, June 11, 1979; included in Updike’s 1983 collection Hugging the Shore), a review of The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, in which Updike, a passionate admirer of both Nabokov’s and Wilson’s work, finds “Nabokov’s letters the more alive and giving, certainly the more poetic and dense”; “Card Tricks” (The New Yorker, April 18, 1977; also included in Hugging the Shore), a review of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, wherein Updike nervily and fascinatingly shows Calvino “breaking the rules of his own game”; and “A Natural Writer” (The New Yorker, September 22, 2003; included in Updike’s 2007 collection Due Considerations), a peppery, prickly review of Geoffrey Wolff’s The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara, in which Updike ably defends O’Hara against Wolff’s “pushy and presumptuous” approach.
But in the end, I opted for what Updike called a “medley,” i.e., a review in which he addresses two or more books together, seeking common threads. My choice is the wonderful “Dutchmen and Turks” (The New Yorker, January 6, 1986; included in Updike’s 1991 collection Odd Jobs), a review of two novels, Harry Mulisch’s The Assault and Yashar Kemal’s The Sea-Crossed Fisherman. I chose it because of one particular passage that, when I first read it twenty-five years ago, engraved itself so incisively on my consciousness that I never forgot it. The passage comes at the end of the review, which up to that point has been mostly critical of Kemal’s novel. For example, Updike says, “Where Mulisch’s story keeps cinching tighter around its opening incident of violence, rendering it ever more intelligible, Mr. Kemal’s expands so that things make less and less sense.” Then, in his concluding remarks, Updike says of The Sea-Crossed Fisherman:
The prose remembers its novelistic duty to show, to make us see and feel the texture of things, only now and then, as when Zeynel, eluding a police hunt dreamlike in its inefficiency, patronizes a çöp kebap-vendor. And what is a çöp kebap? The prose tells us, and something of present-day, real-life Istanbul springs into being:
“Right away,” the vendor said, pleased. He was a very old man with a short white beard, a long sallow face, shrivelled pouches under his eyes and a knife scar on his forehead. His wide shoulders were hunched, giving him a lopsided gait. Sprinkling the tiny little cubes of skewered lamb with salt and pepper, he laid them over the embers which he fanned with a piece of cardboard adorned with the picture of a naked woman. In a moment the odour of burning fat spread through the square and thick fumes smoked greenly in the neon lighting. Dextrously the man slipped the meat cubes off the sixteen skewers into a bread loaf and added half a tomato and a sprig of parsley. “Here you are, sir,” he said.
How I love that “And what is a çöp kebap? The prose tells us, and something of present-day, real-life Istanbul springs into being.” Updike’s use of Kemal’s çöp kebap passage to illustrate the carrying out of “the novelistic duty to show, to make us see and feel the texture of things” is brilliant. In a way, it’s Updike’s version of James Wood’s “thisness” – any detail that centers our attention with its palpability, specificity, directness or concretion.
Interestingly, the New Yorker version of “Dutchmen and Turks” concludes with the above quotation from Kemal’s novel, whereas the Odd Jobs version ends with Updike commenting, “And that is how we make a çöp kebap.” I like that additional line. It seems to convey a larger meaning; it seems to say, “And that is how we effectively represent life in words.”
Credit: The above artwork is by Fido Nesti; it appears in The New Yorker, January 7, 2008, as an “On The Horizon” illustration for the event “Eat, Drink & Be Literary,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.