What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 28, 2014 Issue

Is Adam Begley’s Updike worth reading? That was the question on my mind as I began reading Louis Menand’s "Imitation of Life," a review of Begley’s book, in this week’s issue. The answer appears to be yes. Menand says, “Writing was what the man was about, and the writing is what Begley focuses on. Updike is a highly literate illumination of a supremely literate human being.”

Updike was a “supremely literate human being” who disliked literary biographies. Some of his severest criticism is found in his reviews of biographies of Eliot, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Graham Greene, and Dorothy Parker, among others. His view was that writers’ lives are “poured into books, not deeds” (“This Side of Coherence,” More Matter, 1999). He deplored biographies that dish “the dirt, the lowdown” (“This Side of Coherence”).

The one exception he made is for biographies that enable us “to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love” (“On Literary Biography,” Due Considerations, 2007). The supreme example of this kind of biography is George D. Painter’s Marcel Proust (1959). Updike admired Painter’s book enormously. In “On Literary Biography,” he wrote, “Lovers of Proust will be inevitably drawn to Painter because it is more of the same, mirrored back into reality.”

Based on my reading of Menand’s “Imitation of Life,” I’d say that Adam Begley’s Updike sounds like it’s mostly in the Painter category. Menand says that Begley’s Updike “is essentially an extended essay in biographical criticism, an insight into the man through the work and the work through the man.”

I wish Menand had provided at least one extended quotation from Begley’s Updike so that I could form my own impression of Begley’s writing. But he says enough to persuade me that Begley’s book is worth a look.

Postscript: Pick of the Issue this week is Justin Quinn’s delightful "Recession Song," celebrating the medicinal and spiritual benefits of sage (“Sage is just the thing / for snakebite, bee sting / and keeping the bad at bay”). It’s a classic poem, beautifully rhymed, artfully lineated, specific, vital, and complete. It went straight into my personal anthology of great New Yorker poems. 

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