‘Twin Beds in Rome’ by John Updike

This story, one of a series which charts the relationship between a married couple, Richard and Joan Maple, makes me weep every time I read it. Like Chekhov, Updike dares to bring an epic, historical quality to the most banal of life events:  ‘their bodies collapsed together as two mute armies might gratefully mingle, released from the absurd hostilities decreed by two mad kings. Bleeding, mangled, reverently laid in its tomb a dozen times, their marriage could not die. Burning to leave one another, they left, out of married habit, together. They took a trip to Rome.’ Some folk aren’t fans of Updike and perhaps he’s not as forgiving as Chekhov but he is similarly observant and humane and I find his writing incredibly tender. It is his forensic eye, especially where marriage and male/female relations concerned that has earned him the reputation of woman hater but I don’t think Updike hates anyone. His sensitivity to the ways in which this couple negotiate ‘degrading intimacy’ finds expression in a number of very moving details, such as the way Joan offers to carry her husband’s shoe box when he is ill and the way in which Richard construes his illness once he has recovered. The epithets they use for one another (“sweetie”, “darley”) clearly demonstrate the reluctance mentioned at the end of the story. Updike’s writing allows valuable insight into how a certain generation of men view their female companions and relatives and since we all continue to labour under these opinions and we inhabit a society they have shaped, I find his work of interest.

First published in The New Yorker, February, 1964, and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Music School, 1966, Too Far to Go, 1979 and The Maples Stories, 2009

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