‘Grandparenting’, by John Updike

Gosh John Updike divides people. He certainly does like to describe a woman’s breasts. On the other hand, for me, more than any other writer I can think of, he has put into words the intimate experience of being a parent – waking a sleeping child up to hold them over a toilet for a last-thing-at-night wee, for example. “Grandparenting” is the final instalment in the stories of the Maples, a couple who Updike returned to in fiction many times over the course of his and their lives, their marriage, child-rearing, divorce, remarriage, and then, at last, becoming grandparents. In this story, their oldest daughter, Judith, is living in Hartford, and both parents plan to be at the hospital for the actual moment of the birth. Richard’s second wife, Ruth, is deeply sceptical and drily scathing: “Let your poor daughter alone. It’s taken her ten years to get over the terrible upbringing you two gave her.” But, Richard protests, if he stays, and only Joan, his ex-wife, goes, with her respective second husband, the baby “will think Andy’s the grandfather. The kid will get – what’s the word? – imprinted.And yet the truth is that Richard remembers Judith’s own birth vividly, and cannot imagine not being there. In the moment of considering his daughter becoming a mother, he is filled with a rush of memories of being her father, from the first moment he held her onwards. The tenderness of Updike’s description of being what has this week been labelled a “girl daddy”, is exquisite. But the comedy continues. Joan still cannot tell whether Richard is joking; he and his former wife sit awkwardly on narrow hospital chairs “to avoid touching rumps”. When Judith finally gets moved to a delivery room, Joan sends her ex- and current husbands together to a waiting area, which provides many further awkward and touching moments. The Superbowl is about to start: “Mind if I turn on the TV?” Richard asks, naughtily, “we’re missing some great commercials”, before wondering what Andy is like in bed, and how long Joan had been having an affair with this man before he realised. This tense, hopeful moment of waiting for a new presence, a new being, to make its mark on the world, is captured absolutely. This story always makes me cry in more than one place, but I won’t give the WHOLE thing away.’

First published in The New Yorker, Feb 14, 1994 and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Maples Stories, Everyman Pocket Classics, 2009

‘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

‘Separating’ by John Updike

Only space for one of either Updike, Cheever or Alice Munro in this selection. Cheever’s ‘Country Husband’ was a strong contender, as was Munro’s ‘Wild Swans’, but in the end it had to be Updike – the superior stylist, with the greater amplitude, the more comprehensive chronicler of late twentieth century America. It was a toss-up between ‘Pigeon Feathers’, ‘Trust Me’, ‘Bech and the Bounty of Sweden’, ‘Short Easter’, and ‘Separating’. The latter won because it is the most affecting and the most memorable. The tears of the narrator as he cuts the lobster in the mocking sunshine while his family regroup for a final family meal is superb, while the question asked at the end by the narrator’s son cuts to the quick. 

First published in The New Yorker, June 1975. First collected in Problems and Other Stories, Knopf, 1979, and most recently in The Maples Stories, Everyman, 2009. Read the story online here

‘Wife-Wooing’ by John Updike

‘We sense everything between us, every ripple, existent and non-existent; it is tiring.’

It’s not a feminist choice, and it’s a severely flawed story, but I return to this quiet little four-pager again and again. It’s an intimate second person sigh of a story that I can read as both beautifully tender and offensively misogynist at the same time, and not have a problem with both those things being true. Updike paints a portrait of family life: the husband (unnamed, but presumably Richard Maple) goes out to get Sunday night MacDonalds (presented as a Neolithic hunt), which the parents and two children eat around the fire while the baby sucks his bottle. Later the protagonist is disappointed when his ‘cunning’ wife falls asleep before sex. The next day brings work stress, child chaos and marital resentment; but a surprise toothpastey kiss ends the day, “moist and girlish and quick”. Yes, it’s about a selfish, unlikeable 1960s typical Updike man; but there is something searingly real in his depiction of the subtle marital pendulum, where things that are insufferable can be redeemed by a nice family evening.

The story is an indulgent elegy to language (“Once my ornate words wooed you”); an unashamed paean to Joycean playfulness (“smackwarm”), contrasted with his son for whom “language is thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can”. There is a cutting third person shift in the final passage, where an abrupt cruelty descends (“I feast on your drabness, every wrinkle and sickly tint a relief and a revenge”) and we are back in familiar territory of the unhappy Updike man, trying on different male archetypes (the jouster, the hunter). Ending with the kiss returns us full circle to the opening words –  “Oh my love. Yes.” – echoing the wonky circuitry of marriage that sustains itself, for better or for worse, so that “seven years brings us no distance to the same trembling point of beginning”.

In Too Far to Go (Penguin, 1979)