Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Centaur by John Updike

My favorite Updike novel and the second of his I read (the first was Couples). It has been a while since I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, although I frequently open to random pages and read a few lines, or paragraphs, or pages. I still love it. This novel sparked my 40+ year love affair with the work of John Updike. I liked Couples, but it did no bowl me over the way Centaur did.

One thing I had forgotten about the book involved the warm relationship between Peter and his father. George Caldwell has a bit of the clumsy about him, and he suffers from a serious lack of self-esteem, but he does love Peter and tries to take care of him.

The word choice and the descriptions, however, sparkle throughout this peculiar novel that mixes mythology and reality in clever slides from one to the other. One of my favorite passages recounts a trip to New York Peter and George took. Peter wanted to see some paintings.

“Though we walked and walked, we never reached any of the museums I had read of. The one called the Frick contained the Vermeer of the man in the big hat and the laughing woman whose lazily upturned palm unconsciously accepts the light, and the one called the Metropolitan contained the girl in the starched headdress bent reverently above the brass jug whose vertical blue gleam was the Holy Ghost of my adolescence. That these paintings, which I had worshipped in reproduction, had a simple physical existence seemed a profound mystery to me: to come within touching distance of their surfaces, to see with my eyes the truth of their color, the tracery of cracks whereby time had inserted itself like a mystery within a mystery, would have been for me to enter a Real Presence so ultimate I would not be surprised to die in the encounter” (68).

Anyone who has walked into a room of a museum and confronted a well-known, favorite work of art understands this passage completely. Last weekend, while in Chicago, I put all things aside to spend an all too brief afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. I remember the first time I walked into the gallery and saw six versions of “The Haystacks” by Monet. I felt so overcome with the beauty of these six views at different times of day in different seasons, I could barely move. When I entered the museum on Sunday afternoon, I headed straight there and sat for a long time simply staring. Those moments more than made the price of admission worthwhile.

I met John Updike on several occasions, and once I told him The Centaur was my favorite of his books. He told me, “Well, yes, it is the warmest book I wrote.” Yes, warm, emotional, interesting, curious, and I book I will come back to again and again and again. 10 stars

--Chiron, 7/13/09

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