Tuesday, 25 May 2010

A Hole Punched in Reality

I had a revelatory reading of Rabbit, Run by John Updike the other day, a book I've long meant to get round to. It's glorious to come upon a novel that's a "page-turner" as much for the nuanced inventiveness of its prose as for its narrative-propulsion. Updike's quickfire subtlety in marking the moment-to-moment textures of experience are quite possibly second here only to Ulysses (which is clearly an influence) - yet there's an imaginative lyricism entwined with this that even Joyce doesn't often attain, a sort of synoptic insight played out on the level of sentence and image which almost makes one think of Eliot's old vagary about a thought to Donne being an experience and modifying his sensibility - with Updike it's almost the other way round and in his prose he's immediately able to feel the sensuous transiences of everyday experience in terms of a richly-compelling thought-process.
     When Rabbit and Ruth walk uphill on the pavement, Updike registers a metaphorically-suggestive undertow: " The slope of cement is a buried assertion, an unexpected echo, of the terrain that had been here before the city". When Rabbit peeps out of Ruth's bedroom window, we get: "Lights behind (the church's) rose-window are left burning, and this circle of red and purple and gold seems in the city night a hole punched in reality to show the abstract brilliance burning beneath." This is a micocosm of Updike's prose, presenting both the complex reality of 20th Century life and, punching a hole in it, a fascinating luminosity of "abstract brilliance" beneath.
     It made me think how near this comes to the effects and impacts of the best modern and contemporary poetry and how much in turn poets could learn from this. Ford Madox Ford wrote of how a good prose-style should be a "succession of small shocks and surprises", precisely what one finds in Rabbit, Run - isn't this what constitutes good poetry too?

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