As a story teller I trust John Updike implicitly. He is one of those writers that I imagine wrote with an enviable amount of ease. I am currently on an Updike bent, reading his short stories with such voraciousness that I seem to be doing little else. A & P is great as is Avec La Bebe-Sitter which tells of a couple who uproot their American life for a few months in the South of France. With an almost debilitating lack of french, Janet and Kenneth Harris manage to employ a middle-aged baby sitter named Marie who, although very kind, is not immediately taken in by the three Harris children. Finally, towards the end of this very short story, Kenneth reveals to Marie with his limited repertoire of words that the reason for the Harris’s coming to France was because of Kenneth’s affair with another woman, back in America.
Marie, looking up from the vivid drawing with very dark eyes, asked a long question in which he seemed to hear the words ‘France’ and ‘pourquoi’.
“Why did we come to France?” He asked her in English. She nodded. He said what he next said in part, no doubt, because it was the truth, but mainly, probably, because he happened to know the words. He put his hand over his heart and told the baby-sitter, “J’aime une autre femme.”
Marie’s shapely plucked eyebrows lifted, and he wondered if he had made sense. The sentence seemed foolproof; but he did not repeat it. Locked in linguistic darkness, he had thrown open the most intimate window of his life. He felt the relief, the loss of constriction, of a man glimpsing light at the end of a tunnel.
Marie spoke very carefull. “Et Madame? Vous ne l’aimez pas?”
There was a phrase, Kenneth knew, something like ‘Comme ci, comme ca,’ which might roughly outline the immense ambiguous mass of his guilty, impatient, fond, and forlorn feelings towards Janet. but he didn’t dare it, and instead, determined to be precise, measured off about an inch and a half with his fingers and said, “Un petit peu pas.”
“Ahhhh.” And now Marie, as if the languages had been reversed, was speechless.
Marie’s presence seems to provide a bridge between Kenneth and Janet that at the beginning of the story we weren’t even aware was missing. The last sentence says as much :
In short, they became a menage.
We are not completely sure of what becomes of Kenneth and Janet but we do know that Marie provides some space in which they both can breathe and allows them to resume some sense of themselves as individuals in a way that might just reunite them as a couple. The power of language and the space that opens up when there is a lack of, or inaccessibility to, language is presented to us so simply and easily by Updike that one must pay attention to what they are reading. His writing is so pleasurable that you can read without ‘reading’ in the way that sometimes we look without seeing. When I reread this story there were so many subtle turns and nuances that provide a richness and depth to an otherwise fairly straightforward narrative.
Updike is the master of the quotidien. He takes everyday people living everyday lives and illuminates all the threads and stitches that make up the fabric of life. The Wallet, for example tells the story of an ageing man who loses his wallet, a loss which coincides with his awaiting the arrival of a cheque in the mail which is of a sizeable amount and seems to be too long in coming. He searches high and low for his wallet and calls the company who has sent the cheque several times, all to no avail. His growing paranoia is built on his idea that some sort of conspiracy has taken place and that his wallet and the cheque have both been thieved. He cancels the cheque and calls the bank to freeze his accounts. However the next day his grandchilren arrive for the weekend and his grandson finds the wallet entangled in the blanket that is used on cold nights in the TV room. The story is both sad and funny and shows the subtleties of the human brain and the emotions that wrap us up so tightly in our own futile existences.
In short, Updike is (or was) brilliant, simple, funny and gives such great pleasure to those who read him. Very american, very upstate New York, at times sexist and at others inappropriate. He was a man of his times and in many ways draws parallels (for me at least) with JD Salinger. In any case, if you haven’t read much Updike recently, get into it now.