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Loving, But Misunderstanding, John Updike

John Updike died on January 27.
John Updike died on January 27.
Russian readers got luckier with John Updike than their American counterparts.

"The Centaur" virtually rained down on us, becoming for a time back in 1965 something of a cult novel, a password-book that allowed entry into a sacred club of those who understood, into the kitchens of the intelligentsia who shaped public opinion back in the 1960s. And the book appeared in a spectacular translation by Viktor Khinkis.

The shock that we felt can be explained for the most part by a lack of understanding. In the novel, the Greek myth of the centaur Chiron is combined with and morphed into the sufferings of a small-town schoolteacher (similar to Updike's own father).

Of course, the author was following in the wake of James Joyce's "Ulysses." After all, it was Joyce who, in the words of T.S. Elliot, made "the modern world possible for art" by replacing the "storytelling method with the mythological." In those days, however, "Ulysses" was absolutely inaccessible for us (although many years later it became known that Khinkis had been working on a translation of that novel as well). Somehow, though, having no knowledge of Joyce, we gave Updike enough love for both writers.

Here it's important to note the main and incomprehensible thing about Updike. We were drawn in not by the content of his works but exclusively by their form. "The Centaur" arrived on our shelves together with other idols of the 1960s generation -- "The Catcher In The Rye" by J.D. Salinger, "Billiards At Half Past Nine" by Heinrich Boll, "The Fall" by Albert Camus, "The Woman In The Dunes" by Kobo Abe. It's no accident that all these novels were translations. With their experimental poetics, it was not just artistic freedom that pierced the Iron Curtain, but ordinary freedom as well. The pathos of their content -- their criticism, on which the authorities were counting -- flew right past Soviet readers who were intoxicated by their formalistic innovations.

Now we can admit that we got a lot of things wrong in that literary Bacchanalia. So when we finally were given complete -- and not selective -- access to Updike, including all of his "Rabbit" novels, that did not change or even add to the image that had already formed. Instead of seeing a lyrical realist who accurately and with melancholy described small-town America, Russians held on to the image of a daring innovator who transformed everyday life into myth, his father into a centaur, and literature into freedom.

-- Aleksandr Genis

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