Seek My Face

( 6 )

Overview

The seventy-eight-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, who in the course of her eventful life has been Hope Ouderkirk, Hope McCoy, and Hope Holloway, answers questions put to her by a New York interviewer named Kathryn, and recapitulates, through the story of her own career, the triumphant, poignant saga of postwar American art. In the evolving relation between the two women, the interviewer and interviewee move in and out of the roles of daughter and mother, therapist and patient, predator and prey, supplicant and ...
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Seek My Face

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Overview

The seventy-eight-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, who in the course of her eventful life has been Hope Ouderkirk, Hope McCoy, and Hope Holloway, answers questions put to her by a New York interviewer named Kathryn, and recapitulates, through the story of her own career, the triumphant, poignant saga of postwar American art. In the evolving relation between the two women, the interviewer and interviewee move in and out of the roles of daughter and mother, therapist and patient, predator and prey, supplicant and idol. The scene is central Vermont; the time is the early spring of 2001.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
A dazzling portrait of the artist as an old, super-connected woman, John Updike's 20th novel is a remarkably compressed yet sprawling study, one that bursts with the detail of an intricately crafted miniature. The deliberately discursive narrative is framed by an intense, daylong interview between Kathryn, a writer for an unnamed online art journal, and 79-year-old grande dame Hope Chafetz, a successful painter and the former wife of two legendary artists. The tightly focused structure of Seek My Face relies on two sources of dramatic tension: the edgy, constantly shifting relationship between interviewer and subject and the stories Hope tells about her life, her marriages, and her intimate participation in two of the dominant artistic movements of the 20th century. Hope's turbulent first marriage to doomed genius Zack McCoy -- a lightly fictionalized rendering of Jackson Pollock -- provides the basis for an authoritative account of the rise and fall of Abstract Impressionism. Her subsequent marriage to Guy Holloway -- an obvious surrogate for Andy Warhol -- describes the evolution of the Pop Art movement, a radically different attempt to find a new way of seeing and interpreting the world. Hope's story is a personal, idiosyncratic account of love, sex, marriage, memory, and the inevitable effects of growing old -- of losing all that once mattered. It also offers a unique perspective on the restless experimentation that fueled some of the most original paintings of the modern era. At bottom, as the title indicates, Seek My Face is a novel about artistic and spiritual striving, about art as a means of apprehending the sacred, about imperishable creations "ripped…from the perishing world." This short, illuminating novel is itself a polished, deeply affecting work of art. At 70 years of age, Updike remains an awe-inspiring stylist, and his precise observations of human beings at their best and worst are as intelligent and compelling as ever. Bill Sheehan
From The Critics
Two women talking for nearly 300 pages— not many novelists could make such an apparently spare exercise rich and engaging. But John Updike does, in a subtle work that's beautiful and profound, witty and trenchant. It's what we've come to expect from this prestigious figure of American letters—effortless, fully human fiction whose ambitiousness is all the more impressive in that its tone is often conversational, off-handedly Olympian. T.S. Eliot said that poetry is the way we'd all speak if we could: Updike's prose is that kind of poetry.

Here it's visited on the story of one woman—seventy-nine-year-old painter Hope Chafetz—and the titans she wed: Zack McCoy, a dead ringer for Abstract Expressionist god Jackson Pollock (down to the slapdash masterworks, the iconic black T-shirt, the wounded macho swagger, the fatal car crash), and Guy Holloway, a composite Pop Art star whose characteristics echo Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. Hope's final husband, Jerry Chafetz, factors in as well. Jerry, a businessman, is the only nongenius in the pack and the only lover who offered Hope comfort instead of angst.

Seek My Face also spotlights Kathryn D'Angelo, an online art critic who has traveled from New York City to Hope's haven in Vermont in order to interview her. There, as her tape recorder spins, Kathryn will have one day to chronicle Hope's near-century of life. The younger Kathryn represents the New Art World, drawn to Hope's memories of a shining hour when painters aimed unabashedly at being Faustian colossi, grew drunk on existentialism and filled their canvases with visual jazz. The art of Kathryn's contemporaries is puny by comparison: performance art,video art, endless turns on irony and sour celebrity worship and moneygrubbing, winking, bold-faced "selling out."

Kathryn senses in her bones how drastically art has become diminished, and she envies the older woman and her brushes with greatness. Updike makes clear that Hope is the real thing. Like Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, Hope is a trailblazing artist in her own right, however overshadowed by the all-male, mid-twentieth-century bohemian scene. She's also a woman—wise, vulnerable, regretful, prevailing—who has lived. Next to her, Kathryn has only health, an unearned cynicism, generic sex appeal and a limited wardrobe ("her doctrinairely black outfit"), the mandatory uniform of packaged rebellion.

Vividly rendered, Hope and Kathryn aren't only individuals, but types—they signify moral stances. "I am trying, it may be, to paint holiness," Hope defiantly avers. She's trying to make honest, undecorative, intelligent art that's wrenched from a deeply personal core. She turns on Kathryn: "That was why abstraction was so glamorous, it was all self . I know it must all seem very naive to your generation, who don't believe in the self, who think the self is just a social construct, just as you don't believe there are writers, just texts that write themselves and can mean anything." Both Hope and Updike aren't above damning Kathryn and her world, a world that's "miracle-proof, pre-processed, all emotions and impulses analyzed and denigrated before they can blossom, chopped up into how-to books and television, everything reduced to electronic impulses, bits, information, information increasingly meaningless...."

Yet it's not all combat between the two. Charmingly, tentatively, Hope reaches out to the girl, offering her sandwiches and hard-won advice. "Don't hang back," she says. Dare. Live your life: Don't let "any man take it from you." Endearingly, even as she jousts with her inquisitor ("Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery, the indeterminacy that gives art life," the book's narrator comments), she also flirts, performs, cajoles—an old lonely lady who can't stop herself chattering on. And Kathryn, for all her cool, sometimes melts, sometimes shows mercy, sometimes jettisons her invasive questioning and lets her elder just talk.

With Seek My Face , Updike has given us not only the record of the rise and fall of American art, from poetry to product, he's also rendered, carefully and lovingly, the dynamics of an essential conversation/struggle—that between battered, knowing experience and crass innocence. All great fiction aims at this sort of instruction, a kind of conversation between a single, fallible, representative human being and the voice of history. With Hope's story, Updike is doing in miniature what he did with his trademark Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom tetralogy—telling the tale of America's maturation, from exuberance to exhaustion, in the story of a very real character.

This is Updike's twentieth novel, and it testifies not only to his astonishing productivity, but also to his continuing vitality. The art criticism is dead-on and provocative (much like his writing on art for The New York Review of Books ); more excitingly, his critique of the human condition is as sharp as ever, never lacking acuity or panache. Here, taking Hope's side against Kathryn's, Updike risks coming off as Captain of the Old Guard. Instead, like his protagonist, he's a winning militant—generous, convincing, celebratory and unbowed. —Paul Evans

Paul Evans
Two women talking for nearly 300 pages— not many novelists could make such an apparently spare exercise rich and engaging. But John Updike does, in a subtle work that's beautiful and profound, witty and trenchant. It's what we've come to expect from this prestigious figure of American letters—effortless, fully human fiction whose ambitiousness is all the more impressive in that its tone is often conversational, off-handedly Olympian. T.S. Eliot said that poetry is the way we'd all speak if we could: Updike's prose is that kind of poetry.

Here it's visited on the story of one woman—seventy-nine-year-old painter Hope Chafetz—and the titans she wed: Zack McCoy, a dead ringer for Abstract Expressionist god Jackson Pollock (down to the slapdash masterworks, the iconic black T-shirt, the wounded macho swagger, the fatal car crash), and Guy Holloway, a composite Pop Art star whose characteristics echo Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. Hope's final husband, Jerry Chafetz, factors in as well. Jerry, a businessman, is the only nongenius in the pack and the only lover who offered Hope comfort instead of angst.

Seek My Face also spotlights Kathryn D'Angelo, an online art critic who has traveled from New York City to Hope's haven in Vermont in order to interview her. There, as her tape recorder spins, Kathryn will have one day to chronicle Hope's near-century of life. The younger Kathryn represents the New Art World, drawn to Hope's memories of a shining hour when painters aimed unabashedly at being Faustian colossi, grew drunk on existentialism and filled their canvases with visual jazz. The art of Kathryn's contemporaries is puny bycomparison: performance art, video art, endless turns on irony and sour celebrity worship and moneygrubbing, winking, bold-faced "selling out."

Kathryn senses in her bones how drastically art has become diminished, and she envies the older woman and her brushes with greatness. Updike makes clear that Hope is the real thing. Like Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, Hope is a trailblazing artist in her own right, however overshadowed by the all-male, mid-twentieth-century bohemian scene. She's also a woman—wise, vulnerable, regretful, prevailing—who has lived. Next to her, Kathryn has only health, an unearned cynicism, generic sex appeal and a limited wardrobe ("her doctrinairely black outfit"), the mandatory uniform of packaged rebellion.

Vividly rendered, Hope and Kathryn aren't only individuals, but types—they signify moral stances. "I am trying, it may be, to paint holiness," Hope defiantly avers. She's trying to make honest, undecorative, intelligent art that's wrenched from a deeply personal core. She turns on Kathryn: "That was why abstraction was so glamorous, it was all self. I know it must all seem very naive to your generation, who don't believe in the self, who think the self is just a social construct, just as you don't believe there are writers, just texts that write themselves and can mean anything." Both Hope and Updike aren't above damning Kathryn and her world, a world that's "miracle-proof, pre-processed, all emotions and impulses analyzed and denigrated before they can blossom, chopped up into how-to books and television, everything reduced to electronic impulses, bits, information, information increasingly meaningless...."

Yet it's not all combat between the two. Charmingly, tentatively, Hope reaches out to the girl, offering her sandwiches and hard-won advice. "Don't hang back," she says. Dare. Live your life: Don't let "any man take it from you." Endearingly, even as she jousts with her inquisitor ("Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mystery, the indeterminacy that gives art life," the book's narrator comments), she also flirts, performs, cajoles—an old lonely lady who can't stop herself chattering on. And Kathryn, for all her cool, sometimes melts, sometimes shows mercy, sometimes jettisons her invasive questioning and lets her elder just talk.

With Seek My Face, Updike has given us not only the record of the rise and fall of American art, from poetry to product, he's also rendered, carefully and lovingly, the dynamics of an essential conversation/struggle—that between battered, knowing experience and crass innocence. All great fiction aims at this sort of instruction, a kind of conversation between a single, fallible, representative human being and the voice of history. With Hope's story, Updike is doing in miniature what he did with his trademark Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom tetralogy—telling the tale of America's maturation, from exuberance to exhaustion, in the story of a very real character.

This is Updike's twentieth novel, and it testifies not only to his astonishing productivity, but also to his continuing vitality. The art criticism is dead-on and provocative (much like his writing on art for The New York Review of Books); more excitingly, his critique of the human condition is as sharp as ever, never lacking acuity or panache. Here, taking Hope's side against Kathryn's, Updike risks coming off as Captain of the Old Guard. Instead, like his protagonist, he's a winning militant—generous, convincing, celebratory and unbowed.
Publishers Weekly
Couched in the form of a day-long conversation between 79-year-old painter Hope Chafetz, living in seclusion in Vermont, and a chic young interviewer from New York, Updike's 20th novel is an ambitious attempt to capture the moment when America "for the first time ever... led world art." As a fictional survey of the birth of abstract expressionism, pop art and other contemporary genres, the narrative offers a somewhat slick overview of the roiling currents of genius and calculation, artistic vision and personal ambition that characterized the art scene in the postwar years. Updike's ability to get inside an artist's psyche is considerable, as Hope's monologue convincingly demonstrates. Because he tries to distill and convey an era of art history, however, there is a static and didactic quality to the narrative; much of it sounds like art-crit disguised as exposition. As a reader can infer from an author's note in which Updike acknowledges his debt to the Naifeh and Smith biography of Jackson Pollock, Hope's life bears a strong resemblance to that of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner. Hope's memories recapitulate the dilemma of an artist whose personal expression is thwarted by marriage and the omnipresence of alcohol and drugs, and since this is Updike country, Hope is more than candid about her sex life with Zack (Pollock); her second husband, Guy Holloway (loosely modeled on Warhol); and her third, art critic Jerry Chafetz. Updike's descriptions of landscapes and interiors are painterly in themselves, closely observed and sensuous. On the whole, the novel is a study of the artist as archetype, "a man who in the end loves nothing but his art." On that level it succeeds, but readers who long for plot and action may be disappointed. (Nov. 19) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Because Updike turns out not only fiction and poetry but art criticism, it comes as no surprise that central to his new novel is an artist undergoing the ordeal of a day-long interview. As 79-year-old Hope Chafetz responds warily to the questions of her black-clad young interlocutor, recalling her artistic beginnings, her troubled marriage to the Jackson Pollock-like Zack, and her eventual withdrawal to rustic seclusion in Vermont, Updike reels out the entire history of postwar American art. It's an imaginative way to relate this history, and Updike asks probing aesthetic questions that range beyond his story. Framing the novel as a single interview does slow the action, however, and some readers may find Hope's self-effacement irksome. Still, this is Updike-and especially thoughtful Updike at that. For all collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/02.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Updike's 20th novel is, like its predecessor, Gertrude and Claudius (2000), yet another illustration of this adventurous writer's enduring curiosity, versatility, and stylistic energy. In a single unbroken scene, well-known (if not precisely "famous") painter Hope Chafetz is interviewed in her rural Vermont home by young New York City journalist Kathryn D'Angelo. Their day-long session begins as Kathryn probes for details about Hope's first husband, Zack McCoy, an ebullient, self-destructive nonrepresentational painter ("America's marvelous drip machine") whose checkered career and violent accidental death unmistakably parallel the life and death of Jackson Pollock. Hope keeps meandering, the stern Kathryn keeps tugging her back to the subject at hand-and Updike gradually builds the reader's confidence in his loose structuring, in which flashbacks of varying length and fullness are triggered by both random musings and pointed specific questions. The initial impression of contrivance fades, as the richness of detail has its way with us. The result is a compact panoramic view of the postwar "revolution" in American art, especially among the Long Island crowd surrounding Zack/Pollock; (sometimes forced and tedious) reiterations of conflicting theories about "the redemptive mission of paint" and the artist's responsibilities to society and to himself; and Hope's fragmented personal history, including her second marriage to commercially successful collagist Guy Holloway (another dead ringer, this time for Andy Warhol) and conflicted motherhood to the three children she bore him, a happy third marriage to a companionable stockbroker and art collector, and her sturdy passage into solitary,meditative old age. The story can be faulted for its cook's-tour approach to the history of modern art, but its portrayal of the unillusioned Hope's understanding of her limits, and of her difference and distance from the passionate risk-takers who were her contemporaries and confederates, is stunningly revealing. Another new fictional world entered, as Updike himself enters old age, with skills and ambitions very much intact.
From the Publisher
“A brief novel of deep feeling . . . What you recall is that reading Updike has always provided the pleasures you hoped were in store when you went through the trouble of learning to read.”—Time
 
“The premise of Seek My Face is clean and powerful, like a canvas by Barnett Newman. . . . Swirled over [it] is John Updike’s superabundant prose, dazzling strings of looping sentences that wrap these two women in glittering constellations of words.”—The New York Observer
 
“A rewarding new novel from our reigning master of surprise, the last sequence of which is surpassing in its beauty.”—San Francisco Chronicle
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345460868
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/4/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 694,001
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.23 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 has lived in Massachusetts. He is the father of four children and the author of fifty-odd previous books, including collections of short stories, poems, and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

Read an Excerpt

"LET ME BEGIN by reading to you," says the young woman, her slender, black-clad figure tensely jackknifed on the edge of the easy chair, with its faded coarse plaid and broad arms of orangish varnished oak, which Hope first knew in the Germantown sunroom, her grandfather posed in it reading the newspaper, his head tilted back to gain the benefit of his thick bifocals, more than, yes, seventy years ago, "a statement of yours from the catalogue of your last show, back in 1996."

As a child Hope would sit in the chair trying to feel what it was like to be an adult, resting her little round elbows on the broad arms, spreading her fingers, a ring of fat between each joint, on the dowel end, which was set in the softly curved arm, a kind of wooden coin with a pale stripe in it, the butt end of the wedge that tightened the dowel. The chair's arms had been too far apart for her to rest more than one elbow and hand at a time. She must have been-what?-five, six. Even when new, in the 'twenties or 'teens, the chair would have been a homely unfashionable thing, a summer kind of furniture, baking in the many-windowed sunroom with the potted philodendron and the lopsided hassock, the hassock's top divided like a pie in long triangular slices of different colors of leather. When her grandmother's death in the 'fifties had at last broken up the Germantown house, Hope coveted the old chair and, her amused surviving brother making no objection, brought it to Long Island, where it sat upstairs in her so-called studio, where she would sometimes try to read by the north window, the sash leaking wind howling in off Block Island Sound while Zack played jazz records-Armstrong, Benny Goodman, a scratchyBeiderbecke-too loud downstairs; and then to the apartment with Guy and the children on East Seventy-ninth, in the dun-walled back spare room by the radiator that clanked like a demented prisoner while she tried to set her own rhythm with the loaded brush; and then to Vermont, where she and Jerry had bought and renovated and dug in for their last stand in life, a chair transported from muggy Pennsylvania to a colder, higher climate yet hardly incongruous in this plain, prim, low-ceilinged front parlor, the chair's round front feet resting on the oval rug of braided rags in a spiral, its square back feet on the floorboards painted the shiny black-red of Bing cherries, the browns and greens and thin crimsons of its plaid further fading into one pale tan, here in the sparse blue mountain light of early April. Strange, Hope thought, how things trail us place to place, more loyal than organic friends, who desert us by dying. The Germantown house became overgrown in Grandmother's lonely last years, its thick sandstone walls eaten to the second-story windowsills by gloomy flourishing shrubbery, hydrangea and holly and a smoke tree whose branches broke in every ice storm or wet snow, the whitewash flaking and the pointing falling out in brittle long crumbs lost down among the stems of the peonies, the roots of the holly. She had loved living there when so small, but after her parents moved to Ardmore visits back felt strange, the huge droopy-limbed hemlock having grown sinister, the yard with its soft grass smelling heated and still like the air of a greenhouse, the swing that her spry little grandfather, the first person Hope knew ever to die, had hung from the limb of the walnut tree rotting, ropes and board, in an eternally neglected way that frightened her.

The young woman, a narrow new knife in the chair's fat old sheath, reads in her edgy New York voice, a voice that leans toward Hope with a pressure of anxiousness but also with what seems, in this shaky light of late life, a kind of daughterly affection, "For a long time I have lived as a recluse, fearing the many evidences of God's non-existence with which the world abounds. The world, it has come to me slowly, is the Devil's motley, colorful instead of pure. I restrict my present canvases to shades of gray ever closer together, as if in the pre-dawn, before light begins to lift edges into being. I am trying, it may be, to paint holiness. I suppose I should be flattered when some critics call this phase my best-they write that at last I am out from the shadow of my first husband. But I have, miraculously it might be said, ceased to care what they think, or what figure I cut in the eyes of strangers. End quote. This was five years ago. Would you say it is still true?"

Hope tries to slow the young woman down, dragging her own voice as if in thought. "True enough, I would say, though it does sound a shade self-dramatizing. Perhaps 'fearing' is strong. 'Feeling dread and distaste in regard to' might have been more accurate and-and seemly."

It makes a lump in Hope's throat to have this nervously aggressive intruder here, with her city-white face and her dark-nailed long hands and her doctrinairely black outfit-black turtleneck, black imitation-leather jacket with a big center zipper, black hair held off her ears by a pair of curved silver combs and falling in a loose and silky fan-shape down her back-finished off so ominously with heavy square-toed footgear, combat boots of a sort, laced up through a dozen or more eyelets like two little black ladders ascending into the flared bottoms of her slacks, the slacks made of a finely ribbed, faintly reflective fabric Hope has never seen before, a fabric without a name. The boots, with that new kind of high heel, wide sideways but narrow the other way, front to back, couldn't be very comfortable, unless man- nishness was always comfortable now. It is a new century-more appallingly yet, a new millennium. This millennial fact for Hope is a large blank door that has slammed, holding her life behind it like a child smothering in an abandoned refrigerator.

The visitor's voice, insistent with a certain anger yet femalely flexible, insinuating itself into her prey's ear, asserts, "You were raised as a Quaker."

"Well, 'raised' is a kind term for it. My grandfather was an elder, true, but my father, especially after we moved to Ardmore, attended meeting only once or twice a year. The Ouderkirks had been Dutch Quakers; Dutch Quakers settled Germantown, a misnomer really, it should have been called Dutchtown, just as the Pennsylvania Dutch should be properly Pennsylvania Germans. Pockets of these Dutch Quakers had been living in the Rhine Valley; the Ouderkirks came from Krefeld; Penn himself had visited them in the sixteen seventies, telling them of his lovely colony, his 'holy experiment' across the sea. When they first came over, in the sixteen eighties, some lived in caves until they could build their houses. My mother, though, was quite Episcopalian, typically lukewarm, but she would never have called herself irreligious. We all went to meeting together a few times, it seems like quite a few but in a child's mind a little does for a lot. I remember mostly the light, and the silence, all these grown-ups waiting for God to speak through one of them-suppressed coughs, shuffling feet, the creak of a bench. It upset me at first, you know how children are always getting embarrassed on behalf of adults. Then the quality of the silence changed, it turned a corner, like an angel passing, and I realized it was a benign sort of game. The Friends speak of 'living silence.' Actually, someone did eventually speak. It had been arranged. The Quakers did make arrangements, but left space for God, so to speak, to upset the arrangements. There was a kind of elaborate courtesy to it all. Once there had been a bench up front for the elders and recorded ministers, but by the time I remember, the late 'twenties it must be, the very early 'thirties, I would have been ten in 1932, the benches were arranged in a square, so no one had any priority in the seating. Though my grandfather never led us to a back bench."

Be quiet, Hope tells herself. This has ever been her fault, talking, giving, flirting, trying too hard to please, endeavoring to seduce. Her grandfather would use a Quaker phrase, "of the creature," for anything that was too much, too human, too worldly, too selfish and cruel. War was of the creature. Lust and intemperance of course, yet reason and excessive learning and disputation, too. The arts-save for the domestic, Edenic art of gardening, and the hidden art of making money-were of the creature, howls for recognition and singularity. Things of the creature were weak and dirty and unworthy; they were a form of noise. As a child Hope had chattered too much, feeling her round freckled face redden with excitement, her heart nearly bursting with its own beating, wanting within her ribs all of her, head to toes, scalp to footsoles, to be loved, to be held, to be desired. Even now, on the grave's edge, six weeks short of turning seventy-nine this coming May, she is trying to charm the lithe black-clad stranger, charmless though she herself has become, in her baggy brown corduroys and slack-necked yellow cotton turtleneck and thick wool lumberjack shirt left untucked as if to hide her belly but in truth calling attention to it; her belly bulges but her breasts and buttocks are sunken, she has become beneath her clothes a naked witch by Schongauer, with imps of arthritic pain her familiars, or Rembrandt's dreamy Saskia several decades further lost in sags and wrinkles. Her shiny auburn bangs, her signature when a young woman, are not even gray now but white, so thinned and dry and lacking in body, each filament sticking out with a mind of its own, as to be a mere souvenir of what once covered her forehead with the smooth bulge of a coppery cuirass. Her hair was cut short then, two points curving in to touch the angles of her jaw, the wide jaw defining the pale pentagon that looked back at her from a mirror with a deceptive calm, firm in its freckled hazel gaze, the nose small and straight, the lips not quite full but tidy and quick to express receptivity, to laugh, to smile, even at herself so earnestly appraising her face in the mirror, a dimple leaping up low in the left cheek. As a child she wondered where the reflection went when she walked away; mirrors hung on the Germantown walls like paintings that kept changing subject. The 'sixties liberated her from lipstick and those frizzing 'forties and 'fifties perms as well as from girdles and garters; she let her hair grow long and flat down her back, bundling it into a quick ponytail to paint or do housework, she had all sorts of artful clips and hinged round combs, tortoiseshell, and ivory before endangered elephants became an issue. The gray ghost of this ponytail now is gathered at the back of her skull in one of those candy- colored elastic circlets they sell at the Montpelier five-and-ten (one of the few five-and-tens left anywhere, they don't call it that, just the phrase dates her, a dime gets you nothing now), and on her feet she has thick socks the color of lint and cradling soft Birkenstocks, which date her also. The 'sixties had been for her a grateful release, a joy, though she was in her forties for most of them. Money worries, mating worries were behind her, she was a Manhattanite with a horse farm in Connecticut, married to Guy Holloway, Pop Art's super-successful boy wonder, and, more amusingly still, a mother of three young children, pushing in her denim miniskirt and auburn bangs a wire cart with little Dot in the infant seat in corduroy overalls (the pocket a staring teddy bear or a round-eyed canary) and the two boys trailing behind whining for this and that through the aisles of the Lexington Avenue Gristede's, all those clustered consumeristic colors under the blazing cool ceiling, such uninhibited col-ors, Day-Glo oranges and phosphorescent greens and acid persimmons, a decade of brazen rainbows, of gold leaf and silvering returning to canvases, of shimmering psychedelic trips. Yet these interviewers always asked her about the dreary, fearful 'forties and 'fifties, the first decade a gun-metal gray and the second that sickly powder blue you can see in the washed-out 'fifties movies on television.

"Like your first husband's canvases," the voice proposes, pleased with the connection. "Attacked from every side of the canvas. Without priority."

She is referring, Hope realizes, to the Quaker meeting house. "Zack wasn't anything of a Quaker. He had no inner quiet, none. His mother, after Zack's father left, had tried to enlist her family in one of those grotesque Western sects, where they go up on high hills and expect the Lord to come down and end everything. It was one of the things he didn't like to talk about. One of the many things. He was still resentful."

"Resentful because he was made to go up, or because the Lord didn't come down?"

This is amusing, Hope sees. This young woman perhaps does not need to be utterly resisted. She is going on, her voice both spiky and silky: "The lack of priority also suggests to me your paintings, the later ones. Everything even, nothing too intense. Every square inch equally important."

"I've never made that connection," Hope tells her flatly. The flatness would have been softened with the addition of the young woman's name. Her name . . . What is the name she gave, in letters and e-mails that Hope's gallery on Fifty-seventh Street forwarded and then over the phone and finally at the door? There this living body was, incongruous with the everlasting mountains behind her, startling, a tall black-haired person, her face city-pale, in a purple cloak with a huge hood, like an apparition of death in a Bergman film. Hope pictures the "K" jutting above the line, the "y" swooping below it: Kathryn. That odd, mannered spelling. People now that they've gotten away from ancestors and the Bible give the oddest names, names they invent, black welfare mothers naming their dolls: Luceen, Baylee, Maryvonne. Her own grandchildren, five of them and not a John or a Mary among them, or even a Bill or a Barbara. Barbra now. Ardmore and Shipley had been full of Barbaras, and Mary Anns. Hope wonders if her visitor is Jewish. She has never developed the skill that anti-Semites and Jews themselves have in spotting who is Jewish. In art circles you assume anyone with any dash or presence is, any fast talker with a certain tang to the consonants, sounding out that concluding "g," but even that doesn't always work. Around Philadelphia the only Jews they knew were their dentists; though Quakers and Jews had both been persecuted and were closer to biblical religion than, say, Roman Catho- lics, they belonged to different law firms, different country clubs. Hope's family belonged to the Germantown Cricket Club, because unlike Merion Cricket Club it had a swimming pool, though its dining room had that depressingly low ceiling. There were whole mock-Tudor, fat-lawned, high-hedged enclaves where invisible real-estate agents kept Jews out. Bernie Nova, for instance, with his poseur's monocle and curling mustache with waxed tips, she thought to be a German or an Armenian even, as the great and crazy Korgi truly was. Bernie and Roger Merebien were the ones of Zack's crowd of competitors she felt easiest with, most fraternally cherished; they were the most articulate, writers of statements and letters to the editors, formulators of credos and haughty letters to the press, and on account of that rather condescended to by the others, by Zack and Phil and Seamus, as too glib for sublimity, lacking in the proper American passion, beyond words. Kathryn's skin has the matte lustre, the racial suppleness, but so much is makeup now, she might also be of Mediterranean descent, or Eastern European. We are all so assimilated. Last Saturday, Hope was watching the evening news and the weekend newscaster instead of Tom Brokaw was a perfectly stunning young woman, light topaz eyes as far apart as a kitten's, sharp-cornered wide mouth pronouncing everything with a perfect rapid inflection, more American than American, crisper, a touch of that rapid barking voice of 'thirties gangster films and romantic comedies, and when she signed off her name wasn't even Greek, it was more like Turkish, a quick twist of syllables like an English word spelled backward. The old American stock is being overgrown. High time, of course: no reason to grieve. On the contrary. She and Zack had been old stock-Quaker, Yankee, Western pioneer, Protestant, each a priest on his or her own, out of the Northern European mists to this land of sharp, cancer-inducing sun. "Kathryn," Hope says, cementing her hold on the name, "is this really one more article about Zack? Haven't there been too many already?"

"Not Zack, you. All of you. The moment, the historical moment, the explosion, when everything came together, and America took over from Paris, and for the first time ever we led world art. Why? How?" She sounds like a newscaster, reading the prompter as it unscrolls. Hope's bones feel leaden, heavy with the reality this young person is assigning her-needs to assign her, to justify her time, her spent energy, the boring trip up the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway on into Vermont, winding through the fading farms of cows in stony pastures and the overbuilt developments of A-frame ski houses and the pretty little experimental colleges for the difficult children of the rich, the gas stations that are also mini-marts, the little lunch restaurants trying to be homey with white curtains at the windows and usually closed this time of year, and then the night of fitful sleep in the motel so as to be at Hope's door by nine-thirty; Hope told her over the phone her days began early, with some hours after dawn in the studio, and ended early. The young woman fears not getting enough for her mileage.

That "all of you" was kind, though. Hope was never considered a significant soldier, just a camp follower, one of the many, and then a wife, which few camp follow- ers achieve. Her painting embarrassed Zack, somehow a subversion of his manhood, and he hid her as a painter upstairs like the mad Mrs. Rochester. "Well," she offers, "to be simple about it, the war had left the other coun- tries ruined. They were exhausted. The same way we dominated the '48 Olympics-everybody else was still weak with hunger."

Kathryn brushes this aside as facetious, as unworthy. She can't imagine hunger and poverty as real cultural factors. Her face presses a few inches deeper into the space between Hope and herself, she in the soft old sunroom chair and Hope in her hard rocker, a rocker made by former hippies in Burlington of no less, the nicely printed (in green ink) leaflet that came with it said, than five different woods; they shrank at different rates and made the fit tighter as the chair aged, so the leaflet claimed. She had given the chair to Jerry for his first birthday up here and the claim is not yet disproved. It supports her weight, as she leans back to keep her inquisitor at a distance. The unkind clarity of the morning light-not a cloud in the blue sky, a glisten of mud on the bare earth outside the kitchen door when she had loaded up the bird feeder ten minutes before Kathryn too punctually arrived-strips the interviewer's face of beauty and shows it to be horsy and humorless, its plummy eyes astride a long nose with a slight bump in it, its lips downturned in determination not to be distracted or too easily charmed, lips that might melt if kissed but are in danger of settling into a permanent sour frown of unfulfilled ambition. Kathryn glances down into the sheets of paper balanced on her black lap, her thin thighs pressed tightly together, pages of computer-typed questions to help her as the interview tape unwinds in the little machine, a Sony of two tones of gray, its purr tinny in the silence, on the low table between them, not a table but an old wooden sea-chest Hope bought in Riverhead in the 'forties for twenty dollars and sanded and varnished, those first few years when she and Zack were enthusiastic about making a home together on the light-soaked windy tip of Long Island, worlds removed from what he called, euphemistically, covering his from-bar-to-bar binges, the "wear and tear" of Manhattan. Kathryn says hurriedly, as if Hope were sensitive to such matters, "The triumph was exploited, I know, politically, by the Rockefellers and the CIA among others, but I don't see it as a political movement, originally. I see it as innocent, the last flare of our idealistic innocence."

"Oh dear," Hope responds. "We didn't feel innocent to ourselves. We felt very sophisticated and a bit wicked. And the painters didn't all know each other equally well, or should I say like each other equally. A number of the others, the more intellectual and better organized, didn't like Zack much, especially after his paintings became so famous and his drinking became terrible again. Zack wasn't easy to like, or even, after a while, to love." She lets that float a few seconds, tantalizing this other, tempting her to pounce prematurely on that belly-up word "love," but Kathryn ignores the provocation, and Hope has to continue, explaining, clarifying what would have always been better left mysterious. Interviewers and critics are the enemies of mys- tery, the indeterminacy that gives art life. She flutters a hand-knobby, freckled, smelling of paint thinner-at the end of her man's lumberjack-shirt sleeve and says, "Everybody now is expected to turn inside out on command, like impatiens seeds when touched, or-what is that plant called?-squirting cucumber. Zack hated being interviewed; it offended his lower-class sense of dignity, of there being things one didn't say. We all-me, Clem, Peggy, Betty, Herbie Forrest-used to coach him on what to say, but when the time came he refused to say it, or mumbled it. It was his arrogance-he thought you shouldn't chase recognition, it should come to you without being asked. He was wild for it yet despised playing the game." He is gropingly coming back to her, his squarish puzzled bad- boy face, its three muscular dents, deep dimples as if in amplification-a stronger restatement-of her own lone dimple, and with his face the look of the Manhattan streets back then, before glass-skin architecture and plastic garbage bags: the curbs of East Ninth Street crowded on collection days with corroded galvanized trash cans, angrily dented on the dump truck's hydraulically lifted lip, and the huge metal noise they made in the middle of the night, the trash men getting their own back at all those sleeping safe above them. The cans smelled plainly of garbage then, and class war was unconcealed, unions versus management, the Reds against the rich. You were not asked to have a nice day; buildings looked much the same in Manhattan as in any city, brick and four stories high; each block formed a little village, with a shoe repairman, a barber shop, a notions shop run by a pair of sisters, a Chinese laundry, a coal-and-wood cellar, a drugstore with a marble soda counter. Eighth Street was a kind of souk, where you were jostled down into the gutter, and the area north and east of Washington Square had a furtive European quality, Grace Church with its waffle-pattern gray steeple presiding where Broadway slightly bent like a medieval street sneaking along, and Cooper Union standing afloat in its square like a brown Venetian palace. University Place was a string of bars, including the Cedar, which when you opened the door always seemed warm, and dim enough so that your defects were left outside. It smelled of smoke and sawdust.

"He was," Hope says, halting, conscious of herself as the possessor, in this other's pendulous black eyes, of a wandering, frayed old mind, beyond any usefulness but some shreds of memory to be woven into another's story, "he was self-indulgent and hardly even self-educated. And of course drank too much. But we all drank too much, it was part of the war, the blackouts, our desperate dingy mood, all that death, the newspapers dealing every day in death, hundreds, thousands, numbers that would make screaming headlines now. It was a man's world. Art was a man's world. They could hardly make room for women, even when they married us. It was a tough, man's world. You speak of Zack and the rest as heroes of this historic moment you have-what's the word now?-constructed, you see them as Titans in the clouds, but the Titans were a sad group actually, who came to a sorry end, if I remember my childhood Bulfinch. Except for funny old Bernie, who had married money, and Roger, who had a trust fund, and Onno, who began to sell before any of the others-he had that European flair that dealers and buyers could already understand, not our poor American groping, up from the depths, Jung and all those archetypes-everybody was poor and had been for years, living off the Project, the Federal Arts Project, before the war and even during it, though the dole was drying up. At the moment you mention, post-war, even after the publicity had begun to come in, Zack was still not selling paintings. A few prints and works on paper but not the big paintings. He was getting to be famous, but we stayed surprisingly poor-it maddened him. Peggy's gallery gave Zack a dole, we had to borrow from her to buy the house, a house and three acres for four thousand dollars, think of it, the land alone would be a million now, out there close to the Hamptons; he never earned it out, and so the gallery kept his paintings. Just kept them, for years. Most people had no idea anything wonderful was happening. They didn't know there was a moment. They were still thinking Picasso and Miró and the Surrealists. Not Dalí-he was as much despised as Benton, standing for everything we hated."

"Of course," Kathryn murmurs, placatingly, sensing a kindling, wanting Hope to run on.

"Dalí was a one-man circus, department-store window-dressing. He actually did some windows for Bonwit's, and then fell through the glass tearing up the display when the management insisted on putting clothes on the mannequins, who were, I don't know, stepping into fur-lined bathtubs and lying on beds of red coals, a lot of feathers and disembodied hands holding mirrors. It made all the papers, which of course is what he wanted. He understood publicity, and was shameless. Europeans are, when they get over here. This was before I moved to New York, but Zack somehow had been there and would describe it and laugh, but it also offended his sense of dignity that an artist would sell out like that. Zack could be in rags, filthy from a night in the gutter, but he had this ideal of dignity, of, I don't know, the artist not as some performer and society leech but as a worker, and at least as worthy of respect as a preacher or a banker. It was one of the things about him I loved." Hope feels herself roused, her face reddening, her heart pumping, striving to please, stung by the fear of appearing doddery; the old deprivations and ridicule seem as close as if this interloping girl had been one of the glib art journalists who had served up easy wisecracks in the 'forties Time and Life. But by the time these publications were taking any notice, a tide had turned. "You speak about a historic moment, Kathryn, but the attention was all in a few galleries, with a few critics, who had their own fish to fry for that matter, their own names to make-Clem used Zack to make his own name, and when Zack faltered Clem was the first one off the boat. The canvases, the ones that later everybody could see were magnificent, and that went for millions-what good were they? They were too big. They were public art without a public. Zack-it was pathetic-when he was in his cups used to tell people what a great investment his work would be, and of course he was right. One man in the Flats-Jimmy Quinn, who ran what was really a glorified vegetable stand-took a little thirty-by-forty fiberboard of Zack's in payment and ten years or so ago finally sold it for two million dollars. He still drives around in his beat-up pickup. Zack would have liked that."

Hope pauses, and Kathryn's lips part to spit another question into the tape, but Hope is not done with her long, looping thought; there is a picture of Zack she wants to finish, though the memory of him threatens to suck her back, out, down, like waves foaming at her ankles at one of the beaches, one of the remote rocky ones past the bluffs, past the old fish-factories, toward the Point, where they would stand as the afternoon gave up its strong light and turned ruddy and the breeze picked up, there being nothing to the south but the Atlantic, a few gray ships on the horizon like index tabs in a filing cabinet. "We all drank," she repeats, "but for Zack it was a poison, it released demons. Like many a famous drinker, he really couldn't drink. I held my liquor better than he did, and I was just a slip of a thing in my twenties." Zack was in his thirties when they first went together: his narrow hips, his chest and shoulders coated with blond wool, even his bare feet were beautiful, knobby and broad across the toes, and the insteps as white as the skin inside a woman's arm. She stood beside him feeling the suck of ankle-high surf, the way it pulls the sand out from under your heels. There had been the white noise of the waves and the far-stretching scent of beach, salt and iodine and rotting marine bodies, fish and jellyfish leaving their round ochre corpses like puddles of varnish on the rocks, collapsed, unable to get back to their element, their anatomy dimly seen within the puddle, useless, wasted, something like breathing still taking place, poor doomed creatures, so we all. She had liked the way Zack was not too much taller than she, like some men, including Ruk; she felt like an Eve matched to him, as in those marvellous Cranach panels in Pasadena, or the two frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, the Masaccio so anguished and ashamed, the red angel over their heads banishing them, and the Masolino so serene and stately and haughty, the little benign female snake's head above Eve's, Eve cool with her centrally parted fair hair, unrepentant, before the Fall, the cleft of her sex not hidden, nor Adam's penis. Face it: this young woman, too, is beautiful. Hope imagines Kathryn's naked body-the swing of hip into thigh, the rose-madder-tipped breasts floating on the rib cage, the pubic triangle pure ivory-black and oily as in a Corot-all in a flash, then renounces the image: of the creature. Her susceptibility to beauty, Hope has always known, is what has kept her minor as an artist. The great ones go beyond beauty, they spurn it as desert saints spurned visions of concupiscence and ease: the Devil's offer of the world as reward.


From the Hardcover edition.

Copyright© 2002 by John Updike
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2012

    Hunting area

    River

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2002

    Brilliant, Compressed, Impressionistic

    Updike is neither abstract (like Pollock), nor Pop (like Warhol); rather, he is a literary impressionistic working in gorgeous pointilistic detail. Reminds me of the brilliant short novel BLOSSOM RIVER DRIVE in the amount of beauty and truth gracefully compressed into so few pages.

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