Friday, 5 April 2019

Book Review: S. by John Updike
Sooner or later for the less lucky among us comes the moment, when we realise that, for one reason or another, the life that we had so far doesn’t feel right any longer. Often such existential crises go hand in hand with a search for identity and meaning that can make us susceptible to outside influence. A longing for guidance in an unsettling phase of change like this can lead some of us (back) to religion and drive others into the hands of charismatic leaders as is the case in the epistolary novel S. by John Updike. Its protagonist is a well-to-do housewife from Boston who left her doctor husband to join a dubious Hindu ashram in Arizona and to reinvent herself in the spirit of Eastern philosophy, but she never loses from sight her personal advantage and tries to keep her old world under control sending letters and tapes.

John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA, in March 1932. After English studies at Harvard University and arts school in Oxford, England, U.K. to become a cartoonist, he worked for The New Yorker, while writing poetry and short stories. His first books to appear were a volume of poetry titled The Carpentered Hen (1958) and the short-story collection The Same Door (1959) along with the novel The Poorhouse Fair (1959). The following novels Rabbit, Run (1960) and award-winning The Centaur (1963) established him as a novelist. The most notable among the more than twenty novels that the author published afterwards are Couples (1968), The Coup (1978), the remaining volumes of the Rabbit Quartet, especially Rabbit is Rich (1982) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) that both won him the Pulitzer Prize, The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and S. (1988). The prolific writer also produced several short-story collections including the three comic cycles surrounding his literary alter ego Henry Bech, namely Bech, a Book (1970), Bech is Back (1981), and Bech at Bay (1998), as well as poetry, a memoir, essays, art and literary criticism, and even a few children’s books. John Updike died in Danvers, Massachusetts, USA, in January 2009.

Sitting on a plane to Los Angeles, the well-to-do Boston housewife Sarah Worth, S. in short, writes to her doctor husband telling him that she left him after twenty-two years of marriage and that she withdrew more than just her share of their joint assets going so far as to forge his signature. She is tired of being treated like a piece of furniture by him and of putting up with his constant affairs with the nurses at hospital. Moreover, their daughter Pearl is away at university in England for a term and she feels that it’s high time for her to start a new life.
“[…] I will change my name. I will change my being. The woman you “knew” and “possessed” is no more. I am destroying her. I am sinking into the great and beautiful blankness which it is our European/Christian/Western avoidance maneuver to clutter and mask with material things and personal “achievements.” Ego is the enemy. Love is the goal. I shed you as I would shed a skin, with some awkwardness perhaps and at first a sensitivity to the touch of the new, but without pain and certainly without regret. […]”
Already past forty years old, Sarah decides to seek enlightenment in the ashram of the (supposedly) Indian guru Shri Arhat at the back of beyond in Arizona. His teachings that she heard on tape during yoga classes impressed her just as much as his voice and his looks. She submits readily to rules, spiritual practice and hard work asked of her like of all other sannyasins as she tells family and friends in letters and on audiotapes that she keeps sending them, and yet, she isn’t blind to reality and secretly puts aside money for her own benefit later on.
“[…] in a nutshell, on the one hand there really are substantial assets and income and some very generous donors, mostly these women and widows who either live in Beverly Hills or in Canada, oddly enough, which you don’t think of as much of a place normally either for money or for Buddhism, and then on the other side of the ledger a lot of leakages that aren’t just the Arhat’s limousines and diamond wristwatch bands. […]”
Having started in the backbreaking artichoke fields in April, S. – who is given the ashram name Kundalini standing for the female energy in all things – rises by August to the position of one of Shri Arhat’s executive assistants temporarily in charge of accounting and becomes his willing lover. She is well aware, however, that the commune is doomed and prepares to leave it in time. All the while, she keeps in touch with family and friends using her letters to tell them what to do and to rebuke above all aged mother and pregnant daughter for not following her “advice”...

Through private correspondence (both written and on tape) interwoven with letters on personal and the ashram’s business the novel titled S. paints a satirical, if not cynical picture of a wealthy housewife from the American East Coast going through mid-life crisis. As a character the protagonist feels rather authentic, but as the plot advances she becomes increasingly unsympathetic because despite all the spiritual wisdom that she absorbs throughout her stay in the ashram and even preaches eloquently in her letters, she clearly stays the money-craving and condescending egotist who she always was. The narrative perspective is necessarily biased because the epistolary novel comprises only the protagonist’s (and the ashram’s) side of communication and thus reveals the contents of received mail indirectly at best. As can be expected from being set largely in an ashram, there isn’t an awful lot of action to drive the plot, nor can I make out much psychological growth or at least change in the protagonist. She just learns the spiritual vocabulary to justify whatever she does. In fact, the entire novel is spattered with terms in Sanskrit referring to yoga, Hindu and Buddhist traditions which makes the otherwise fluent read too technical and thus tedious.

Admittedly, I picked S. by John Updike first of all for being a fairly modern epistolary novel from the pen of a renowned American author whom I wished to give a second chance. Having read and quite disliked his award-winning 1963 novel The Centaur a while ago, my expectations were low and luckily surpassed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I loved this satire from the late 1980s, but I definitely liked the basic idea behind the story and even found in it some truth about women with the protagonist’s background. Of course, the unflattering stereotype that the author used to shape his well-to-do female characters must evoke criticism from the feminist side. I’m more forgiving and take the novel for what it is, namely light entertainment with a dash of social criticism. All things considered, the novel was worth my time and I gladly recommend it.

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