Seek my Face was John Updike’s fifty-fourth book and twentieth novel, and by this time (2002) the wunderkind of sixties American Lit had largely been sidelined, both by newer writers such as Don de Lillo, Paul Auster and Toni Morrison, and by the fierce shake-down he copped in the seventies from feminist critics for the sexism of much of his prose. Aside from sexism, his novelistic flaws at this distance seem obvious: weak structure, which was probably a disdain of structure, resulting in poor plotting and pacing; and far too much cluttering detail tied to an obsession, led on by the haughty example of Nabokov, to make every sentence a work of art. In regards to the latter, however, it must be said that virtually nobody can turn a phrase like Updike and I am one of many readers/writers who have fallen under the spell of what seemed miraculous sequences, before fatigue inevitably set in.
No-one except the scholars are going to read fifty-four books by one writer, so I am here to tell you that this book, pretty much lost in Updike’s opus, is a gem, containing all of his qualities and few of his failings. It is a roman à clef, an interview between a young arts journalist and an elderly painter, whose responses and inward reminiscences tell a lightly fictionalised history of post-war American art. The painter is Hope Chafetz, really Lee Krasner, and the guts of the book is her tempestuous recall of first husband Zack McCoy, Jackson Pollock. After his death she marries Guy Holloway, a mishmash of pop artists but mostly Andy Warhol, who would be spinning in his grave like a Rolling Stones’ 45rpm at being both straight and up-for-it. No matter. Any sexism is muted by this being a conversation between two women, although interviewer Kathryn does display a keen Updikean interest in Hope’s erotic history, and Updike’s characteristic virtuosic verbosity is constrained by his decision to adhere to Aristotelean unities of time and place: the interview is conducted over a single day.
Updike had originally envisioned a career as an artist, a cartoonist of all things, and spent a student year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford. Much of his prose is painterly; when reading the ‘Rabbit’ books, perhaps his outstanding literary legacy, I remember entertaining a theory that perhaps the writer felt that if he described the surface of the world with enough completeness, it would inadvertently reveal its depths. Anyway, Updike certainly has a great feeling for and understanding of art; the passion that Hope expresses is clearly his own, and being near the end of her life, she is a stand-in not only for his enthusiasms, but also his doubts and fears. Who will care about his creative work when he has gone? What does it amount to in the scheme of the cosmos, if there is such a thing?
The major interest for me in this book is Updike’s focus on Pollock, an artist who is antithetical in method and approach to him in every way, save one significant particular. McCoy/Pollock is described as an instinctual artist, one who plunges into the creative moment and trusts to his talent. No aforethought, no plan, just action and result. Because he is a genius, the result can occasion great art. I believe Updike was intrigued, and perhaps a little jealous, himself being so pre-meditated and deliberate, so cerebral. In Pollock, what would formally appear to be an unruly mess turns out to be a superb unity, whereas as it happens, formal unity is notably lacking in most of Updike’s oeuvre (there are other compensating virtues). I imagine the elderly writer standing before one of those sprawling mesmerising canvases at MOMA, scratching his white head, wondering how one might achieve this by losing control rather than exercising it.
And the significant particular? It’s Updike’s personal view but he makes a persuasive case in the novel, particularly towards the close, of all artistic endeavour being an attempt to reach the divine, in essence, a form of prayer. Seek my Face. Pollock is a drunkard, a boor, a caveman, violent and selfish, and yet, like Updike, the civilized and urbane man of letters, he is embarked on the same quest, possessed in like manner for like purpose. Perhaps Updike chose Pollock deliberately to make this point. Or to separate the man from the product. Pollock behaved badly in life, but then so did Updike. Is the art compensation? Is it anything at all? What is it? Whatever, it is no accident that Chafetz’s given name is Hope.