1964 -- The Centaur

Updike’s The Centaur, third novel in his fifty-year career, received qualified reviews, many critics not sure that the marriage of a father-son tale and Greek mythology entirely worked. Many pointed out the autobiographical details — like Updike, young Peter grows up in rural Pennsylvania, has a schoolmaster father, suffers from psoriasis, and imagines a career as a painter. In her 1975 essay “John Updike’s American Comedies,” Joyce Carol Oates finds a much deeper parallel. Oates begins by citing a passage which comes very late in the novel, the family in crisis and Peter recovering from illness. As he looks out at his father receding in the snow, the window seems to frame a painting which holds some harsh but promising truth:

I knew what this scene was — a patch of Pennsylvania in 1947 — and yet I did not know, was in my softly fevered state mindlessly soaked in a rectangle of colored light. I burned to paint it, just like that, in its puzzle of glory; it came to me that I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken.

Oates finds in the italicized words (italics mine) Updike’s general goal as a writer — to be a “transparent canvas,” an artist who avoids imposing the perspective of high Greek tragedy: “John Updike’s genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. …There has been from the first, in his fiction, an omniscience that works against the serious development of tragic experiences; what might be tragedy can be reexamined, reassessed, and dramatized as finally comic, with overtones of despair.”

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