From The Archive

Editor’s Choice: John Updike was born 82 years ago this week. This review is from 1959.

John Updike: the fact that he is a distinguished contributor to the New Yorker guarantees a certain aloof wit. Photograph: Susan Wood/Getty Images

John Updike: the fact that he is a distinguished contributor to the New Yorker guarantees a certain aloof wit. Photograph: Susan Wood/Getty Images

Thu, Mar 13, 2014, 13:16

John Updike was born on March 18th, 1932, so he had only just turned 27 when this review of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was published in The Irish Times on Saturday, April 4th, 1959, although he was already an established writer with the New Yorker. The review is paired thematically with a review of Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, her third novel. It shares a page with reviews by Thomas Kinsella and Padraic Colum, but the reviewer here is identified only by their initials, R.G.


Memento Mori. By Muriel Spark. Macmillan. 15s.

The Poorhouse Fair. By John Updike. Gollancz. 15s.

It is not often that one comes across novels dealing with old age – at least, with old age as a problem in itself. It must be almost unique to find two novels, of such quality as “Memento Mori” and “The Poorhouse Fair”, devoted exclusively to gerontology published within a short time of each other. To make the occasion even more unreal, both Muriel Spark and John Updike are writers of particular and individual insight, with style and use of words to match. Both, moreover, are irreverent, and sometimes vicious, towards their subjects.

Of the two books, “Memento Mori” is the lighter, the more, urbane, if only because its characters demand such treatment. This novel is the endgame of London comedy, the sort of thing that would happen if every bright young thing of contemporary fiction were over 70. Therein lies one of Miss Spark’s little ironies. Her people would have been up to all sorts of larks – and were apparently – 50 years ago. but now their activities are confined, like distorted shadows of their former selves, by failing limbs and minds. Much of their conversation is concerned with how much worse off their other contemporaries are in these matters, their last bulwark against death. The general effect on the reader is amusing and grisly at the same time.

The occasion – and a rather flimsy one, at that – for the story is a series of telephone calls to a group of elderly and distinguished people. In each case the caller uses the words “Remember you must die,” but his voice sounds different to each one. Their reactions to the voice, and their attempts to trace down the caller, are not nearly as entertaining as their effect on each other as various other skeletons are dragged out of cupboards by those close to being skeletons themselves. As a reminder of the dance of death Miss Spark has arranged that one of her principal characters’ maids, also a septuagenarian, should be confined for the rest of her life in an old people’s ward in a general hospital, where even the most convinced spinster is forced to adopt the title Granny, and where those in the last stages of senility bob up and down in bed and utter uncouth noises.

There can be only one end to such a story, and Muriel P. Spark acknowledges the futility of it by dealing out deaths all round in the last two pages of the book. For all that, it is an ingenuous, acid story; not one, perhaps , that could bear repetition, but more than value for its originality.

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John Updike, on the other hand, manages his story without a single death except that of a maimed cat. The action of “The Poorhouse Fair” occupies less than 24 hours – the day on which an old people’s home in New Jersey holds its annual sale of work. It take place in an America some years hence, when the ordinary population has settled down into an undemanding materialism, and the only people who hold any sort of spiritual values are the inhabitants of the home and their contemporaries.

Mr. Updike is not particularly kind to anybody. There are strenuous clashes of personality among the old folk, and their attitude towards the superintendent of the home – a rather bumbling socialist – is often intolerantly vicious. But the kaleidoscopic conversation of the visitors as they move through the fair is an equally harsh commentary from the author. It should not be thought, however, that this is an unpleasant book. There is much grassroots dignity and kindly reminiscence in Hook, the 94-year-old principal character, and the fact that John Updike is a distinguished contributor to the New Yorker guarantees a certain aloof wit.