That most delicate monster Humbert Humbert suffered, as we know, extravaganzas of the nerves and was concerned to record these seizures in commensurate images. “And then, without the least warning,” he tells us, “a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart. . . .” As well it might have done. The occasion was Humbert's first sight of his Lolita; a deluge would not have been too much. And furthermore, Lolita is discovered in the act of sunbathing, and she is the reincarnation of Humbert's lost Riviera nymphet of his boyhood “princedom by the sea.” Moving toward her, he finds that “my knees were like reflections of knees in rippling water, and my lips were like sand . . .”. A seascape honestly come by; and besides, who if not this monster could claim his own bewildered interior was nothing less than that Ocean where each kind Does streight his own resemblance find? A blue sea-wave is not too strange a presence for us to accept there. Nor can it seem unlikely that Humbert himself, as we know him, would see himself first and last in such processions of imagery.
Images like these haunt also the persons in John Updike's new novel, Couples.1 Their anatomies, like poor Humbert Humbert's, are subject to alarming visitations and transformations. A heart, racing, “seemed to bulge like a knapsack as into it was abruptly stuffed two thoughts . . .”. “Confession to the contrary ballooned against the roof of her mouth.” “Beneath the red blanket of her closed eyelids . . .”. “Piet opened his mouth to tell her, but the ice chilling his secret held.” “Adultery lit her from within, like the ashen mantle of a lamp, or as if an entire house of gauzy hangings and partitions were ignited but refused to be consumed and, rather, billowed and glowed, its structure incandescent.” “‘I love you’ was pulled from him like a tooth.” “Her heart, blind lamb, beat faster.”
The world these people move in is likewise possessed by spirits. “A spring midnight pressed on the cold windows,” we are told as the book opens, and at the end of this scene, we are told again, in detail: “Beyond her hunched shoulders, an extensiveness pressed tight against the bubbled old panes and the frail mullions, a blackness charged with the ache of first growth and the suspended skeletons of Virgo and Leo and Gemini.” Not only in their dreams, which we are often privileged to review, but in their waking hours as well they are made to witness an occultness in things. Fireplace hearths are “like entryways into a sooty upward core of time.” “The V-mail spurting through the thrilled slot.” “Whiskey hurried to replace the calories fresh air had burned from their bodies.” When not charged thus with anima, things have often a tendency to lapse or to rise into something else; the world has everywhere the instability of potential metamorphosis. “Sunshine broken into code by puffs and schooners of cumulus.” “The often-patched boardwalk, its slats of varied wood like the keys of a gigantic piano . . .” Even the most casual and momentary object can be abruptly wrenched into another thing. “A chewed sponge ball, a little pitted moon . . .”
The involvements of these persons with one another are involvements also with images. “Foxy felt the power of tears; behind the silver shield of them she advanced against her mother . . .” “Freddy went on, swimming, trying not to drown in their contempt, his black mouth lifted . . . A contemptuous silence welled from the men.” “Piet, who lived now day and night behind glassy walls of fear . . .” “Only Bea's presence, a circle like the mouth of a white bell of which her overheard voice was the chiming clapper, promised repose. He remembered her as a calm pool in which he could kneel to the depth of his navel.” (I hope some scholar of the future, in the annotated edition of this well-raisined fruitcake, will note the pregnant allusion here to the folk poem, “Ding dong bell, pussy's in the well,” and I hope too that he will expound at length the complex, inverted sexual punning, both verbal and visual, of this remarkably synechdochic passage.)
Sometimes the objects of the world, and what they can be made to stand for, and the histories of these persons, become involved in linked images of metaphysical persistence, yoked together, if not with violence then with something surprisingly sticky. (In fairness, I should say that not often do we have such rapid transmogrifications as those which made a bell into a pool in the two successive sentences quoted above.) The following passage is in exposition of the marriage of one of the couples, who met as a poor young man and a rich young lady. Let me ask, why are the clocks themselves, the young lady's father's clocks, thus given the active office of encouragement? “In the house there had been many clocks, grandfather's and ship's clocks, clocks finished in ormolu or black lacquer, fine-spun clocks in silver cases, with four balls as pendulum. Their courtship passed as something instantly forgotten, like an enchantment, or a mistake. Time came unstuck. All the clocks hurried their ticking, hurried them past doubts, around sharp corners and knobbed walnut newels.” The expensive clocks represent the ease of monied circumstances? Is this only a flourish, perhaps slightly too graceful, or is this meant to be one of many distortions of surface that suggest something beneath, beyond, or within the surface? Surely the answer is that these embellishments are not merely idle decoration, and yet, as a discussion of the story itself may show, and certain other elements of its style, if Couples has in its complicated set of designs a master pattern it is no clear and simple one—or, to be obscure for the moment myself, it is a bafflingly clear and simple pattern.
Even—as it does not in the case of feverish Humbert, scribbling away at his dreadful confession in his condemned cell, having contracted fatal cases equally of the English language, of America, and of love, delirious with words and sights and remembered touches—as it cannot for Humbert and for Humbert's Nabokov, the question arises of what all this language is doing here. Whose is it? There is no Humbert Humbert here pridefully to say, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Perhaps, but not necessarily, you can count on a fancy prose style for very large intentions, too, that go beyond its own rhetorical ambitions.
Couples is about a circle of young married people in a small commuter's town called Tarbox, just south of Boston. Its story is not so easy to recite, for several reasons. The first, and maybe the least, is that like most skillful modern novelists, and John Updike is really very skillful at these things, the author gives us the story in a series of scenes, and memories in exposition within these scenes, and passages of exposition like that above about the clocks, and in dialogue (pages and pages of dialogue!), and in the sudden time-shifts so beloved by Conrad and James and Ford, and again in dialogue; in bird's-eye views of the town and all as seen from the church steeple with its great colonial gilded weathercock: from the cock's eye, a copper English penny. Through this density of material the author guides us most skillfully, in and out of houses and in and out of minds, into the past and present and even into the future, some of which lies in our own minds. This last is because the story has as one of its designs the fact that the year is 1963. One of the guardian demons often invoked is the figure of President John F. Kennedy, and one of the scenes we wait for is that of November 22, 1963.
Another difficulty in telling the story briefly is that this constellation of young couples is continually swinging in and out of a number of orbits in a complicated system of gravities, and to recite the shifts of their couplings straightforwardly would be much more bewildering than these things are as the story unfolds in the book. But most of the difficulty lies in the meaning. We cannot tell a story well unless we know what it means. We cannot tell another's story, that is; the author tells his own story as he must, and the meaning lies within it, within all those shifts and means and manners of his telling. He need not, even if he could, be explicit. But summary must try to be clear and thus has to be tendentious.
A new young couple comes to Tarbox. He is a biochemist, they buy an old beach house to remodel, she is pregnant. They are caught up in a social circle of people slightly older than themselves, a Boston broker and his wife, a Boston banker and his wife, a Korean physicist (and wife—they are couples, all have wives of course), a Jewish technician, an airline pilot, the local dentist, a local contractor, and one man so rich he doesn't do much of anything but go to Boston for lunch. Most of them have children, mostly in school. They play tennis, golf, touch football, basketball, they swim and drink a lot and dance. “The men had stopped having careers and the women had stopped having babies. Liquor and love were left.” The dentist is sinister, the dust jacket and the scene on the night of Kennedy's assassination tell us he is a kind of priest, and of him it is said, “He thinks we're a circle. A magic circle of heads to keep the night out. He told me he gets frightened if he doesn't see us over a weekend. He thinks we've made a church of each other.”
The communion of the church is adultery. The contractor, Piet Hanema, a second-generation Dutchman raised in the harsh Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, loves his wife but she is cold, and he has had or is having affairs with several of the wives in the circle. He begins one with Foxy, the pregnant newcomer whose husband is a cold fish. One pair of couples, and then another, takes up wife-swapping. Piet's wife, the most innocent of all the women, has to acquiesce to a blackmailed night with the sinister dentist. Piet's and Foxy's affair is discovered, after they no longer really care. He loses his lovely wife, and in the end marries Foxy. By this time, death, boredom, and other horrors have broken up the circle of couples. The church with the penny-eyed cock on its steeple, God to the children of Tar-box—“That is, if God were physically present in Tarbox, it was in the form of this unreachable weathercock visible from everywhere”—the church is struck by lightning and burns down. Piet and Foxy move away out of sight and memory.
It is a strange story. It is strange, so it seems to me, not because its moral is, if I am correct in my telling, so bald and so fierce: sexuality is the worship of Satan. The famous modern style of the Kennedy era was the worship of Satan, and brings only death and disorder. No, who would refuse really to listen to this sermon? The old good joinery of the old carpenters is replaced everywhere, to honest Piet's despair, with the corner-cutting of cheap-jack housing developments; the new morality means the death of the family, and children are afraid. Piet lies awake at night, remembering his adulteries and fearing death. His daughter fears death and he cannot comfort her and he loses her. His church is struck by lightning. His child in Foxy is aborted. Who since Anna Karenina has heard so clearly the voice of the Lord saying, “Vengeance is mine”? No doubt things are bad, corruption stalks the land, and we are being punished. About that church I don't know; it sounds so preposterous I wish I could leave it out of my summary of the plot, but it says so right in the book: “The Congregational Church was burning. God's own lightning had struck it.” And you thought God was not watching all the time? Indeed He was, just as Piet feared when he lay with Georgene out under the open sky on her sun porch, right where God could see them. John Updike has given God back again His dread weapons and has restored His warning that if we do not keep our knickers up the wrath of His lightning will find us. And still, absurd as this is, I do not think we should object too rapidly or too complacently about such a sermon, if it were straightforward.
Only, there is a trick here. It lies concealed, I believe, in the manner of the telling and then in something tricky about the sexuality. Each least person in this book is endowed with the sensibility and with the figurative powers of the author, that skillful modern author so adept with those images of the senses. Seduced by this sign of the modern, as we are seduced by—and this aspect of the book I have altogether slighted—the sharp observation, the knowledge, the social and historical knowingness of the author, we are as it were subliminally brought to a vision of disgust with this entire scene. Doubtless we ought to be brought to this, and perhaps it is fair to do it by any means. Yet despite all its brutality, its transitoriness, its illusions and follies, despite perhaps its profound involvement in all our troubles, despite even all the naive windiness of the modern doctrine of the polymorphous perverse, I feel a certain loyalty to Eros and do not like to see him done dirt.
Unless I am mistaken, Eros is here done most grievous dirt. Those metaphors, those animations, that murderous fancy language which imbues with its luridness the people and the things of this book, this fancy work also imbues luridly the sexual activity, and as I have said there is a world of it in Couples. It is clever of Updike to have carried to this extremity the anti-sexual pornography of his other books. As lyrical as any outburst from Humbert Humbert, in passage after passage the variations of the human sexual act are floridly described. And the emotions, too; the ecstatic rhetoric of the “good orgasm” is presented over and over. The sexual organs, the “pudenda” (L., aeuter gerundive of pudere, to cause shame, ashame, lit. “that of which we ought to be ashamed” . . . ), those little parts of us which Freud believed had not undergone, for some reason, the ennobling evolution that has given us all such lovely faces, these poor private contraptions of nature are exposed to all the poetry at the command of the author, as his characters get right down after them in all moods and manners. These parts are granted here, as well as many fancy paraphrastic phrases, their homely little common names that didn't used to get much currency even in novels, and still are not quite welcome in the chaste pages of many magazines. Here, of course, Updike is only exercising his novelist's right to record the manners of the time, and I take it he is correct in reporting that we converse now in tender intimacy as well as in public with language that used to be reserved for abuse or for male jocularity. I presume also that he is correct in reporting that there is now, among the educated middle classes, an energetic employment of the variant forms of human intercourse as recommended for some years by marriage manuals, including the extensive enjoyment of oral-genital activities. But in this novel the exercise of the recent freedoms of language is not in the service of celebration of its subject, as it always was before.
Though they are accompanied often with protestations of affection, these activities in Couples are vain, futile, and unattractive. I suppose it is a triumph of the author to make them seem so; preachers and pornographers have labored for years on the subject of human sexuality without making it boring. Perhaps it is a triumph of the times rather than an individual triumph, or perhaps of both, one of those victories scarcely to be foreseen when a courageous man suddenly discovers what the forces of his time have all at once made possible. It is akin, really, to the new or revived general freedom of expression, in which the mimicry of sexual activity in dancing, in painting, and in sculpture, enables the beholder of these scenes to recognize, in the unashamed pleasure—the unabashed mimicry of pleasure—all the dreadful deadness of such mimicry.
Perhaps it was inevitable that someone would come along who could, with this power and accuracy, while seeming to strike with a sword at the roots of life, lift only a lecturer's wand at a corpse on the table. Often enough it has been tried, in the preacher's voice, but now the prophet has assumed the accents and the fancy style of the artist, he who always thought he had somehow to be on the side of Satan, if this poor business of ours really were Satanic. But who could have supposed that what we took to be the celebration of freedom would turn out to be the celebration of death? Our very method of bringing life to the world is not only wicked, not only capable of deviation into perversities like those of Humbert Humbert, but far worse than that, it is ugly and foolish and boring. What could bring a man to say it? How could he request such baleful tortures for us? But such, poor Foxy, poor Piet, such is the power to urge evil, as Lucretius told us, Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, such is the baleful power of religion.
1 Knopf, 485 pp. $6.95.