Speaking at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a few weeks ago, to mark the publication of A Most Wanted Man, John Le Carré, who is 76, spoke touchingly about writing novels in old age.
“I realise there are a whole lot of things I can’t do any more and things I can’t feel any more. I’m frightened by the example of Graham Greene, who I felt shouldn’t have published some of his later stuff. I don’t care for it. I don’t feel that I must go on delivering novels. I’d like to leave on a decent note.” Specifically, he hoped that, if he seemed likely to do otherwise, there’d be a friend behind him wielding a hammer.
Plenty of novelists have persisted into painful diminution. One upsetting example is Evelyn Waugh’s last published fiction, Basil Seal Rides Again (1963), which is not only artistically feeble but also a nasty expression of paternal sexual jealousy. Waugh spoke the truth in calling it a “senile attempt to recapture the manner of my youth”. What made it specially pitiful was that he had attempted to resurrect the recurrent comic character of his brilliant early novels and failed completely. He was prodding a corpse.
It is a law of aesthetics that only the original novelist himself can re-enter the fictional worlds he has created, to carry the story on and change its outcomes. That’s why every supposed sequel or prequel ever written by anybody else – from the innumerable attempts to extend Jane Austen’s tediously small oeuvre to the hope of cashing in on the James Bond franchise – is not only illicit but a dud.
Alas, it is also the case that the original novelist too may find himself so distanced in time, energy and grasp on contemporary life that he cannot go back into his own fictional world with any creative power. Such is the case with The Widows of Eastwick.
John Updike, like Le Carré also 76, published The Witches of Eastwick back in 1984, a novel gamely expressing his sense that female sexuality is akin to black magic, dependent upon men but also exercising power over them.
In 1987, the novel was successfully simplified into a film directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame. Jack Nicholson rampageously played the demonic Darryl Van Horne and the lustful witches were Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. Although a travesty, it is the version by which the story remains best known.
In the book, the witches kill a young woman, Jenny, whom Darryl has married – and he flees Eastwick with her younger brother Chris, apparently his lover, while the witches conjure up prospective husbands for themselves. In the film, Jenny was completely abolished. Instead, the witches simply see off Darryl in a magical duel and each happily has a devilish son by him.
Twenty-four years after the event, Updike has returned to his three witches, now widows and scattered around the States. Alex (the one played by Cher) tries a trip on her own to see Canada and the Grand Canyon but is lonely and bored. After many years of separation, she re-establishes contact with Jane (Sarandon) and they take a trip together to Egypt to see the pyramids. Finally (“the coven reconstituted”), the pair meet up with Sukie (Pfeiffer) and all three tour China – a travelogue section echoing the sightseeing tour organised for Updike by the Smithsonian Institution and described in his most recent volume of prose, Due Considerations.
Inevitably, the trio decide their next joint holiday should be to summer together in Eastwick once more (“Maleficia Revisited“). There, they encounter some of their old loves and victims – and begin tentatively to practise their dark arts again. Updike takes peculiar pleasure in describing these old ladies while they are casting a spell naked – “their eyes helplessly fed on the wrinkles, the warts and scars, the keratoses and liver spots, the slack muscles and patches of crêpey skin crinkled like smooth water touched by a breath of wind, the varicose veins and arthritic deformations with which time had overlaid their old beauty”. He’s particularly attentive to bad smells, the whiff of an armpit or worse. “Fearful, as she bent over, of releasing a gust of rectal smell, Alexandra moved aside the plastic-handled broom, and entered the opened circle…”
Moreover, Updike takes full advantage of being able to have his female lead characters express nasty home truths about women in general. “Franny was a woman, and knew what women were, dirty and yearning, and in need of being controlled”, thinks Alex – or, as it might be, Updike.
Then again, Sukie asks a former lover she has re-encountered: “Was I just a silly piece of ass, an older woman who had no sense and no shame? Did you despise me even as we screwed? Some men do, you know, and still women open themselves to them, we’re that desperate.”
“How disfigured is… [Updike’s] work is by its puerile misogyny!” the critic James Wood once exclaimed. The Widows of Eastwick is the last place to start contesting that verdict. The entwining of sex and mortality that has always been his stock in trade has here become habitual and tired.
Updike has always been overly, eloquently descriptive, but here the pace is leaden and simply getting through the book is hard work, like reading a particularly dull epic poem as a scholarly assignment.
The plot proposes that vengeful Chris comes back to Eastwick too, having learned some of Darryl’s magic to use against the widow-witches. One of them succumbs – but then, though Chris is gay, Sukie disarms him by seducing him, giving Updike a chance to describe yet again his favourite sexual scenario, a blowjob – to him, anchored in his own era, ever thrilling, despite becoming the small change of sex to later generations.
“She laughed, wickedly, and flicked his engorged glans with her grainy tongue, keeping her eyes rolled upward to his face.” Please!
Time for the hammer? But if The Widows of Eastwick is more than a disappointment, let’s remember here the greatness of what has come before, in particular the Angstrom novels, in particular Rabbit at Rest. “Among prose works which address the American century, Rabbit has few obvious betters” (Martin Amis).