January 16, 2015

"constraints aping marriage develop"

The first breath of adultery is the freest; after it, constraints aping marriage develop.

I had never read anything by John Updike, so I didn’t know what all the hype was about until I began Couples. The hype is due. He is one hell of a writer.

So repulsive, Freddy assumed the easy intrusiveness of a very attractive man.

Magnolia buds swollen by heat

I went down to swim–delicious, like being inside a diamond

Rather, Updike is one hell of a thinker, because you have to think of these countless metaphors, insights, and poignant images, in order to write them down. The linguistic fruits flourish so lushly on each page that you have to stop trying to acknowledge each one, lest you never finish the book. He’s funny, too, obviously. I don’t even mind the self-indulgent wanderings and bold generalizations.

Every marriage is a hedged bet. Foxy entered hers expecting that, whatever fate held for them, there were certain kinds of abuse it would never occur to her husband to inflict. He was beyond them, as most American men are beyond eye-gouging and evisceration. She had been right. He had proved not so much gentle as too fastidious to be cruel.

Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant. Of a teacher and a learner.

With these I stopped and thought, “Is this true? Have I felt that way?” and recruited experiences to weight the balance.

The novel is about marriages and everyone cheating on each other, in a Waspy little town in the American northeast. I imagine the book was more shocking when it was published in 1968 than it is now, almost 50 years later.

“I can think of no other novel, even in these years of our sexual freedom, as sexually explicit in its language… as direct in its sexual reporting, as abundant in its sexual activities,” wrote Diana Trilling for The Atlantic Monthly. [This is on the back cover, like an advertisement.]

Game of Thrones is more abundant in sexual activities, I can tell you, after binge-watching the first two seasons this Christmas. So what struck me more than the sex–although I did have a huge laugh when one character refers to a blow job as ‘sodomy’–were the descriptions of people and their perceptions: so precise and novel, yet potentially recognizable.

When Foxy prods her husband and realizes he would never cheat on her:

“Well, they say a man gets his first mistress when his wife becomes pregnant.”

He looked over at her too surprised to speak, and she realized that he was incapable of betraying her, and marveled at her own disappointment

 How two cheating partners feel about their spouses:

They talked [...] about Harold and Janet, who, as they obligingly continued to be deceived, were ever more tenderly considered, so that they became almost sacred in their ignorance, wonderful in their fallibility, so richly forgiven for their frigidity, demandingness, obtuseness, and vanity that the liaison between their spouses seemed a conspiracy to praise the absent.

"General courtesy" becoming the force behind two couples swapping partners:

…obligingness had become a part of it; they had reached, the Applesmiths, the boundary of a condition wherein their needs were merged, and a general courtesy replaced individual desire. The women would sleep with the men out of pity, and each would permit the other her man out of an attenuated and hopeless graciousness. Already a ramifying tact and crossweave of concern were giving their homes an unhealthy hospital air.

And, fine, some sexy stuff:

…until, he biting her, she clawed his back and came. Could break his neck. Forgotten him entirely. All raw self. Machine that makes salt at the bottom of the sea.

Mouths, it came to Piet, are noble. They move in the brain’s court. We set our genitals mating down below like peasants, but when the mouth condescends, mind and body marry. To eat another is sacred.

[Foxy writing to Piet] ...the softness of the air, stepping from the plane in San Juan, like a kiss after fucking–oh lover, forgive me, I am sleepy.

After weeks of chastity I remember lovemaking as an exploration of a sadness so deep people must go in pairs, one cannot go alone.

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