Academic Obsessions and Political Passions

By John Updike
Knopf. 371 pp. $23


History professor Alf Clayton, the aloof, middle-aged narrator of John Updike’s 15th novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, opens with the words “I remember,” and ends by stating bluntly: “I remember nothing.” The intervening 369 pages constitute a bleak meditation, by turns inspired and bemusing, upon the remembrance (and reclamation) of things past and the inevitable victory of time over memory.

Old Updike hands will find themselves on familiar turf here. In its general outlines, its elegiac tone, and its cynical view of wedded bliss (“the long years of marriage,” Alf maintains, “tend to magnify each of the couple to the other, like mites made horrific under the microscope”), Alf’s tale of domestic estrangement and infidelity often recalls this novel’s immediate predecessor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit at Rest. In both novels, there is the same sad sense of life winding down, of the aging eagle stretching his wings; the same fixation on orgasms and grace. Certainly Alf s gripes about American decline and his sophomoric outlook — he lusts after female flesh and longs for transcendence, yet seems incapable of true human intimacy — make him sound very much like an academic version of Updike’s late, lamented alter ego, Harry Angstrom.

Thematically and structurally, however, Memories of the Ford Administration holds a surprise or two. Alf, for one thing, has a co-protagonist: U.S. President James Buchanan.

Here’s the premise. Alf, a longtime faculty member at a New Hampshire women’s school with the Nabokovian name of Wayward Junior College, has been asked by the editors of Retrospect, a regional historical journal, to contribute to a symposium on the Ford administration; his task is to record his memories and impressions. What he produces is this book, an account of his Ford-era personal life that is peppered with footnotes and friendly bracketed asides to the Retrospect editors and that almost never refers to Ford. (One is reminded of Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, in which Vietnam wasn’t mentioned till the last sentence.) Interpolated in the narrative are chapters from Alf’s uncompleted Ford-era book, part history and part imagination, about Buchanan.

Why Buchanan? Well, Updike — whose play Buchanan Dying was published in 1974 — has long had a special affection for our only bachelor head of state, an affection with which he endows Alf. Of course, many ambitious American novelists, irked by their limited influence on the national mind, have been fascinated with presidential power: witness Vidal on Lincoln, Heller on Nixon, and Mailer on everyone from JFK on. It says something about the differences between these authors and Updike that his own favorite chief executive is Honest Abe’s dull, elderly predecessor, who looked on helplessly while the Union fell apart.

Alf likens Buchanan to Ford: Both were stolid, gentlemanly, unimaginative. But the more one reads about Buchanan. the more he reminds one of George Bush. A moderate ex-congressman and diplomat with a reactionary Southern base, Buchanan proclaimed his policy to be “the status quo” and proved irresolute in the face of domestic crisis, insisting repeatedly that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. It is not hard to understand Updike’s fondness for him: Like the novelist (who gave us a psychological self-portrait in his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness), Buchanan was a careful, conservative, emotionally undemonstrative man with few close friends; he was also, as he tells fellow diplomat and Updike icon Nathaniel Hawthorne, “in my plodding fashion a man of the written word, who has preferred written communication to any other form.”

He was also probably homosexual. Updike’s way of handling this little detail (which plainly makes him uncomfortable} is to ignore it for 200 pages, and then to introduce it by waxing gratuitously snide about contemporary gays, who, “having seized as theirs Whitman, Melville, and Henry James, among our crusty, straight-lipped Presidents must be satisfied with Buchanan.” Granted, Updike portrays Buchanan’s affection for his roommate of eight years, Alabama Senator W.R.D. King, tenderly enough; but there is no attempt here to link our 15th President’s sexuality to any other facet of his character—or, for that matter, to the suicide of the hysterical Lancaster, Pa., heiress to whom he was engaged as a young man. The bottom line here is that Updike simply hasn’t given sufficient thought to the psychological and social ramifications of being homosexual in 19th-century America.

The emotions that Buchanan presumably repressed for most of his life seem to concern Updike less, in fact, than the repression itself — which, for him, apparently marks Buchanan as appealingly representative of his time. Part of the aim here is to contrast Buchanan- and AIDS-era continence with the sexual emancipation of the Ford years, which Alf describes as a “paradise of the flesh,” “a time … of terrifying permissiveness.” It was a time, too, when Alf took full advantage of his erotic freedom, leaving his wife, Norma (the “Queen of Disorder”), for Genevieve (“the Perfect Wife”), and enjoying a one-night stand with a woman whose main attraction for him was that she had the same name as Buchanan’s fiancee. Yet for all his randiness, Alf prefers the Victorian period to his own: “All these nineteenth-century people made sense, in a way we can’t any more.”

Sense: That’s what Updike is after. How, he asks in this novel about a historian who forsakes research and probes his own past, can we best make sense of life? How do the claims of literary art stack up against those of scholarship? Updike’s interest in these questions — and in the differences among the way life is experienced, the way it exists in memory and the ways in which it is rendered by historians, autobiographers and novelists — goes a long way toward explaining the eccentric form of this textual Chinese box, this novel-qua-symposium contribution that seesaws between memoir and something else that itself seesaws between biography and biographical novel.

Updike’s preoccupation here with textuality, the difficulty of knowledge and the relation of fact to fancy reminds one of the deconstructionists. Yet neither he nor Alf has much use for Derrida and company; implicit throughout is that decon’s denial of meaning and morality typifies “the Gerald Ford Zeitgeist.” It’s no coincidence that Genevieve’s husband, Brent, is a slick, fast-track Derrida acolyte and canon-basher who “flatten[s] everything eloquent, beautiful, and awesome to propaganda baled for the trashman” — in sharp contrast, naturally, to Alf, an academic loser {named for presidential also-ran Alf Landon) who loves his books and his dear dead Buchanan, and who even speaks of God. “The past,” Alf notes, “is as illusory as the future, and we exist in the present numbly, blind to the cloud formations, deaf to the birdsong. Yet there is something sacred about life that leads us to keep trying to resurrect it.” Ultimately, it is this sense of the sacred that separates Alf (who strives to reconstruct, not deconstruct) from the egregious Brent.

For Updike, of course, sacredness inheres not only in life but in art.  In an engaging chat about art and politics that is one of the book’s highlights, Hawthorne (who served as U.S. consul in Liverpool while Buchanan was ambassador to Britain) describes art as something to which “we look … for an otherworldly integrity.” Updike could not agree more. Along with the beautifully polished prose and the handful of flawlessly delineated epiphanies, his seriousness about art must count as one of this novel’s chief virtues: there is, unarguably, something fine and even noble here that is appallingly rare in current fiction.

Yet this book also displays the usual Updike liabilities: glibness, caution, lack of fire. More than ever, Updike seems adrift in nostalgia and narcissism. The Buchanan sections, to be sure, provide novelty and texture and tension. But is the whole here greater than the sum of its parts? Not quite. If at times the juxtaposition of Alf and Buchanan generates a touching sense of the isolation and helplessness of the human condition, the transience of life and love, at other times Alf’s Buchanan fetish seems sheer contrivance.