Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sex and Sensibility: Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike


Come, follow me down these winding stairs to my basement.  Step over here and look at my bookcases, all 29 of them.  Ignore the other 28 and concentrate on this one bookcase and, in particular, these two shelves.  Do you see that?  All those Rabbits and Bechs with their sex and Protestant crises.  Irrefutable proof that John Updike is a master of my universe.

Today is Updike's birthday--had he lived, he would have been blowing out 80 candles on his cake--and so my thoughts turned to his books and their influence on my own writing.  Rabbit, Run is the book which first grabbed me, back when I was a junior in high school.  You must believe me when I say that as I sat there in my cramped desk in English class holding that yellowed and musty paperback book in my hands, the rubbery ping of Rabbit Angstrom's basketball literally sucked the breath out of my lungs.  It was a tipping point for my soul (grandiose as that may sound).  I'll have more to say about Rabbit, Run at a later date when I can form more coherent thoughts, but for now here's a review of one of Updike's late-career books, Gertrude and Claudius, which I wrote twelve years ago, back when the author still had about a dozen more books left in him.

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To Updike or not to Updike.

That is the question some readers will ponder as they consider the prolific author’s nineteenth novel, Gertrude and Claudius, a densely-worded tale of the events leading up to Hamlet.

To those indecisive readers, I say, “Get thee to a bookery!”

Updike is at his finest hour in these pages, delivering a fresh view of the Hamlet tale that will especially appeal to lovers of the Bard.  Updike’s narrative focuses on the years prior to the first “Is that a ghost I see before me?” scene of Shakespeare’s play.  Using ancient texts as well as Shakespeare’s Quarto versions as his basis, Updike begins with Gertrude forced into marriage with King Hamlet.  An “ample, serene, dewy and sensible girl,” she resists the political union at first.  However, a night of Nordic sex, written with Updike’s typically delicate earthiness, soon changes her mind and she lends her heart to the king.

Waiting in the shadows, however, is her brother-in-law Claudius, a well-traveled warrior who falls for Gertrude the moment he sees her.  He tries to stay away from Elsinore castle, busying himself with foreign wars, wine, women and song, but eventually he returns and finds himself more in love with Gertrude than before.

Adultery ensues, of course, and as anyone familiar with Updike’s eighteen other novels knows, he’s not shy in describing such matters.  The sex in Gertrude and Claudius is moist and sensual in a manner more suited to Danielle Steele than Shakespeare.  Updike has never been one to blush at descriptions of bedroom matters and here he recreates medieval couplings with a 21st-century lustiness.  The adultery between Gertrude and Claudius is vivid and unforgettable.

Ominous music begins to play in our heads as familiar events begin to unfold: the king begins to suspect his wife and brother, Hamlet is sent away to school, Yorik dies.  It is a chilly kingdom, made colder by royal sin.

We all know what happens next: the sleeping king in the garden, the poison in the ear, the final bloody family feud.  The novel doesn’t cover the events of the play, but stops short at Act I, Scene 2 where Hamlet mutters, “A little more than kin and less than kind.”  The final paragraphs, in which Claudius envisions a rosy future, are a rousing symphony of irony, told only as Updike can.

We don’t see much of the young prince—he makes an appearance in the final pages, but beyond that, we mostly hear Gertrude referring to him as “isolated,” “brooding” and “quirkish” (and that’s when he’s five years old!).  You won’t learn much about the character of Hamlet (Shakespeare does a good enough job of that, in my opinion), but you will get to know the play’s more peripheral characters: Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet Sr., and Polonius (who, in true fashion, goes around dispensing homilies like “Unease, Your Majesty, is the human lot, even for the most exalted.  The pampered foot most feels the pinch.”).  Polonius turns out to be not such a doddering old fool after all and Gertrude is less conniving than Shakespeare would have us believe.

The novel is a bit slow out of the starting gates.  Some readers will have trouble with the long, meandering paragraphs; others will be confused by the unfamiliar names given to familiar characters.  In a Foreword, Updike notes that the names are taken from ancient legends and thus Gertrude=Gerutha, Claudius=Feng, Hamlet=Amleth, and so on.  To make matters tougher, Updike switches spellings between each of the novel’s three parts.  But if you bear with him, you soon settle into the rhythm of the archaic construction.  After all, wasn’t it Hamlet himself who said, “words, words, words”?

Contemporary novelists have re-visioned old texts before—Norman Mailer and the New Testament (The Gospel According to the Son), John Gardner and Beowulf (Grendel), Updike himself and Nathaniel Hawthorne (S.)—but this is by far the best I’ve read yet.  Updike’s language mirrors Shakespeare’s with a fresh contemporary spin.  The images, and the words used to describe them, are earthy, dank and greasy.  Here’s Gertrude doing her own Hamlet-ish monologue as she ponders her future between husband and lover:
O the days, the days in their all but unnoticed beauty and variety—days of hurtling sun and shade like the dapples of an exhilarated beast, days of steady strong cold and a blood-red dusk, tawny autumn days smelling of hay and grapes, spring days tasting of salty wave-froth and of hearth-smoke blown down from the chimney pots, misty days of sifted sunshine and gentle fitful rain that glistened and purred on the windowsill like a silvery cat…days of high ribbed skies like an angel’s carcass, December days of howling sideways snow
(and so on for many more phrases of this full-bodied paragraph).

Such heady sentences like that might turn away some readers. I, on the other hand, happen to really enjoy Updike’s brash use of English, his sentences that feel at once unfettered and tightly controlled.

Here’s another passage with tasty language that got my writer’s blood simmering as Gertrude (Gerutha) disrobes for her husband on their wedding night:
By the snapping firelight her nakedness felt like a film of thin metal, an ultimate angelic costume. From throat to ankles her skin had never seen the sun. Gerutha was as white as an onion, as smooth as a root fresh-pulled from the earth.

Updike certainly has a tough row to hoe in today’s market whose bookstore browsers have grown used to taking their Shakespeare in DiCaprio-sized bites.  Can he, the scribe who once shaped a generation with a character named Rabbit, pull another hare from his hat of literary tricks?

The answer comes trippingly off my tongue: “Aye!”

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