Wednesday, 28 January 2009

A Writer of Our Time

John Updike died at the age of 76. The newspapers were full of laudatory obituaries. He was described as “kaleidoscopically gifted”, “intuitive” and “lyrical”. Mostly though, he was remembered as a “chronicler of the American middle class,” a writer who wrote about the Average Joe.

Chekhov, too, wrote about the average man, about the art students, civil servants, workers.

Chekhov’s “average man” stands for mankind. By tackling the concrete problem of individuals, Chekhov addressed larger issues facing men everywhere. That is what Sarte called littérature engagée or committed literature. Vladimir Kataev describes some of it characteristics in his competent Chekhov critique, If Only We Could Know!
The point at which other writers would think they had completed their task – by making the hero break or intend to break with the social milieu, or by registering their protest against vulgarity and their support for humanity, culture, dignity and personal independence – is the very point at which the real problem and investigation begins for Chekhov.

Truth in Chekhov is above all a synonym for complexity. And most often the Chekhov hero does not know the whole truth.

For Chekhov, an essential component of truth in all its completeness is always beauty.

A further requirement of the “real truth” is that it should be universally significant.

Finally, truth for Chekhov is inseparable from fairness.
Chekhov is a Western writer because his ideas and discoveries are in line with the artistic/philosophical discoveries of the Western artists and philosophers. In his Philosophy of Ethics, for example, Kant shows that the defining characteristics of ethics must be its universality. What is ethical on your part cannot be unethical on the part of your enemy.

For Updike, writing about the average American in the suburbs meant, as the Financial Times correctly stated, writing about “sex, marriage, divorce, materialism”. Salman Rushdie equally accurately said that Updike wrote about “wife swapping in the suburbs”.

Updike’s average man has no social significance; the author could not discern the social issues the way he “discerned” the smell of a barn in a New England village. This provincialism was in full display whenever he took on what the New York Times called the “exotic” subjects. The “Coup”, “Brazil” and “Terrorist” were downright embarrassing.

Updike, too, was part of the milieu in which the current financial crisis is unfolding.