Updike

January 27, 2009

I’ve always been more a partisan of Philip Roth than of John Updike; my experience with his work is limited.  I suppose Roth’s post-war Jews grabbed my attention more than Updike’s “Protestant small-town middle-class,” and if I needed the latter, I always had Faulkner.  But I still felt something drop in my stomach when I read the headline.

The piece of his writing that made the strongest impression on me (and I’ve only read a handful of stories, essays, and poems; never a novel), was this story, from The Atlantic‘s 2007 fiction issue.  And what I remember isn’t much the story itself (I remember much more the act of reading it, out back in late summer humidity) than the single, fragmentary line I copied into my notebook:

“… her mother tongue, the language of her heart…”

I wrote it down then because “mother tongue” made me think of Yiddish, the mame loshn now departed.  But today, looking at it for the first time in over a year and with much more experience now in and out of English and other languages, I can say it explains my love-bordering-on-obsession with English — why I come back to her after every dalliance with classical Greek, even though that Hellenic glossa is the more beautiful — better than Roth’s brief apologia in The Counterlife ever could, no matter how fond I am of quoting it.

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