27 FEBRUARY 1993, Page 30

Looking back in sorrow

Anita Brookner

MEMORIES OF THE FORD ADMINISTRATION by John Updike Hamish Hamilton, £15.99, pp. 371 ohn Updike goes post-modern' might be, but is not, the publishers' announce- ment for this novel. If the publishers are wary of putting off Updike's devoted read- ers they have for once a legitimate anxiety on their hands, for Memories of the Ford Administration lacks the captivating fluency of Updike's earlier and more recent novels and collapses, rather alarmingly, into sever- al parts, representing different epochs and different states of consciousness, a break in normal structure which we are going to have to get used to since it has, rather puzzlingly, caught on to such an extent that it has become formulaic.

In the post-modern novel the writer's contract with the reader has been arbitrari- ly renegotiated. Too often an episode from the past has been incorporated into the contemporary narrative, as if two books were being written simultaneously, or as if the author were trying to impress the read- er with his ability to turn history to his own personal use. The result, which should be ironic, is too often incoherent, and the hero of such a novel, usually a scholar or historian researching his own past, would provide a service if he were to write a short introduction or prologue informing the rest of us of his intentions.

Such a hero is Professor Alfred Clayton, who is invited by the Northern New England Association of American Histori- ans, Putney, Vermont, to submit an article on the Ford Administration to the Associa- tion's Triquarterly Journal, Retrospect. In fact Clayton, an amiable suburbanite in the normal heroic Updike mould, can remem- ber nothing of the Ford years, in the remote Seventies, apart from the fact that this was a period when the exchange of bodily fluids was deemed a harmless, not to say an obligatory exercise. True to form Clayton is pursuing a liaison with Genevieve, the wife of his colleague Brent Mueller, an academic of the sardonic, radi- cal type who has deconstructed Chaucer down to the ground and left Langland without a leg to stand on. This association is not without consequence for Clayton's own research, which is not on the Ford

Administration but on James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States, and arguably one of the most upstanding and tedious men in American history.

Memories of the sexually liberated Sev- enties, to which Clayton generously con- tributed, are thus interspersed with excerpts from his biography of Buchanan, a book of which only a fragment has been written but for which bushels of notes exist. It will have been noted at a very early stage in the novel that Updike's sentences are becoming longer and more ornate, Nabokovian even, and this development may herald an exciting late style to which we are entitled to look forward. But there is more than one style on offer here. Clay- ton's one written chapter of the Buchanan biography deals with Buchanan's courtship of Ann Coleman, and deals with it in the most flowery, ornate, and rococo manner possible. This may either be his reaction to Brent Mueller's version of scholarship, or may, and probably does, express Clayton's own secret romanticism, so often frustrated during the Ford years (his own) and so often yearningly expressed in terms of the most opportunist sexual congress.

What is interesting about the episode of Buchanan's courtship is the character of Ann Coleman herself, exhaustingly described down to the pattern on her shawl. Updike has always been excellent on women, whom he truly appreciates, and the rebarbative Ann, an unlovable character in whom hysteria is so interestingly apparent, arouses all his sympathy. This episode also gives us a clue as to why this biography will never be completed, let alone published. Any academic writing in the style of a Gothic romance would, in today's climate, be divested of his tenure, or at worst have his contract terminated.

The rest of the Buchanan biography con- sists of a mass of undigested material which is reproduced here in its entirety. Updike has in fact written about Buchanan, 'in real life', one is tempted to say, and the novel (for it is conceived as a novel) comes with a bibliography, as well as epigraphs from Rousseau and Derrida. Presumably the Rousseau applies to the ruminative nostal- gic pail of the narrative, while the Derrida signals the interludes in which the author turns auteur. It must be confessed that the Buchanan material is difficult to read, and it is not until the end that a unifying thread appears. This is seen to be thin, or would be were it not for one beautiful sentence. `In those years I was a fabulous creature, wiry and rapacious, racked by appetites as strange to me now as the motivations of a remote ancestor.' The regret here expressed sets the seal on a novel of sur- prising sadness.

Even the adventures with other men's wives seem a little perfunctory. There is the usual wife, the usual mistress, there are several assorted children, there is the stolen weekend in New York, and there are the passing women who besiege Clayton in his digs and offer themselves casually, as was the custom in the Ford era, that time before Aids, when making love was all the fitness training that was required of one. There is also the obligatory campus setting (when will someone have a good word to say for these places? Balzac would have got ten novels out of one end-of-term recep- tion) and the tender representation of a natural setting as unobtrusive as it is harm- less.

In fact Updike threatens to become more majestic as his writing life continues, and as a consequence the reader is in dan- ger of losing those precious details of late- 20th-century suburban life which will undoubtedly be of interest to future histori- ans. There is enough in this novel, the title of which is a typical Updike joke, to remind us what a truly authoritative writer he is, but not quite enough to enable us to enjoy him without reservations. My guess is that Memories is a turning point in his work. One is already impatient to see what comes next.