The READ: Ephemera, Run
The most interesting piece I read in the Times last week—excluding the profile in which Reykjavik’s new mayor said that he would rule out as a coalition partner “any party whose members had not seen all five seasons of ‘The Wire’”—was Book Review editor (and TNR contributor) Sam Tanenhaus’s 2,500-word exploration of John Updike’s archive. Tanenhaus reports that Updike, who died about a year and a half ago at age 76, left an enormous cache of papers “fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences.” Now at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, it is closed to the public until archivists have had a chance to catalog its 170 boxes—which they estimate will take about two years. In the meantime, Tanenhaus got a sneak peek, and writes that the files, which occupy an aisle and a half worth of shelves, “hold the keys to Updike’s literary universe.” They include manuscript drafts in pencil and typescript, photocopied pages of research material, and hundreds of letters Updike wrote to his parents that chronicle nearly 20 years of his life.
Just about any person fascinated by books has felt the seductive pull of the writer’s archive. Human beings love creation stories, and that’s what the researcher hopes to discover: to witness, in retrospect, the birth of a masterpiece. Literature itself is full of these fantasies, from the stack of letters that obsess the narrator of James’s The Aspern Papers to the revelatory discovery about a famous poet’s private life made by a young researcher in the first pages of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Tanenhaus writes excitedly of the trove of materials that went into the making of Rabbit at Rest: snapshots of storefronts in a Pennsylvania town, photocopies of pages from medical books on heart disease, a memo from a researcher on sales practices at Toyota dealers, a list of basketball moves. There’s even the wrapper from a Planters Peanut Bar, “as lovingly preserved as a pressed autumn leaf,” which Tanenhaus imagines Updike using to come up with the novel’s vivid description of Rabbit dumping the “sweet crumbs out of the wrapper into his palm and with his tongue lick[ing] them all up like an anteater”—one of those actions we’ve all done but would be at pains to describe.
But if these are the keys to a literary universe, where are the locks? None of us, presented with this miscellany of sources, could sit down and write the Rabbit novels. What they actually reveal is how mysterious the essential act of creation is. You might as well gather together Picasso’s paint jars, canvas, and easel and try to reconstruct Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or imagine a ballet by looking at the music, costumes, shoes. What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art. And that process leaves no trace.