Updike on Golf, Germans, Tina; Brooks Hansen Visits Napoleon

It was a Friday, so John Updike of Beverly Farms, Mass., had passed the day on the greens at the Myopia Hunt Club in nearby South Hamilton where the Herbert Corey Leeds Memorial Tournament was under way. “Golf takes all your time but gives you little back except a sunburn and sore feet,” said the author from his home.

Still, Mr. Updike sometimes writes about golf. He wrote the essay he calls “Golf in the Land of the Free” for the United States Golf Association’s 1994 photographic compendium Golf: The Greatest Game , and he included it in More Matter , his 50th book, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on Sept. 28. It is his fifth nonfiction collection and it includes all manner of snippet, remark, introduction, speech, review and rumination from the past eight years. It includes several pieces written for in-flight airline magazines.

“I put in everything,” said Mr. Updike.

“I get more requests to draw up lists of the best L.P.’s of the millennium,” he said. “All these people with no sense of history don’t seem to know that the millennium goes back to the year 1000 when there was no electricity, no L.P.’s, not even a movie theater. I think it’s a great deal of calendar hype. I’ll be glad when it’s over and we’re in the year 2000.”

Mr. Updike is 67, and even though it’s easy to place him as a public man in 1957, 1969 or 1975, here he is in 1999. And as a popular phenomenon, he said he feels a little out of place.

“I’ve gone from being a guy who used to see his books in drugstore racks and in airport racks and I don’t see them there anymore,” said the creator of onetime high school basketball starter Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom.

“In fact, they don’t fit anymore in the airport racks because the so-called mass market size, I’m out of it. I’m in the quality paperback size, which is a bigger size. I never aspired to be a James Michener or a Stephen King, but I think it is a loss when you think you have almost no living contact with the mass of American readership, when you’re read a little bit the way poets are read, by people in the trade, by rival poets. I see what people near me in airplanes read. Businessmen seem to have a firm grip on the latest Tom Clancy.”

Mr. Updike pronounced “businessmen” as if it were two words, the way the word “basket-ball” used to appear. “The big bulky thrillers appeal to these deal-making men, power-wielding men.”

He then explained how he wound up writing two articles for Lufthansa’s in-flight magazine Bordbuch .

“Well, it was a very impressive magazine in fact, very sumptuous, the Vogue of in-flight magazines. Also, I find it hard to say No to Germans, no matter what they ask me. I feel we should all be nice to the Germans.” It was hard to tell if that was Mr. Updike’s offhand tribute to Bertelsmann A.G., the German media conglomerate that bought Mr. Updike’s publisher, Random House.”They tend to be nice to me,” he said. “Germans pay well, and there’s always a shadow of intellectual interest. And there is the slight comfort of writing words that will be translated, so it’s like hiding or having a mask on in a funny way.” Besides which, added Mr. Updike, “They read still. I believe they have the highest literacy rate-at any rate, proportionally to their size.”

Mr. Updike said the novel in general “is hanging in by its fingernails. I’m a great believer in the novel as a mixture of a poem and a treatise, that is, it has some of the density and surprisingness of a poem, and some of the informational content of a treatise, and in my limited writing experience, there’s nothing quite as deep down exciting as being in the middle of a novel.”

Maybe being in bed once ran a close second. Does he think about life under the covers as much as he used to? “I think it’s safe to say No,” he said. “I think my interest did maybe peak some decades ago.” He paused. “You know, in high school, Swinton High, there was this odd game where any sentence if you added the phrase ‘between the sheets,’ it became enormously funny.” He chuckled. “Like, ‘We’re having an interview between the sheets,’ or, ‘I was playing golf today between the sheets.’

“The Spaniards have a saying that nothing is interesting except your own death, but I think Freud would insist that sex is interesting. Sex makes us do most of the things we do, makes us buy magazines, makes us play golf probably-it’s all an attempt to make ourselves viable on the sexual market. Most of our enterprise, most of our education, getting a driver’s license, getting a stockbroker’s license-all that relates to sex.”

Speaking of that, it seemed pertinent to bring up Doris Day, for whom he has expressed admiration in print. “I’ve been a great admirer of Doris Day ever since I was an adolescent and listened to her singing ‘Sentimental Journey’ on the local jukebox in I guess ’45,” he said. “And then when she was in the movies, those early musical comedies with Gordon MacRae, my affection deepened, and she’s never done anything to lessen my affection.”

Did he ever make contact with the movie star? “I think we had a brief correspondence,” said Mr. Updike. “I once reviewed her alleged autobiography. I was so much a Doris Day booster that I called her agent a swindler and then he sued me, so in the course of the lawsuit-or maybe even afterwards-I did get a letter signed ‘Susie Creamcheese’ from Carmel, Calif., in a round confident handwriting that I took to be the real thing, the real Doris Day handwriting.”

Hey! Had Mr. Updike, who worked with Tina Brown at The New Yorker , read her new monthly general interest magazine, Talk ?

“I haven’t seen it yet,” he said. Then his cadence brightened. “It physically exists, it’s not just a piece of buzz in the air? There really is some paper with Talk on it? I don’t think it’s hit the local newsstands up here. I’ll make an effort to see it. Although it sounds like it’s very celebrity-focused, as if there isn’t enough celebrity focus already.”

These days, an observer expects certain tics from New York’s up-and-coming fictionalizers. For instance, they tend to sing with one choir or another-the writing workshop circuit, the magazine-freelancer’s ghetto, the artist’s-colony brigade. They speak nonchalantly of publicity budgets, sales conference presentations, dust jacket photographs. And in the real dark night of the soul, they might be found at a keyboard, tapping out a story … “W-W-W-.-A-M-A-Z-O-N-.-C-O-M.” (The marketing site’s sales rankings are updated hourly.)

Brooks Hansen, though, does not participate in these activities. He cares about words. Sitting on a wooden bench in midtown Manhattan recently, his demeanor was that of a gentleman crossed with a precocious child. He went easy on the hand gestures. A copy of Perlman’s Ordeal , his fourth book, was close at hand.

“I kind of regard the words as my enemies,” he said. “Words and sentences are a little like dealing with grocery store carts-they always want to whiz off in their own direction and you have to maintain a firm hold on them to keep them going straight. That’s how I feel about language.”

He switched metaphors. “I prefer to treat words like they’re made of wood. They should be used simply and firmly, and not a lot of stress should be put on them.”

Known as a novelist of ideas, Mr. Hansen bristled at the notion that he is a “literary” writer. “I think that’s flatly and demonstrably untrue. It’s only on the basis of my content that you could think I was all that literary-because classical music, because esoteric ideas come up.”

Perlman’s Ordeal , published in early August by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is set in London in 1906. The novel concerns August Perlman, a specialist in “suggestive therapy”-hypnotism-whose entire belief system is threatened by the arrival in his clinic of a severely dehydrated schizophrenic teenage girl who’s familiar with the lost city of Atlantis. That’s the main thrust, although classical music, spiritualism, and opium figure in heavily.

Atlantis is not so exotic a journey for the 34-year-old author. His second novel, The Chess Garden , plies Swedenborgian philosophy and conjures the imaginary land of the Antipodes. When it was published by Farrar in 1995, some compared Mr. Hansen to Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, who happen to be his favorite writers. Riverhead Books published The Chess Garden in paperback, and it continues to be a hardy perennial, which is all authors and publishers really want.

Most “literary” writers, Mr. Hansen said, aren’t telling stories so much as writing. “They enjoy words,” he said. “They’re describing. They belong to a tradition that probably rightly understands the novel to be a large elastic form that’s there to catch not just the story they need to tell but everything their character happens to be thinking.” David Foster Wallace, whose best-selling tome Infinite Jest fluttered in at 1,088 pages, is one of the elasticists.

“I think that page for page and in style, I have a lot more in common with Stephen Kingor Michael Crichton,” said Mr. Hansen, “and I have a great deal more admiration for what those popular novelists are able to do than for other so-called literary writers.”

“It seems to be the aim of the reader is to penetrate the psychology and the biography of the author, as if that’s what fiction is, a document to be analyzed psychologically …,” he said. Then he paused. “I have no biography.”

Actually, he has. Thirty-four years old, Mr. Hansen grew up on East 79th Street, then went to Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard College, where he majored in philosophy and English and wrote a senior thesis called “The Thing About Heidegger.” Now, the philosophy books have been pushed aside for sheet music. Mr. Hansen spends quite a bit of time at a Steinway upright piano playing Prokofiev, Schubert, Bach and Scarlatti. He is also a Mets fan.

His next novel takes place on the island of St. Helena, circa 1830. The premise? “Napoleon as houseguest,” he said. “The value of setting stories in remote times and places is that it forces you to rely upon the most basic aspects of humanity-jealousy, lust. The story is all you have. If the story were set here, it may be swamped by irrelevant observations.”

But now he’s on to St. Helena. “I’ve got this particular idea which I am extremely passionate about. If someone were to ask me ‘What do you do?’ I’d much more happily say ‘I write the Napoleon’ than say ‘I’m a writer.’”

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.