John Updike is dead.
Here in Britain, reaction has been minimal, at least in comparison with the supersized literary obsequies laid on for e.g. the late Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. But then the sort of lower-middlebrow British person who ‘loves books’ — less, it must be said, as minor distraction from real things than as an undemanding, ersatz substitute for any more rigorous belief-structure — was always going to have problems with Updike, who was neither a brash, publicity-seeking, intelligently mouthy New York Jew, a bibulous, sexually debauched and mentally unstable Southerner, nor indeed an insular, complacent, semi-moronic Mid-Westerner, and hence remained almost unplaceable atop the mental map of America with which the lower-middlebrow British imagination has long been issued by its superiors.
For me, however, Updike’s passing speeds the end of an era — not my own era, but that of my parents, born 1925 and 1930 respectively, and their contemporaries. Probably, I read more Updike before I turned 18 than I ever have thereafter. The point about Updike, for a bookish child growing up in the South in the 1970s, was that his writing had the reputation of being dangerously, enticingly risqué. Continue reading
Why write yet another book about London? Why buy one? Why read it once it’s been bought?
The most obviously unusual thing about Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts: A journey through the London night (2007) is that it’s very small — running to a mere 140 pages, not all of them covered in prose — that it weighs only a few ounces, and fits easily into a handbag or jacket pocket. Since there is something about the incomprehensible vastness of London that breeds fat and unwieldy volumes, by creating a work so markedly at variance with the industry standard, Sandhu has already achieved a neat feat of authorial positioning. Early on, by a similar token, Sandhu effectively distances himself from he calls ‘the self-obsessed maunderings of psychogeographic writing’. So to put it more bluntly than Sandhu ever does — the author’s good manners are by no means the least remarkable facet of this in many ways compelling little volume — the diminutive format telegraphs that, no matter how well their books may sell, we are not dealing here with an Ackroyd or a Sinclair, let alone the sort of desperately heart-felt novel in which the author refuses to waste a single London thought, experience or half-forgotten borrowing from someone else’s marginally better book.
And then there’s that subtitle, pacing out the boundaries of Sandhu’s chosen subject-matter. Night Haunts comprises a series of short, interconnected essays in which Sandhu encounters, through a succession of nocturnal journeys, the human face of present-day, dusk-to-dawn London: not ‘nightlife’, for which Sandhu expresses a very fully-formed contempt, but rather the mysterious hidden life that goes on, day in and day out, when most of the Metropolis is sleeping, or at least trying to sleep. Continue reading