Updike and Foreign Fiction

By Susan Harris

In May 1998 I opened the New Yorker to discover a review, by John Updike, of Péter Esterházy's She Loves Me, which I'd published in my Hydra imprint in late 1997. The review was not a rave. Updike compared the book unfavorably to Calvino, tsk-tsked at the breakneck pace of the narrative, and derided the language, though did catch his breath long enough to acknowledge, "Still, there is vividness, an electric crackle." His negative comments did not temper my delight. The mere fact that Esterházy was reviewed in the New Yorker, and by Updike to boot, meant that the book was noteworthy, part of the literary discussion.

Updike will always be associated with the New Yorker for his fiction and poetry, but starting in the 1970s he was also the magazine's de facto translation reviewer. He wrote on writers familiar (Umberto Eco, Gabriel García Márquez) and less so (Harry Mulisch, Mikhail Prishvin), often at length, always in depth, and with the grace and precision that characterized his own fiction. Novelists who review evaluate work as both critics and peers, and the influence of their opinions reflects their dual perspectives; the readers of Updike's criticism may be assumed to be the readers of his fiction, and as receptive to books he recommends as they are to those he wrote himself. The New Yorker, as a literary magazine directed to the educated general reader, added its own imprimatur. Updike's criticism, appearing in the pages of his home magazine, endorsed his subjects on multiple levels. He and the New Yorker presented world literature as something as much a part of contemporary literary culture, and as accessible and pleasurable, as his own writing. And for that, all of us in translation publishing can be grateful.


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