Sunday, May 28, 2006

Dentistry, doubt and an interesting B&B

In a few spare moments I had the chance to read an incredible short story by Updike of a vicar going to the dentist in Oxford, UK. I must have reached the point in his short story collection that he has started to talk about his experience in England and the 'twittering English'. The story is so real that it must have happened. He visits a dentist and the dentist just out of the blue asks him if he can quote anything that Richard Hooker has written (because the character is doing a PhD on Hooker), to his shock, the whole experience of getting a filling and talking to this quite pleasant dentist makes him re-evaluate all that he is studying. The most intelligent thing that comes to his mind is 'More than ninety percent of the world's anthracite used to come from Pennsylvania'.

It isn't until he is about to leave that he remembers a quote by Richard Hooker. The doubts aren't there explicitly but I think that in the last few lines he is trying to express the idea that when it came to theology, the dentist put his experience in perspective and he found it far more enjoyable to watch the birds outside the window:

"'I just thought of a quotation from Hooker. It's very short.'
'I grant we are apt, prone, and ready, to forsake God; but is God as ready to forsake us? Our minds are changeable; is His so likewise?'
Dr Merritt smiled. The two men stood in the same position they had hesitated in when Burton entered the room. Burton smiled. Outside the window, the wrens and the starlings, mixed indistinguishably, engaged in maneuvers that seemed essentially playful."

I then went on to the next story which is entitled 'The Madman' which is about a young couple who travel to Oxford, UK and have nowhere to stay. They end up at a B&B, and I just feel I have to quote all of this because it is one of the most enjoyable Updike paragraphs I have read in a very long time:

"Early in the evening as it was, Mr Pott wore a muttering, fuddled air of having been roused. The BED AND BREAKFAST sign in his window seemed to commit him to no hospitality. Only after impressing us with the dark difficulty of it, with the unprecedenting strain we were imposing upon the arrangements he had made with a disobliging and obtusely technical world, did he lead us upstairs and into a room. The room was large, chill, and amptly stocked with whatever demigods it is that supervise sleep. I remember that the deliciously cool sheets and coarse blankets were topped by a purple puff smelling faintly of lavender, and that in the morning, dressing, my wife and I skipped in and out of the radiant influence of the electric heater like a nymph and satyr competing at a shrine. The heater's plug was a ponderous and dangerous-looking affair of three prongs; plugging it in was my first real work of acclimatization. We appeared for breakfast a bit late. Of all the other boarders, only Mr Robinson (I have forgotten his real name) had yet to come down. Our places were laid at the dining table, and my place - I couldn't believe my eyes - was set an insanity, a half of a cooked tomato on a slice of fried bread."

You get a real sense of the outrage of the American about the English man who is so shocked to have to do work early in the evening and that he hadn't booked his room two weeks in advance which would have been 'proper'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I used to go to the same dentist as Updike --here in America-- until my dental insurance coverage changed. Now he's out of network, so I see someone else. I don't often see Updike around town, but once in a while he is also where I am.