One test of a good or interesting critic is the ability to make one look afresh at a piece of writing that one knows – or thinks one knows – like the back of one’s hand. Very often this is achieved by pointing out something so obvious that one is left feeling stunned at one’s own stupidity and overawed by the brilliance of the critic: a condition to which I was swiftly reduced when, thumbing through this vast collection of reprinted book reviews, essays, speeches, autobiographical snippets and introductions to other books, I came across the name of Sinclair Lewis. Though Lewis is – as Updike notes with some relief – ‘at last fading from the bookshops’, I have long been a lone admirer, and every two or three years I eagerly reread his masterpiece, Babbitt, the touching tale of a raucous, back-slapping, golf-loving and deeply unhappy estate agent in a small Midwestern town who mounts a brief revolt against the futility of life, consorting with left-wingers and canoodling with a vamp before being hauled back to the straight and narrow. I had always thought of Mrs Babbitt as a melancholy cipher (‘She was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive’), yet Updike shows how, from her position in the wings, she dominates the entire novel, allowing Babbitt his moment of frenzy before ruthlessly reeling him in. He’s right, of course, and the book will never seem quite the same again.
Curiously enough, Updike didn’t get round to reading Babbitt until he was well embarked on his own celebrated series of novels about business and suburban life, the hero of which not only bore an almost identical name to Babbitt, but found himself