Thursday 4 April 2024

Twin Beds in Rome by John Updike

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius.

I enjoy reading John Updike in small doses. His stories largely center around white American suburbanites and their marital squabbles, which does not necessarily appeal to my interests. Not to mention, the misogyny and latent racism often prove to be somewhat disconcerting. Nonetheless, despite these reservations, I find myself irresistibly drawn back to Updike's lean prose time and again, for his unparalleled mastery of the short-story genre. His skill as a writer is truly remarkable; elevating the mundane into something beautiful or transcendent. Moreover, he possesses the unique ability to craft such compelling stories around the most self-centered and abhorrent characters. 

Now that's talent.

In "Twin Beds", Richard and Joan Maple find themselves entangled in marital discord once more (a predictable occurrence). In a seemingly questionable attempt to mend their fractured relationship, they opt for a trip to Italy—a decision that prompts one to ponder the wisdom of vacationing with a spouse while in perpetual conflict. Ironically, the constant arguments and bickering somehow brings them closer together into what the narrator refers to as "a painful, helpless, degrading intimacy." Even their sex life feels more like routine obligation. The twin bed sleeping arrangement at the hotel serves as a poignant reflection of the widening physical and emotional chasm between them. Despite Richard's unwavering insistence on ending their marriage, his contradictory desire for Joan's happiness remains steadfast.

The narrative primarily revolves around the couple's exploration of Rome as tourists, immersing themselves in the vibrant pulse of the city. They traverse its bustling streets, venture into museums, marvel at the grandeur of churches, and behold iconic landmarks like the Colosseum. Their whirlwind tour offers a sensory feast—aromas wafting through the air, captivating sights at every turn. The prose is imbued with vivid, poetic imagery, casting Rome as a dynamic second character.  There is a poignant moment when Richard is afflicted by severe foot pain during their city excursions and Joan tenderly assists him back to the hotel: "The rain and Joan, having been in some way the pressures that caused it, now became the pressures that enabled him to bear it." More irony. Here, Joan's loving support transforms into a beacon of solace for Richard, symbolizing the shifting dynamics of their relationship. 

Amidst the backdrop of ancient ruins, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire serves as a heartfelt metaphor for the couple's tumultuous and crumbling relationship. Joan even tells him, "Darley, I know what was wrong with us. I'm classic, and you're baroque." Each moment of connection is tinged with a bittersweet awareness, a delicate balance between the beauty of the present and the looming specter of an uncertain future.

When in Rome.

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