“Twin Beds in Rome” (1963)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013), edited by Christopher Carduff. Updike wrote some 230 stories in five and a half decades. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition in anticipation of a subsequent volume collecting those. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.
[Written in Ipswich in 1963, “Twin Beds in Rome” was published in the Feb. 8, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, collected in The Music School, Too Far To Go, and The Maples.]
The story opens with a lyrical, almost wrenching summation of the Maples after a decade of marriage, their emotions a tangle of paradoxes they cannot control, whether out of habit or fear, or because passion’s opposite force is as indomitable as passion itself. Which is why they can still make love, and find in each other the ardor they miss everywhere else, and the purpose they miss everywhere else, in bed. It’s another one of those Updikean paradoxes that give sex the last word. Until it’s shut up entirely, all is never lost:
The Maples had talked and thought about separation so long it seemed it would never come. For their conversations, increasingly ambivalent and ruthless as accusation, retraction, blow, and caress alternated and cancelled, had the final effect of knitting them ever tighter together in a painful, helpless, degrading intimacy. And their lovemaking, like a perversely healthy child whose growth defies every deficiency of nutrition, continued; when their tongues at last fell silent, their bodies collapsed together as two mute armies might gratefully mingle, released from the absurd hostilities decreed by two mad kings. Bleeding, mangled, reverently laid in its tomb a dozen times, their marriage could not die.
Ten times they’d made a pact to take a trip and decide then and there if they clicked or not anymore, and move on. So they do again, to Rome. As they ride the bus in Rome from the airport to their hotel, Joan, in one of many echoes of The Sheltering Sky, the 1949 Paul Bowles novel, tells Richard how she “could ride this bus forever.” That gets Richard remembering his wife when they were at their sexual prime and she spoke of being aroused when, at a gas station, an attendant swayed the car as he cleaned the windshield. Those stirring moments between the Maples are gone. Richard, we’re led to believe, has tried recapturing them, to no avail, though if his method is as crude as he displayed it in “Wife-wooing,” it’s no wonder. This is not a man skilled in the art of seduction. Not taking that into account gives Richard’s point of view disproportionate sympathy, with all of Joan’s emotions filtered through the Richard’s serrated, nascent mysogynism. “Of all the things she had ever told him,” Richard thinks back to that luscious moment in the swaying car (so subtly told back when the explicitly sexual wasn’t yet Updike’s shortcut to readers’ libido), “this remained in his mind the most revealing, the deepest glimpse she had ever permitted into the secret woman he could never reach and had at last wearied of trying to reach.” The secrecy remains mysterious, as if to absolve Richard. We should not be so ready to absolve, not having heard from the defendant.
At the hotel, a surprise. They give them twin beds. Richard panics mildly. Bed is their last, their only refuge. Joan tells him not to be sad and invites him to her bed if he can’t sleep. He can’t help, even when attempting a compliment, to be rude: “‘You’re such a nice woman,’ he said. ‘I can’t understand why I’m so miserable with you.’” But it’s him who rejects her once he falls asleep. Of course. As in “Wife-wooing,” he wants to be the instigator. He’s not interested in a gift.
They do the tourist thing in Rome. Ruins, naturally. As becomes a recurrent theme with Richard, he develops an ache, likely psychosomatic. His stomach, his feet. He calls them “a nervous ache.” He opts to, crutched onto Joan, walk back to the hotel and nap. It works, and he wants to go out again. And it was “in this city of steps, of sliding, unfolding perspectives, of many-windowed surfaces of sepia and rose ochre, of buildings so vast one seemed to be outdoors in them, [that] the couple parted.”
Or seemed to. With Updike–or with Richard Maple–the ideal ending sought is never the solution. Richard retreats. The trip worked for his wife. He sees her happy, serene, confident, the stronger by far in the couple. “She was happy, and, jealous of her happiness, he again grew reluctant to leave her.”
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|