Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review of the Day: The Centaur

Despite its title, I was surprised by how myth-centric The Centaur is. It is the story of a high school science teacher and his student son. It is also John Updike's re-telling of the myth of the centaur Chiron who, wounded, gives his life (his immortality) to Prometheus.

This is a book I may appreciate more in the recollection. While reading it, I was distracted by the allegory. Sometimes, the mythical references were too vague or convoluted to catch and I had to refer to the index at the back to make sure I wasn't missing something important. But at times, the myth is more than allegory -- it is right there in the middle of the action. Updike sometimes refers to the hero as Chiron and describes his hooves clacking on the school stairs, for instance. I found the switch from allegory to action to be jarring.

Also, the hero was annoying, not just to me as a reader, but to his son, wife, and co-workers in the story. I can't figure out how his unlikeability ties in with the myth of Chiron.

I read this because it won the National Book Award in 1964. I prefer his Rabbit novels.


  1. I was in high school when "The Centaur" came out, and read it then .... thought it was really good, although my mythological background wasn't strong enough to make all the connections. Since then I've read a lot of Updike (I may be wrong, but I think this was his first novel), I know my mythology a little better (or at least where to go to check the allusions), and I've been thinking recently that I ought to return to this one -- partly out of curiosity to see how my adult self feels about something my adolescent self liked a lot. Time changes how we think about these things, doesn't it?

  2. Hi Bob! Thanks for visiting!

    I would think re-reading The Centaur would be very interesting for you, since your take on a book about high school are going to be very different as an adult than it was when you read it as a high school student.

    If you do re-read it, I would be interested in your reaction to the myth aspect. I always feel manipulated by modern stories that retell myths -- like the author is requiring me to play a game and score points instead of doing what I want him to do, which is tell me a good story.

    And Updike is certainly capable of telling great stories. His Rabbit series is one of my all time favorite reads. And I really enjoyed Terrorist. I just finished Villages, which I thought was OK, but so similar to Couples that I think he was reminiscing, not creating.

    By the way, The Centaur is Updike's 3rd novel. You reminded me that I was working on a list of his novels to post. I'll get to that now.

  3. No, I'm a dolt. I already posted the list of Updike novels.


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