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The Centaur by John Updike

The Centaur (edition 1963)

by John Updike

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1,0652114,581 (3.43)35
In a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s, schoolteacher George Caldwell yearns to find some meaning in his life. Alone with his teenage son for three days in a blizzard, Caldwell sees his son grow and change as he himself begins to lost touch with his life. Interwoven with the myth of Chiron, the noblest centaur, and his own relationship to Prometheus, The Centaur is one of John Updike's most brilliant and unusual novels.… (more)
Title:The Centaur
Authors:John Updike
Info:Alfred A. Knopf (1962), Hardcover, 303 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Centaur by John Updike


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» See also 35 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
OK....I'll just say it right out of the gate.....OVER MY HEAD. Proving yet again my theory that a major award-winning book does not necessarily a good book make!!!! Come on.....i read for pleasure....and trust me....I'm not bragging here....but i know zilch about mythology!! Zero!!!! SO, I have no idea what the hell was going on here when Caldwell was the Centaur....or the girl's Gym Teacher was Venus! The rest of the story was almost OK.....sort of......book was just full of people i struggled to like.....even Peter the son......tough life....weird father.......sorry about the psoriasis.....but really.....the non-mythology parts were tolerable, but the other stuff just made me feel stupid.....not a great recipe for pleasure reading......This is my 4th or 5th Updike.....and i think i have the remainder of his work on my shelf.....If i proceed....they will be spaced WAY OUT>>>>> ( )
  jeffome | Mar 16, 2021 |
Updike's prose is so artful, this story is gorgeously told, and there are scenes that will stay with me for some time. Yet, for whatever reason, this book existed as a sort of gray area for me--I wanted more myth or less, and firmer footing in one realm or another. Because although the movement between viewpoints added to the book, there was something about the emotional context and characterizations that kept me at such a distance from the story, I never quite got the impact that I've gotten from Updike's other works.

I may read this again, when my mind has more bandwidth for the complexity, and I'm sure I'll recommend it to particular readers, but this isn't the Updike work I'd start with if you're new to his prose. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Dec 20, 2020 |
A very moving autobiographical story of love and empathy between young Updike and his school teacher father during post WW2 America in small town Pa. . One of my favorite works by John Updike. ( )
  Misprint | Aug 31, 2020 |
John Updike has such a gift with language and storytelling that I almost always find myself enmeshed, sometimes against my own will. The Centaur was one of those books wherein I was far more interested with the premise and the sentences than the overall structure. Still, Updike is always entertaining, so I cannot help but rate him a little higher than I would anyone else. ( )
  slmr4242 | Oct 16, 2019 |
Published in 1963, when the author was 31, The Centaur emerges, like an early flowering, from John Updike’s singular genius. This award-winning novel, set in 1947, chronicles several days in the life of 50-year-old George Caldwell, a teacher of general science at a small-town Pennsylvania school, and his 15-year-old son Peter. George is convinced, despite assurances to the contrary, that he is dying, and more than once maintains that he was never meant to reach such an advanced age. It is not so much that he imagines he’s suffering from a specific illness or ailment. Rather, a prevailing sense that he has failed repeatedly on numerous fronts, has outlived his usefulness and is no good at anything pervades his waking hours, colours his perception of the world and his place in it, and thereby shapes his character. Peter is trapped in the wake of his father’s overwhelming despair. Tormented by psoriasis, the marks of which he strives to keep hidden, he seems to exist in a state of constant shame and intense emotional vulnerability brought on, at least in part, by his father’s unrelenting self-criticisms and declarations of failure and ineptitude, and by his own struggle to not regard his father as ridiculous. The action of the novel follows George and Peter on their difficult travels between their isolated home in the rural countryside to Olinger High School, where George teaches and Peter is a student, and their attendance at several school-related athletic events. In this novel Updike employs Greek myth to illuminate his characters’ actions, passions and motivations. George is Chiron, reputedly the wisest of the centaurs who, gravely wounded, sacrificed his immortality to save Prometheus. Peter is Prometheus, the deity who stole fire and gave it to humans, and who was punished by being chained to a rock. The story of George and Peter, their often querulous interactions and their exchanges with other characters, is certainly engaging and more than simply entertaining, and the novel’s success is due largely to the astounding richness and fluidity of Updike’s language, which explodes from the page, lending each and every scene pinpoint clarity, endowing even mundane gestures and observations with the quality of a miracle. Updike’s third novel, constructed around themes of redemption and sacrifice, is wise and frank, funny and moving. If the Greek myth motif comes across as somewhat heavy handed, it does not detract from a work that is widely regarded as a landmark in 20-Century American fiction and a major achievement by one of the most gifted writers of his generation. ( )
  icolford | Sep 2, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
Purports to tell the story of the evolution of a father's relationship with his son in a small town in modern Pennsylvania. At least this is how the average dopey reader would undertand the story, until, that is, he is confronted with an index ... having belatedly realised that the modren-dress story is a retelling of the legends of classical Greece.
added by KayCliff | editNew Writing 9, Robert Irwin (Dec 12, 2010)
Above all there is that beautiful Updikean wordplay, here manifested in attributive metaphors. Half the sentences in this book could be studied for Updike’s uncanny ability to lay visual markers on unrelated nouns, embedding man-made objects into natural surroundings by modifying the images of the artificial with those of the natural.
This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features. The title, grindingly reinforced by the tasteful Hellenic fragment on the cover, sounds the warning note of “significance” and the severe intention is further signaled by a dark quotation from Karl Barth on the title page: something about man being “a creature on the boundary between heaven and earth.” As if one were not tuned by this time to the “universal” wave length, there follows on the next page, before our story really begins, a précis of the myth of Chiron, the weary centaur who sacrifices his immortality as an atonement for Prometheus. Then, lest we forget, the author has appended, at the suggestion of his wife, an index of the mythical references which crop up throughout the text...

The fact is that Updike does himself a great disservice by enameling his tale with the elaborate reference. At the center of all that wearisome pedantry he has a neglected germ of literary imagination. The father is carefully and sympathetically observed with a shambling heroism, fatigued and gullible, which is nicely set off against the irritable fondness of his son. He has chosen however to inflate this compact moral set-up, blowing it up into a volume which is out of proportion to its weight. It finally becomes flounderingly portentous and pompously intoned, like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.
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"Heaven is the creation inconceivable to man, earth the creation conceivable to him. He himself is the creature on the boundary between heaven and earth. "
But it was still needful that a life should be given to expiate that ancient sin, -- the theft of fire. It happened that Chiron, noblest of all the Centaurs (who are half horses and half men), was wandering the world in agony from a wound he had received by strange mischance. For, at a certain wedding-feast among the Lapithae of Thessaly, one of the turbulent Centaurs had attempted to steal away the bride. A fierce struggle followed, and in the general confusion, Chiron, blameless as he was, had been wounded by a poisoned arrow. Ever tormented with the hurt and never to be healed, the immortal Centaur longed for death, and begged that he might be accepted as an atonement for Prometheus. The gods heard his prayer and took away his pain and his immortality. He died like any wearied man, and Zeus set him as a shining archer among the stars.
--Old Greek Folk Tales Told Anew
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Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow.
"The Devil and me, Pop," my father said. "I love lies. I tell 'em all day. I'm paid to tell 'em." (Knopf, 1990, p. 49)
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In a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s, schoolteacher George Caldwell yearns to find some meaning in his life. Alone with his teenage son for three days in a blizzard, Caldwell sees his son grow and change as he himself begins to lost touch with his life. Interwoven with the myth of Chiron, the noblest centaur, and his own relationship to Prometheus, The Centaur is one of John Updike's most brilliant and unusual novels.

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