In an interview in the Paris Review, John Updike confessed that The Centaur seemed his truest and liveliest book, a book which he was prompted to write in order to publicize the myth of Chiron, one of the few instances of self-sacrifice from the classical world. The novel contains an interesting, if at times rather disturbing, mixture of classical figures amid a realistic setting. The purpose of the actual presence of the mythological figures was to expand the significance of Peter Caldwell’s nostalgia and to counterpoint an ideal with a drab level of reality.
The story is told by Peter Caldwell, who describes himself as a mediocre abstract expressionist painter. In the course of the novel, Peter, who lives in Greenwich Village with his black girlfriend, re-creates a three-day period immediately after World War II, when he was a teenager. Through his recollection, Peter is able to understand his father, George, with a clarity denied him as a younger man, and he recognizes the self-sacrifice that his father made in order to enable his son to pursue his career as an artist.
The novel opens abruptly within the mode of the mythological by introducing Chiron—disguised as a high school science teacher—who has been wounded in the ankle by an arrow in accordance with the Greek myth. He limps out of the classroom on his remaining three hooves to Al Hummel’s garage to have the arrow removed. Chiron returns to his classroom by way of the school basement to avoid the principal, who hectors him throughout the novel. In keeping with the mythological setting of the first chapter, the centaur recalls meeting Al Hummel’s wife, Vera, in the guise of Venus, once before in the school basement. The image of her emerging from the steam of the...
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