A few thoughts about John Updike

John Updike is dead.

Here in Britain, reaction has been minimal, at least in comparison with the supersized literary obsequies laid on for e.g. the late Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. But then the sort of lower-middlebrow British person who ‘loves books’ — less, it must be said, as minor distraction from real things than as an undemanding, ersatz substitute for any more rigorous belief-structure — was always going to have problems with Updike, who was neither a brash, publicity-seeking, intelligently mouthy New York Jew, a bibulous, sexually debauched and mentally unstable Southerner, nor indeed an insular, complacent, semi-moronic Mid-Westerner, and hence remained almost unplaceable atop the mental map of America with which the lower-middlebrow British imagination has long been issued by its superiors.

For me, however, Updike’s passing speeds the end of an era — not my own era, but that of my parents, born 1925 and 1930 respectively, and their contemporaries. Probably, I read more Updike before I turned 18 than I ever have thereafter. The point about Updike, for a bookish child growing up in the South in the 1970s, was that his writing had the reputation of being dangerously, enticingly risqué. He used swear-words (is there anyone alive who’ll believe that the first time I ever encountered the word ‘fuck’ was while taking surreptitious peeps, aged 9 or so, at Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying?), he wrote about sex, his books were full of adultery and divorce and self-doubt. His subject, in other words, was adults and what they did.

And this, more than anything else, was what was both dangerous and enticing in his work. Truly, Updike’s prose (I’m thinking here of the Rabbit books, Couples and also the short stories then available in book form) functioned as the lexicon that rendered a succession of otherwise unintelligible, mysterious events taking place around me all at least a little bit comprehensible. Apparently one can buy, these days, books that purport to tell you what your cat is thinking. Updike, even more miraculously, could tell you what your parents were thinking!

And, well, Updike could also tell you — surreptitiously — about a form of sexuality that transcended some sloppy school car-park experiments into the art and science of kissing, an unrequited crush on the youngish Sam Neill and whatever lessons in life that could be gleaned from court cases that made their indiscreet way into the News & Observer. Although clearly of no practical use, such information was at least fascinating, in the way that wholly academic knowledge so often is.

Oddly, as pre-teen critic of literary style, I never had much time for Updike, preferring either the super-saturated arrogance of the later Nabokov (Speak, Memory, the generally unloved Ada), or Faulkner’s alternatively maddening, compelling repetition.

Reading Updike in 2001 (Memoirs of the Ford Administration, yet more short stories), after a long hiatus, only served to remind me how subtle, sly and important those lessons had been. Never before had I noticed how ruthlessly our own lives end up being shaped, however dialectically, by the conventions, minor snobberies and repetitive mistakes of the preceding generation.

I know little if anything of Updike’s politics. Presumably, like virtually all writers, he was a liberal of some sort. But at the same time, if he projected quite a lot of angst and guilt, there was also contentment there — sometimes even complacency. Updike may have been critical of America, in an indirect way, but he certainly wasn’t as resounding in his contempt for the place as other authors have been — which may account, in part, for his lukewarm reception here in recent times, in which tolerating America for anything other than its exportable contemporary culture, prophylactically sheathed in the slickest of ironic carapaces, constitutes an unforgiveable failure of taste.

And then, in due course — an adult myself, now, complete with husband and child — I started reading Updike’s writing on art, first in the New York Review of Books, then later in Still Looking, a collection of essays on American art. Updike is a very good writer on art, if not a great one. He takes a workmanlike interest in how pictures are put together — well, having put things together for most of his life, this technical emphasis is understandable. He is also anxious to understand, or at least to imagine, the story behind the image, and if possible, what’s going on in the artist’s mind. Sometimes, as with Eakins, this works very well. Eakins and Updike share a regard for silences, evasions, polite reticence. He’s also very good on Hopper, to whose weaknesses he’s particularly alert. In other cases, though, — his essay on Arthur Dove is an example — the connection doesn’t quite take place, and so Updike ends up sounding too much like a smart re-writing of Robert Hughes, but with neater, more obviously forced conclusions. All the same, the implication that any literate, thoughtful person might at least try to write about art struck me, then and now, as encouraging.

Ultimately, then, I lament Updike’s passing. Of course he wrote within a limited range. His habitual voice was that of the self-obsessed writer. Most of his characters were Updike-alikes, those various sexes, creeds, backgrounds and psychosexual complications not quite disguising that strangely familiar sensibility. His prose was often over-handled — there was a kind of Yankee self-doubt there, an anxious heaping of exculpatory description, yet more distancing, as if ten words would always have a statistical advantage in getting it right over the two or three that might otherwise make the grade. His Terrorist (2006), apparently, is not a very good book. His work speaks towards a particular experience of America that probably sounds astonishingly dated now, when it isn’t simply unbelievably and marginally repulsive to outsiders. And yet, in a way, he did that thing that creative writing teachers always say one ought to do, which is to ‘write what you know’ — and for what it’s worth, I do think he catalogued a field of experience that actually did exist, and what’s more, did so with some subtlety, patience and the odd flash of humour. He did, in the end, ‘give the mundane its beautiful due’.

And what will be my abiding memory of the late John Updike? I remember sitting in a dentist’s chair — the shiny surfaces, antiseptic smells and pointlessly specialised instruments so redolent of what one somehow always believed must be the industry norm in more contemporary torture-chambers — in Raleigh, North Carolina. The date must have be about 1979. If so, I’m about 14 years old. It’s winter, or just the end of winter. Over to my left, there is window through which I can see the late afternoon sky, pink-grey and soft-surfaced as a dove’s back. There’s a wet roof out there, and a glimpse of rain-glazed carpark. I’m mildly apprehensive, but also slightly bored. In some sort of ambient way, I suppose I must be worried about my divorced parents’ endless litigation regarding custody, visitation, contempt. Like my grandmother, I distrust dentistry. I want to be at home, eating popcorn and leafing aimlessly through one of my mother’s Skira art-books. Muzak drones sadly in the background, briefly parodying a theme from Sibelius. The rim of the dentist’s tray, ceramic and impervious, is edged like the crust of an old-fashioned pie.

And I can remember thinking at the time that if I had been John Updike — if I could write like that, if I could think like that — somehow I could perhaps make something out of all of this, the world all around me.

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6 Comments

Filed under books, RIP

6 responses to “A few thoughts about John Updike

  1. Thanks for the link, Barry!

  2. ahab

    I was somewhat surprised by and very much enjoyed the sudden shift at the end into the voice of the deceased, written from what you know, of America. Nicely fitting.

  3. Glad you liked it, Ahab.

    There’s a striking quotation in that Boston Globe obituary:

    “There’s a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has,” Mr. Updike said in his Globe interview. “A crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that, more than talent, is what separates those who do it from those who think they’d like to do it. That your witness to the universe can’t be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it’s worth providing.”

    More than anything else, that sums up Updike’s contribution to my younger self — which is why it seemed worth adding those various thoughts to the mountain of commentary, grudging or appreciative, already heaped on Updike’s literary achievement.

  4. the loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it’s losing such great writers

  5. Hello Coffee. My personal answer to your question is, unsurprisingly, almost as pessimistic as the tone of your question itself.

    Of course it’s normal — conventional to the point of banality — to believe that the literary heroes of one’s childhood could never possibly, under any circumstances, be matched by the writers of one’s maturity or indeed senescence. But while I’m quite relaxed about the loss of Pinter, for instance, what happens when Gabriel García Márquez dies? For all his self-indulgently silly politics, it’s hard to see who, or what, makes up for that loss. I’ll also miss V. S. Naipaul, for all his pomposity and tiresome literary feuding and unpleasant biographical revelations, when he executes his definitive repatriation.

    On the other hand, it’s possible that something brilliant is being written out there, even now and I’m simply missing it. After all, I read very little fiction these days — and certainly no contemporary fiction at all. Ideas, anyone?

    On a lighter note, I was amused to hear the woeful Wendy Cope — the Beryl Cook of letters — announcing that the post of Poet Laureate ought to be abolished, as it’s apparently ‘impossible to write great poetry to order’. Well, that’s the Aeneid put in its place, anyway. Or maybe Ms Cope simply means that she can’t write great poetry to order? As we’ve seen very little evidence that she can write poetry, or indeed much else, this seems the far more likely reading. How charmingly modest of her, then.