Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Updike March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009

It is with regret that I heard today that John Updike died early on Tuesday morning. He was 76 years old. John Updike specialised in making the mundane magical.

The following obituary is from 'The Independent':

John Updike did not "advance" the novel, and he was not an experimental writer; he was innovative more in what he wrote about – sex in particular – than in any technical sense. Yet he was a prolific writer on a Trollopian scale, his stylistic mastery the more remarkable for its abundance. And the best of his novels, which appeared overthe course of six decades, make him one of a handful of American writers whose work in the second half of the last century will be read in the second half of this one.

Paradoxically, given his intense intellectuality and mandarin prose, Updike wrote his best work about ordinary life, especially in his tetralogy about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Updike's own background, at least superficially, was itself "ordinary". He grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, 100 miles from New York City, but in cultural terms a backwater. His parents were educated people – his father taught high school maths; his mother had an MA – but of modest background, and though not straitened, the family's circumstances, particularly during the Depression years of Updike's boyhood, were lean.

An only child, Updike spent much of his childhood in the company of adults – his maternal grandparents were very much around – and the solitude he felt was reinforced when the family moved from town to a farm when he was 13. His isolation was increased by a childhood stutter that made occasional appearances throughout his adult life, and by the skin affliction psoriasis, a complaint which seems mild only to non-sufferers. Neither popular nor unpopular among his peers, he was average at sports and unprecocious with girls, but he liked to read and draw from an early age.

A taste for the mysteries of Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner seems at odds with the expansiveness of his own adult work, but Updike later noted that it "did give me some lessons about keeping a plot taut." A more sophisticated literary palate was developed by a near-addiction to The New Yorker, for which a kindly and more sophisticated aunt annually bought a subscription for the family.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Updike did very well indeed (graduating summa cum laude). He later attributed this to arriving at college as something of a tabula rasa on which the lessons of his Cambridge, Massachusetts instructors could be received without the impediment of premature opinions. He also joined and eventually became editor of the famous Harvard Lampoon, the comic paper of the university which itself later spawned its famous eponymous descendant, the National Lampoon. He wrote poems, sketches, stories, and drew cartoons; by the time Updike had graduated, both a story and a poem had been accepted by The New Yorker, then beginning its post-war ascent.

Attending the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford for a year, Updike (newly married to Mary Pennington, a fine arts major from Radcliffe College) was visited by Katharine White, the legendary fiction editor of The New Yorker (and wife of one of its most famous contributors, E.B. White). After this anointment any indecision about a future as a writer or one as an illustrator was resolved when he was offered a writing job at the magazine by its legendary editor, William Shawn. Living on Riverside Drive, Updike proved an adept writer of the short pieces that fill the Talk of the Town section at the front of the magazine, and he began regularly to place short stories as well. But after two years he'd had enough:

I felt oppressed by New York. I attended a party... attended by a lot of old New Yorker hands, all grizzled and old and hard-drinking. I looked at them with my naïve provincial eyes and thought, do I want to wind up like this? I thought not.

He moved to Boston's North Shore, no longer a member of the magazine's staff. It was a risk of sorts, for had he stayed Updike doubtless would have risen in the ranks of editors/contributors at what was becoming America's pre-eminent cultural magazine. Yet leaving freed Updike to focus on the fiction he wanted to write, and it freed him, too, to return to the background of his youth as a subject – the background that was to provide him with his most famous character, Harry Angstrom, the eponymous Rabbit.

Yet his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), was a mild, polished piece of work. Set in the future in an old people's home in New Jersey, it seems designed to show off the precocious facility of its young author's prose. In its muted comedy quite similar to Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, a writer Updike admired, it is none the less an apprentice work. Another early novel, The Centaur (1963), reads like an intellectual exercise, its straightforward plot of the relationship between a father and son needlessly complicated by an allegorical scheme that makes the father a modern-day Chiron and his son Prometheus. It exasperated many critics, including the New York Times lead reviewer, Orville Prescott, who found it "lost in a maze of pretentious experimentation."

The self-conscious artistry of these early works was curiously similar to the very early novels of his contemporary, Philip Roth, and of Saul Bellow a decade before. If he did not share their sense of ethnic exclusion, Updike, for all his WASP-ness, was also an outsider, the product of small town and farm America, who seemed keen to show that he was now operating in an intellectual milieu where he belonged. Yet as with Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March or Roth in Portnoy's Complaint, Updike's strengths as a writer really first emerged when he returned to the environment of his childhood, an America a million miles away from the Algonquin Hotel.

Rabbit Run (1960) is the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, 26 when the story begins, a former high school basketball star who now makes a living demonstrating the MagiPeel Kitchen Peeler to housewives in five-and-dime stores. His is the classic story of an ex-athlete baffled by the subsequent failure of life to repeat his adolescent triumphs. Married to Janice, who drinks too much, with one son and another child on the way, Harry finds his life changed when he falls for Ruth Leonard, a woman on the fringes of prostitution whose alternating toughness and vulnerability stir Angstrom in an unprecedented way. He leaves Janice for Ruth, resists the entreaties of the local vicar to return, but goes back to the alcoholic Janice after she accidentally drowns their new-born baby in the bath. The freedom once felt on the basketball court remains elusive, though at the novel's end there is the powerful sense that Angstrom will keep trying to find it:

His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

It is a fairly simple story of an ordinary man, but told in extraordinary language. To many readers Rabbit's thoughts seem outlandishly complex, improbably articulate, but the dialogue of the book is entirely plausible. Updike defended himself vigorously:

In a novel, you have to give the characters eloquence and not be constantly chopping them down to what you think is the correct size... Everybody senses more than they could say. A novelist tries to give people the words to express what in fact almost everybody does feel.

If there was beauty and subtlety in an ordinary life, there was, he argued, a beautiful eloquence lurking in an ordinary man. And he never believed that writing should be invisible; aesthetically he could not be further from the likes of minimalist stylists such as Raymond Carver:

I think people know... that this object in front of them is a page of words. What I really like in a book is the sense that the writing is itself entertaining.

Three more Rabbit novels were to follow over the decades, charting the characteristic rise of Rabbit into the solid middle-class affluence so widespread in post-war America. Rabbit Redux (1971) was inspired by the tumultuous events of the 1960s in America, which led Updike to wonder what his earlier hero would make of them. The domestic tables have been turned, for it is Janice now who leaves Rabbit, for Stavros, a car salesman. Staying at home with his young son Nelson, Rabbit soon takes up with an 18-year-old runaway named Jill, and for a time this odd ménage prospers, as Rabbit overcomes his fearful distaste for the emerging counterculture of marijuana and rock 'n' roll.

The arrival of Skeeter, however, a black militant friend of Jill, brings an unsurvivable tension to the household, culminating in a fire that kills Skeeter and Jill. The irruptions of racial conflict, sexual liberation and the overhanging influence of the war in Vietnam are injected so obviously into Rabbit Angstrom's life that some critics complained, but 40 years on these themes seem brilliantly positioned, since it was precisely humdrum lives that were affected most by the '60s.

All four Rabbit novels present a protagonist whose sexuality is intense, aggressive, sometimes destructive. Depicted with unsparing candour, this sexual preoccupation is particularly strong in Couples (1968), Updike's account of the marital mores of 10 couples living north of Boston in Massachusetts. Often described as an upscale Peyton Place, Couples is in fact a beautifully written novel which captures the emotional misconduct and misalliances of adultery as much as the vividly described physical details of its extramarital couplings. It put Updike on the cover of Time magazine, and made him a mass best-seller for the first (and virtually only) time.

It seems oddly innocent now, especially in its depiction of a middle-class world whose inhabitants have so little to do of real importance that they are almost forced into the emotional dramas of "open marriage". The writing here is richer than in the Rabbit novels, but equally acute:

'I love you' was pulled from him like a tooth. The mirror above the basin threw him back at himself. His flat taut face looked flushed...

Updike's own marriage had ended in 1974 (he married again three years later, to Martha Bernhard, a former member of the Updikes' social circle) and his work in the 1970s revolves unsurprisingly around marital life and marital discord. Adultery featured again in Marry Me (1976), the story of two couples' relationship, set in 1962 American suburbia. A Month of Sundays (1975) is more complex: it has a clergyman for a hero, a glib philanderer sufficiently schooled in contemporary theology to rationalise his most untheological ministering to female members of his congregation.

Throughout his career, Updike wrote short stories, many of them for The New Yorker and classic examples of the magazine's fiction – elegantly drawn portraits of middle-class life, focused on marital tensions, elliptical rather than dramatic. They are beautifully executed, but lack the alternating exuberance and despair of the master of the genre, John Cheever, or even the narrative momentum of an underrated writer, John O'Hara.

An extraordinary exception is the story "A&P". Much anthologised, it is told from the viewpoint of a young man working in a supermarket. Prospect-less, he is, like Rabbit, an example of Updike's vision of what he might have been had he not left his own small-town roots. Three girls enter the shop fresh from the beach, wearing bathing suits, suggesting a mix of sexuality and affluence entirely absent from the store clerk's dreary life. When the shop owner chastises the girls for being improperly dressed, the young man impulsively quits – in a gesture of defiance we see at once is based as much on despair as pique. As he leaves and goes outside:

I look around for my girls, but they're gone, of course... and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me thereafter.

In Rabbit is Rich (1981), as the title suggests, Rabbit has been sucked into the rampant affluence of post-war America's middle class. He is the owner now of a Toyota franchise, an indication in the oil embargo years of the late 1970s that America can no longer stand aloof from the world. The book's main concerns, however, remain essentially domestic, and Rabbit's persisting feckless sexuality threatens to destroy his already-difficult relationship with his son. The material security afforded Angstrom for the first time cannot disguise his continuing spiritual malaise which, as in Rabbit Redux, seems emblematic of the unease and uncertainty now afflicting the nation.

In Roger's Version (1986) Updike was writing at his finest, this time about a mildly malevolent hero, a middle-aged professor of divinity at Harvard, whose sexual preoccupation is made worse by his knowledge that his sexual abilities are waning. He becomes besotted by the louche, foul-mouthed half-niece who appears on the scene, and is convinced his own wife is dallying with an evangelical computer nerd. It is in many ways an unattractive story, suggesting that Updike himself saw the demeaning aspects to Roger's obsessiveness, but his descriptive powers remain extraordinary:

I changed her diaper; her skin was delicious to touch, fine-grained and blemishless, like silk without the worminess.

Or describing how a house was built in the early 20th century:

... the working classes and the work ethic were still hand in hand and skilled labor was cheap, as shown by a quiet outpouring of refined details.

The relentless realism of the Rabbit novels was counterpoised by other efforts more obviously imagined – in The Coup (1978) an ex-dictator tells the story of his rise and fall in the imagined African state of Kush. It is a tour de force, since Updike, like Saul Bellow with Henderson the Rain King, had never set foot on the African continent. Fifteen years later, in Brazil (1994), he again tackled an utterly alien culture in his tale of two lovers who live out a modern version of Tristan and Iseult.

Updike also refused to be confined to contemporary settings, and his interest in the American past inspired his play Buchanan Dying (1974) about the last days of one of the country's more obscure presidents, caught in the middle of the increasing conflict between North and South in the pre-Civil War years. Updike returned to Buchanan in his later novel, Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), about an American historian involved in the short-lived Ford presidency after Watergate. And in In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), Updike traces the century-long impact on his descendants when a Presbyterian minister loses his faith one afternoon. Other novels, including Toward the End of Time (1997), were set in the future, and had a small but discernible sci-fi aspect.

This diversity seemed wilful and reflected the extraordinary gifts of a writer who could put his hand to pretty much anything – he even published five children's books early in his career. Yet Updike's most successful work was reiterative. He repeated the success of his satirical take on Jewish-American novelists, Bech (1970), with Bech is Back (1982) and Bech at Bay (1998). Less light-heartedly, he concluded his Rabbit novels magnificently with Rabbit at Rest (1990). Retiring early, Harry Angstrom now spends most of his time at his condo in Florida, playing golf, alarmed at his testosterone's decline and struggling to make sense of his past. His suspicion that he once fathered a child by his long-ago lover, Ruth Leonard, is confirmed. When he dies, playing "hoops" with a baffled bunch of black teenagers, he is only 56, but seems appropriately played out after Updike's penetrating dissections of his character each decade.

Despite his abiding interest in the state of everyday life in his own country, Updike was neither sophisticated nor very cogent in the limited exposure he gave his own political convictions. But then he never claimed to be. During the Vietnam War he penned the dissenting article "On Not Being A Dove", which briefly threatened to tar him with a reactionary label. What saved Updike from notoriety among his liberal-minded peers, however, was his own obvious uncertainty about his politics, his high standing in all other respects among an East Coast liberal elite (exemplified by The New Yorker), and his essential personal niceness.

What the article reflected, more than anything, was his own optimism about his native country and his belief that however misguided its conduct, the motivation at work was inherently benign. As he said with almost Boy Scout buoyancy, "... I still believe inthe American Dream... in America you have the sense... it's a country without a government we need to be afraid of." In the controversial Terrorist (2006) he portrays, not altogether successfully, a Muslim-American protagonist, Ahmad, who turns against his country, a perspective which Updike obviously finds difficult to imagine fully, just as he seems uncomfortable with violent ambitions. As he admitted in an interview:

Having avoided violence in my life, I tend to avoid it in my fiction. Which is wrong, since violence is part of life. Yes, maybe it's a key part of life... I'm a man of domestic adventures almost exclusively.

Over the years Updike became in many senses an Establishment figure, and won virtually every prize of note in the States. The Nobel Prize eluded him, whether through the caprice of one Stockholm judge, as was rumoured, or a sense of diminishing returns in the later work. He was not always popular with his peers: John Cheever, whom he liked and admired, did not return the affection, though his disdain was less for Updike's work than, perhaps, a sense that Updike lived in a trouble-free zone which Cheever did not inhabit. Bellow, too, resented Updike, perhaps understandably since at least part of the composite caricature of the Jewish-American novelist-hero of Bech was based on him. There was also some sense that he was too overtly careerist. He saw writing as a trade, and admitted that he had never kept a journal because he wouldn't be paid for it.

A frequent reviewer, Updike's criticism was generous, wide-ranging, but not always incisive, since any edge to it was watered down by the gentleness of the man. One exception was the novelist Tom Wolfe, whose dreary novel A Man in Full was the object of a rare Updike debunking, self-confessedly settling scores for Wolfe's devastating satire of Updike's sainted William Shawn, written 30 years before for the Herald Tribune. Updike claimed he disliked reviewing his American contemporaries since this was territory "where envy or friendship enter in and distort the honesty of the book report." He made exception for younger writers such as Anne Tyler, whose praises he sang long before she was famous; he also praised an unlikely mentor, Henry Green, whose work he claimed, surprisingly, as a seminal influence.

He wrote frequently enough about golf to publish a collection (Golf Dreams, 1996) but though entertaining, his pieces were handicapped by his own manifest mediocrity at the game. He seemed intent on finding something in golf that isn't there; the best golf writing either accepts that golf is life or that golf is just a game, but never that golf is somehow a metaphor, made vivid by elevated prose.

As a poet, Updike's work had the recognisable technical merits of rhyming and scanning, and pleased the kind of reader who finds all poetry post-Walter de la Mare incomprehensible. It stands in relation to his prose much as the poems of Kingsley Amis do to his and is roughly of the same calibre – worthy, capable of being enjoyed (especially Telephone Poles, 1963), but entirely unexceptional.

His greatness, then, did not stem from the undoubted multiplicity of his talents, or from the amazing amount he wrote. It lies instead in the best of his novels, where he married his ever-astonishingly accomplished style to characters and situations that reach our hearts. Of course, even in fiction, it seems there can be too much of a good thing, and the sheer volume of books he wrote eventually set in motion a critical backlash, especially among the young. A certain fatigue had set in, particularly noticeable in his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008). The voice, the epitome of an educated New Yorker-reading postwar man, seemed less enlightened in the world of a new century. The late David Foster Wallace went so far as to describe a later Updikean protagonist, and by implication Updike himself, as "an asshole".

Updike's personal opinions were too marked by an intense desire to learn and do the right thing to merit this kind of derision. The aspects of his characters that seem outmoded and reactionary today, in particular the simple lusts of men living in a pre-feminist age, are incontestably reflective of the times they depict. In this sense Updike presented a mirror to America in an age when all seemed possible, a country not yet uncertain of itself. It was a mirror built of words that showed Americans themselves.

Andrew Rosenheim

John Hoyer Updike, writer: born Reading, Pennsylvania 18 March 1932; married 1953 Mary Pennington (marriage dissolved, two sons, two daughters), 1977 Martha Bernhard; died Beverly Farms, Massachusetts 27 January 2009


Anonymous said...

This is the best of the obituaries I'v read so far

coffee said...

John Updike's passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. "Immortality is nontransferrable" he said appropriately.

Igneos said...

Hi Coffee,

Good to see you here, yes, we couldn't hold on to Updike forever and I have hardly read 1% of his work but it still came as a jolt for me and his passing is worthy of a salute.

Immortality for a writer is something I don't feel is completely desirable, how many of us want to be remembered for a comment we wrote in a rushed 5 minutes 5 years ago but we are privileged to have Updike.