January 28th, 2009

Updike At Rest

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John Updike has died at seventy-six.

In the last decade or two, his work had increasingly grappled with issues of aging and death, so perhaps his actual death should come as no surprise. But somehow it does—as it may have to him, if a passage from one of his early stories, “Pigeon Feathers, ” is any guide:

The story is about a boy, David, who is forced to shoot some pigeons in a barn and then watches, fascinated, as their feathers float to the ground. “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

“Prolific” is a term often used to describe Updike. The man spewed forth words at an almost alarming clip, churning out approximately one book of fiction or short stories a year throughout his long literary life, not to mention a simultaneous outpouring of book reviews and other essays. It would be surprising if all of them were very good, and of course they’re not. But an astonishing number are.

Updike’s fictional oeuvre wasn’t really my cup of tea. The trials and adulterous liaisons of hard-drinking suburban men of the 1950s and 1960s, or the similar doings of former basketball stars in small-town Pennsylvania, aren’t my favored reading topics. But even though I’m not much of a novel-reader in general, I managed to voluntarily get through quite a sampler of Updike’s fictional output, mostly because of his amazing ability to write.

In this he reminds me of another (and less prolific) literary stylist of very different background and subject matter: Vladimir Nabokov. But where Updike celebrates the ordinary and accessible, Nabokov delves into the arcane and mysteriously complex. Where Updike is somewhat warm (although at times repellent), Nabokov is very cold (and at times repellent). But both are almost unsurpassed in their ability to string words together beautifully in what are often very long sentences that nevertheless retain their clarity of meaning.

These are virtuoso performances, meant to inspire awe. And they do. Updike also writes from a stance of awe (even religious awe; he was a very religious man) at the entire physical world and especially its amazing human denizens. And although he is often accused of being a misogynist because of the way he draws many of his female characters, I have always perceived a sort of grudging respect (and perhaps even awe) for women’s emotional depth and tenaciousness behind his portraits of a sex that always fascinated him.

My favorite works of Updike are his short stories and his personal essays. I happen to like the short story genre in general better than the novel, and in Updike’s case the shorter form focuses his mind and pen (or typewriter, or computer). Many of his short stories are far more openly biographical than his more wide-ranging novels; and this suits me, as well. I have always found truth stranger—and far more fascinating—than fiction, even if it is a shaped and slightly altered, more literary, truth.

You may laugh at the word “truth” in the context of fiction writing. But my sense of Updike is that in his writing he was almost ruthless with himself. The heroes fashioned in his image are often flawed men, bent on their own pleasure even at the expense of others, as they struggle with their competing desire to be decent and with their need to reconcile themselves with God. Nothing is simple; even Updike’s serially philandering husbands often experience a poignant and bitter regret when interacting with the divorced wives they left behind—and the regret is not only for the havoc they wreaked on the ex-spouse or the children, but that which they unwittingly inflicted on themselves.

One of my favorite Updike short stories is called “Guilt Gems.” It describes three incidents in the middle-aged male protagonist’s life that have left him with a terrible residue of guilt. These episodes are not what you might think; there is no sex involved, for instance. If I recall correctly (and forgive me if this in in error, because I am doing this from memory) they consist of the following: the narrator banishing the beloved family cat to the basement because he is allergic to it, and seeing the resultant stricken and angry look on his son’s face; the narrator allowing his elderly mother to drive home alone from the airport; and the narrator tagging out his daughter in a neighborhood baseball game.

The subject matter may sound trite, but in Updike’s hands it is not. Both in the descriptive and in the psychological sense, the writing is lusciously beautiful, as Updike’s writing nearly always is.

But perhaps my favorite Updike work is his “memoir,” entitled Self-Consciousness. Eschewing the conventional narrative trajectory of most autobiographies (as does Nabokov’s somewhat similar work, Speak, Memory), it deals with just a few aspects of Updike’s life.

Typically, two of them (his stuttering, his psoriasis) are previously hidden personal flaws that Updike chooses to expose and explore. If that sounds disgusting or vaguely Oprah-ish, Updike manages to avoid that trap. But best of all, the book contains the tour-de-force essay “On Being a Self Forever.” The subject is nothing less than individual human existence.

Now that Updike’s life is over, we will have no more yearly offerings from that singular voice. But the celebration of the ordinary by this extraordinary writer lives on.

[ADDENDUM: For other photos of Updike in varied stages of life, please see this.

The title of this post is a reference to the final book in Updike's famous "Rabbit" series, entitled Rabbit at Rest, in which hero Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom dies.]

16 Responses to “Updike At Rest”

  1. dane Says:

    In my teens and twenties I read and enjoyed many of Updike’s books. But like Catch 22 (Heller), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Robbins) and others at – when I went back to read them I no longer found the humor or really enjoyed them. Maybe I just got cynical, but I actually think it was because, while the stories were pretty good, the writing wasn’t all that great or memorable. There are some authors that I can reread more than once and I still find myself captivated because they understand that mostly it is the journey not the destination that is the point of the story. I miss John D. McDonald.

  2. Tatyana Says:

    I was surprised to learn that you find Nabokov cold. “Reserved”, maybe. Disillusioned- yes.
    Cold – as much as gray ash that covers volcanic boil underneath.

    If all Updike’s writing is mike the “pigeon” example above – how boring, verbose and convoluted his style is, then. No clarity, just posturing.
    Bleh.

  3. Tatyana Says:

    Oh, and I wish people stop sharing the all-important news of their stuttering or psoriasis. Really, this kind of too-much info should only be revealed to a prospective spouse, as a warning.

  4. physicsguy Says:

    As an avid golfer, Updike’s short stories, and articles which often appeared in Golf Digest were gems to be treasured.

    A truly great writer. And, as every golfer knows, an honest writer. Nothing reveals the true nature of any person more than a round of golf. Within a few hours you can immediately find out who is the cheat, who is self-delusional, who has a sense of grace and humor (most likely Updike from his golf writings), etc.

  5. rickl Says:

    I’ve never read much Updike, but I have a good friend who is a huge fan. He regards Updike with roughly the same awe and near-reverence that I have for Bob Dylan.

    I guess I ought to check him out.

  6. rickl Says:

    Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

    The classic piece where he witnessed Ted Williams’ final at bat of his career. Williams hit a home run.

  7. mizpants Says:

    Updike did extraordinary things with language. Maybe the apparent ease with which he wrote had the effect of cheapening his writing, but that really shouldn’t count against him. The news of his death hit me in the solar plexus. It was one of those end-of-an-era moments, and even though he was never really my favorite writer, I feel bereft now that he’s gone.
    When Roth goes I’ll weep and tear my garments.

  8. LAGrant Says:

    I went back to college in my fifties because I enjoy the give and take in a good class. In one writing class, I was assigned one of Updike’s books. I couldn’t stand the whiny middle aged man tone. He may be a genius, but I can’t see it. The funny part was the C I got on the paper. The prof, who I admired and got along with, told me that I could rewrite (i.e. regurgitate what she wanted to hear) for an up-check. I declined.

  9. Beverly Says:

    Commentary magazine published Updike’s essay “On Not Being a Dove” again, in his honor.

    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/on-not-being-a-dove-7529

    It’s particularly pertinent to this blog; do check it out. He talks about being a lifelong Democrat, member of the literati — and patriot, and supporter of our efforts in Vietnam. And how difficult it was to assert these things in his circle and family.

    He delves deeply into his own motives, into those of others around him, and the zeitgeist of the time. Damn near all of it applies to today. And his insights are nuanced, yet powerful.

    It will really repay your time well to read it. Go, do!

  10. Beverly Says:

    Just a snippet from the above-mentioned essay:

    “I differ, perhaps, from my unanimously dovish confrères in crediting the Johnson administration with good faith and some good sense. Anyone not a rigorous pacifist must at least consider the argument that this war, evil as it is, is the lesser of available evils, intended to forestall worse wars. I am not sure that this is true, but I assume that this is the reasoning of those who prosecute it, rather than the maintenance of business prosperity or the President’s crazed stubbornness. I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President, even when not lifted to the paranoid heights of MacBird; even the best of the negative accounts of our operations in South Vietnam, such as Mary McCarthy’s vivid reports or Jonathan Schell’s account of the destruction of Ben Sue, too much rely upon satirical descriptions of American officers and the grotesqueries of cultural superimposition. The protest seems too reflexive, too Pop; I find the statements, printed with mine, of Jules Feiffer and Norman Mailer, frivolous. Like W.H. Auden, I would hope, the sooner the better, for a “negotiated peace, to which the Vietcong will have to be a party,” and, like him, feel that it is foolish to canvass writers upon political issues. Not only do our views, as he says, “have no more authority than those of any reasonably well-educated citizen,” but in my own case at least I feel my professional need for freedom of speech and expression prejudices me toward a government whose constitution guarantees it. I recognize that what to me is essential may well be, to a peasant on the verge of starvation, an abstract luxury.”

  11. sergey Says:

    About Nabokov, I must fully agree with Tatyana: he never was cold. He was a passionate, fanatical hater, and world for him was full of things to hate and despise; he could do both royally. He was also a mystic, capable seeing omens and signs everywhere, like a tribal shaman, and express these arcane feeling in wonderfull prose. He pushed the limits of Russian language further than anybody before him, even farther than Bunin.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    sergey and tatyana: Finally, you agree on something!!

    My perception of Nabokov as cold remains. It has nothing to do with what he was like as a person—I’m not really familiar with that. His writing, and especially his subject matter, is cold and removed to me. Perhaps some of this is the difference between reading him in English and reading him in Russian, as you both have?

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    Beverly: I do plan to reread the essay. It was part of the book Self-Consciousness, by the way.

  14. Tatyana Says:

    Neo: technically, it’s *sergey who agrees with me.

    A writer’s personality seeps through the text, that’s what makes the writer interesting and unique. Otherwise literature will be nothing by journalism (in its’ academic sense, not what it became; see NYTimes p.i.).

    I have read Nabokov in Russian and in English. His subject matter is universal, and as a stylist, his mastery of [both]languages is unsurpassed. Although I can’t claim an authority on judging his English; he might appear a bit too pedantic for native speakers, a bit rigid in constructing perfection.

    It is strange to hear him accused of coldness, of all things. And to compare him to Updike…why not to Danielle Steel, then?
    In any case, this went way off the subject of your post.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    Tatyana: as I said, it’s his themes that are cold. When I compared Updike to Nabakov, it has nothing to do with theme but everything to do with use of language. I especially noted this in comparing their memoirs rather than their fiction.

    Obviously, you and I differ greatly on this.

  16. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Updike made me shame myself.
    When I was a trainee platoon guide–they took the ugliest guy in each platoon and put him in charge in training units–I was accompanying a real sergeant, a young guy, during an inspection of my guys’ lockers. He found Updike’s “Couples”, widely considered at the time to be high-priced porn. He called the soldier on it.
    I said, in terms of unbelieving horror, “UPDIKE? PORNOGRAPHY?”
    “Oh, yeah,” said the sergeant, “didn’t see that. Mumble mumble.”
    Best use I got out of my college education in the Army.
    Still would like to apologize to the guy for that.
    Damn.
    But I had my people to consider.
    Still haven’t read any of him. No more interest in his NYC exurb troubles–like Neo–than I am in Cheever country.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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