9 February, 2009Issue 8.3EssaysFictionLiteratureNorth AmericaWriters

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John Updike: A Self Forever

Jonathan Gharraie

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Though John Updike was 76 when he passed away two weeks ago, it still feels as if he died young. His last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008), was the sequel to one written a quarter-century ago, and was largely concerned with the pathos of growing old, but the book was fecund with what can only be described as promise. Its mistakes and frequent lapses from good taste or artistic control had much more in common with the errors of youth than the complacencies of age; it offered the earlier novel’s surprises, the delicate phrasing, the wanton charisma of Alex and Sukie and their coven, for the reader to savour. We can only feel robbed of whatever might have come next.

It might have been, for instance, the definitive account of Barack Obama’s America. In his last published interview with The Observer, Updike enthusiastically welcomed Obama’s election, although when it emerged that he had himself been nominated by the then Democrat candidate as a favourite writer, he remarked, “I’d have thought Barack would have been reading Hegel, not fiction!”

Updike’s curiosity was insatiable, undiminished by caution or fear or the suspicion that the next generation was intent on robbing his own of its dignity and achievements. In the moving “A Letter to My Grandsons” from his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989), he wrote that “America is still waiting to be made” and tentatively advanced the view that “an ideal color blind society flickers at the forward edge of the sluggishly evolving one”.

He possessed in abundance—abundance being another of his great qualities—a generosity that for his fellow Great American Novelists became increasingly cramped by old age. While Saul Bellow had adopted a tone of jovial misanthropy from Herzog onwards and Norman Mailer spent his last decade entertaining the sort of artistic eccentricities that hadn’t been seen since the days of Madame Blavatsky, Updike got his crankiness in early. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), was a dystopian romance that traced the plight of the elderly in a futuristic America where rationalism and sociology were swiftly supplanting a previous generation’s religious faith. In the late 1950s, America was changing; prosperity and material comfort were gradually being extended to all, but the emerging counter culture heralded a new spirit of restlessness.

Born in 1932, to a lower middle-class family in Reading, Pennsylvania, John Hoyer Updike was a child of the Great Depression. Yet he slipped into his career as a staff writer for the New Yorker and his domestic role as a husband and father with an ease that we might find disquieting now. It was only when Updike weighed the dissatisfaction of his contemporaries against the bulk of his own instinctive religious sympathies that he produced fiction of uncommon richness and complexity. In 1958, he glanced at the cover of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and, disturbed by the book’s invitation to sever all ties, decided to investigate the consequences of cutting loose.

The result was Rabbit, Run (1960), the first in a series of four novels and one novella documenting the life and legacy of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the permanent delinquent who would spend most of his life settling for second best. Rabbit’s story became America’s story, a fact made ludicrously apparent in Rabbit is Rich (1981), when our corpulent hero shambles about at the head of an Independence Day parade, dressed as Uncle Sam but resembling a profane hybrid of Falstaff and Colonel Sanders.

Throughout Updike’s career, the great struggles convulsing American society corresponded to the moral conflicts experienced by his characters. Eventually he discovered (in art, if not in life) a compromise between America’s subversive energy and social propriety in the deviant consolations of adultery, finding within the perimeters of a discreetly opened marriage a fervent source of playfulness and risk. Foxy Whitman from Couples (1968) was among the fictional beneficiaries of this attitude: “Adultery lit her from within, like the ashen mantle of a lamp, or as if an entire house of gauzy hangings and partitions were ignited but refused to be consumed and, rather, billowed and glowed, its structure incandescent.” This passage tells you less about Updike’s beliefs than about his major asset: his prose. One metaphor won’t quite do so he soon runs into another, which raises the experience one notch higher. The sentence smoulders as it expands and eventually falters with delight. But then it is meant to: after all, we are reading about an emotional conflagration.

Perhaps Updike was too readily identifiable by his prose style. But if few writers invited parody as often as he did, there were even fewer capable of doing the job. Bemoaning the fashion for what he termed “vow-of-poverty prose”, Martin Amis hailed Updike as the “king in his counting house”, who happily rejoiced in the luxury of his wealth, minting new phrases and images for the world around him. Those sentences of his, finely turned and supple, often distinguished by an unexpected modifier or construction, stand as his ultimate legacy and make his entire body of work, from the Rabbit books all the way down to the slightest essay or poem, indispensible.

When Nicholson Baker catalogued his reading of Updike in the exquisite homage, U and I, he confessed that he rarely read his hero’s novels to the end. Baker casually implies that one could almost read any paragraph or sentence at random and get the point. Yet, for Updike, style did not entirely supersede the other elements of successful fiction. His novels suggested new possibilities that connected the brash formal experiments of the early century to the democratic humanism of Bellow, Mailer and Bernard Malamud. Inspired by the examples of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Green, he set about proving the elasticity of high style and its ability to mould itself around different points of view. In this way, Updike honoured the neglected opulence of ordinary experience. He scarcely could have assayed the importance of observation and interest in our lives, had he not devoted such attention to the sentence and the singular detail.

Updike’s flaws were the failings of an achieved perfection, both in life and in art. The problem with being a self forever is that experience tends to flatten out, and it is perhaps fitting that there were no degrees of intensity to his writing: somebody so grateful for existence could repay the debt only by lavishing the same rapt attention upon the part as on the whole; and as a result his works were almost entirely composed in a spirit of unshaken serenity.

On becoming familiar with his novels and stories, you learn to take beauty for granted, which is a terrible bounty for a reader. He never was convincing when he was dealing with outright cataclysms—nobody can read Towards the End of Time (1998) or The Coup (1978) without wincing at least once—and, despite his honourable commitment to American democracy, the political sphere eluded him completely.

These quirks should alert us to what is perhaps the central component of his contribution. Updike was our great poet of contentment, the post-war writer who understood that, more often than not, anomie, disaffection and depression would eventually be absorbed by happiness. In Self-Consciousness, he admitted that he had rather too determinedly suppressed traces of struggle from his childhood memories. “When many years later, I was recalling some of these happy circumstances in the company of my father, he interrupted me with an exclamation almost agonized; ‘Oh, no, Johnny—we were poor!’”

Nobody is entirely free from sorrow, but for the greater part of humanity, one of life’s many felicitous distractions usually arrests the downs in their precipitous surge. It is this observation that charges Updike’s signature eroticism with such considerable significance and suffuses his account of the Maples’s faltering marriage with vivid solace. Even Rabbit eventually comes to abide by this redemptive rhythm of living, and his gradual recognition of its truth in Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest (1990) are rightfully considered among the loftiest of artistic peaks in the 20th century American novel.

“Every man has bitterness in his chosen thing”, Bellow has one of his characters proclaim in The Adventures of Augie March—but not John Updike, and perhaps not every man. For those of us without religious faith, it might be difficult to accept Updike’s belief in an everlasting self, but we should at least be able to affirm that his body of work is imperishable. This is stating the obvious, but right now the obvious needs stating. After all, the torrent of words has dried up. No more novels or short stories. Not even a little book review for the New Yorker. But if there is an afterlife, surely nobody is better equipped to write us postcards from that permanently undiscovered country. Whatever Paradise might throw at him, his capacious eloquence and omniscient powers of description would be equal to the task.

Jonathan Gharraie is a DPhil student at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, working on D.H. Lawrence and exile.

Photograph © Penguin Books Ltd.