The Chronicle Review

John Updike, 1932-2009

February 13, 2009

Even in his last photographs, after his hair had turned white and he had taken to peering out at the world over reading glasses, John Updike could still seem boyish. His eyes, in particular, often looked mischievous, almost twinkling above his famously beaklike nose, as if he possessed some secret he wasn't quite ready to share with us yet — even after seven books of poetry, 23 novels, 15 volumes of short stories, nine collections of essays, a play, a memoir, and five children's books.

Could it be some final observation about the human heart and our endlessly frustrated search for happiness? That is, I suppose, Updike's overriding theme, returned to again and again in his fiction, from The Poorhouse Fair and those wrenching stories about the Maples's marriage and divorce through the scandalous Couples to this season's The Widows of Eastwick. As Updike once wrote in a story called "Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War": "You can go to the dark side of the moon and back and see nothing more wonderful and strange than the way men and women manage to get together."

Or don't. Fiction, Updike knew, isn't about happiness, but about its pursuit. "What is possessed is devalued by what is coveted. Discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear — these are the worthy, inevitable subjects." Americans, in particular, are full of such unassuageable yearnings and heartsickness, and none more so than Updike's best-known character, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, the hero of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. When Harry finally dies, it could only be from cardiac arrest, one last betrayal by his troubled heart.

And now his creator is gone, too. For more than 50 years, John Updike was always, reliably there, the greatest all-round man of letters of our time. And yet he started out just wanting to be "a magazine writer, a wordsmith as the profession was understood in the industrial first half of the century." While still in his 20s, he consequently made himself into a one-man New Yorker. For his favorite magazine, Updike supplied short stories, reviews, interviews, light verse, Talk of the Town features, pieces on golf and baseball, translations, memoirs, parodies, chapters from new novels, and cartoons. As if that weren't enough to keep him occupied, in later years he began to turn out art criticism for The New York Review of Books. When and how did he ever find the time? Updike appeared everywhere: in Playboy and Vogue, in Architectural Digest and The Wallace Stevens Journal, in US Airways magazine and Michigan Quarterly Review. Nothing cultural or American or literary was alien to him. He could memorialize the great slugger Ted Williams, provide a list of the 10 greatest works of literature for The World Almanac, produce genial reflections on book envelopes and pinup girls and Mickey Mouse and Kierkegaard and his own psoriasis.

In some quarters such prolificness elicited a kind of critical disdain, the suspicion that astonishing productivity indicated essential shallowness, that one needed to be a slow and costive writer to really be any good. Even those famous Updike sentences, so striking and beautiful that they sometimes make you catch your breath in sheer wonder, were castigated as foppish or too easy: Updike was obviously some kind of freak, able to generate original similes and luscious phrases without effort or thought. As if it mattered how he produced his magic. Updike could describe, with joyful particularity, anything in the world, from a family seated around a dinner table to a lifeguard at the beach to all the "rises and swales and dulcet shadowed corners" of a woman's body.

Oh yes, women. And sex. Those two troublesome subjects dogged Updike throughout his career. He was sometimes said to demean or objectify women, and was criticized for being altogether too lip-smacking in his descriptions of lovemaking (and especially of oral sex). He even once wrote a poem bluntly titled "Cunts." Alfred A. Knopf almost didn't publish Rabbit, Run because of its sexual frankness. It wasn't nice to discuss such intimate things.

And why not? As Updike later emphasized, "'Why not?' is the most potent question an artist can ask himself; in the fabric of aesthetic imperatives, holes develop and wait undiscovered until a spirit sufficiently reckless or driven dives through them." Sex is part of life, girls just want to have fun, and boys will be boys. A fiction writer, after all, must be willing to submerge himself in "brute reality."

And so Updike wrote about Toyota dealers (Rabbit Is Rich) and an African dictator (The Coup) and randy suburbanites (Couples) and wayward ministers (A Month of Sundays) and modern-day witches (The Witches of Eastwick) and cult followers (S.), and Hamlet's mother and uncle (Gertrude and Claudius). He even titled one novel Memories of the Ford Administration — and you can hardly get more down to earth, more quotidian than that.

Nonetheless, only some of all that fiction can be called wholly naturalistic. Updike recognized that American literature and American art often occupy a realm between fantasy and reality, that they rely on mystery and symbolism as much as on apt observation, that our greatest novelists and painters are constantly edging into the magical and dreamlike. Even a supposed realist like the artist Edward Hopper, notes Updike, excels "in making us aware of the elsewhere, the missing, the longed for. He is, to use a phrase generally reserved for writers, a master of suspense."

In like manner, Updike's own fiction feels grounded in archetypes, touched with romance and myth. See, for particularly strong instances, The Centaur and his retelling of the Tristan and Isolde story in Brazil. The metaphorical thickness of Updike's prose quietly invests even the everyday with a kind of surreal strangeness, as when a young girl describes her father's mechanical kisses as seeming to be "tinged, like luggage stored in the unheated hold of an airplane, with the extraterrestrial cold of the stratosphere."

Besides being one of our best fiction writers and an undervalued poet (just try to read "Dog's Death" without crying), Updike may be even more deeply admired as an essayist and reviewer. He might have been describing himself when he observed that W.H. Auden brought "intentness and originality ... to every piece of job work." Even the most ardent and wide-ranging of readers must bow his head in awe before Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, Odd Jobs, More Matter, or Due Considerations, each volume more substantial than the last. In those collections of essays, Updike presents deeply considered, beautifully phrased appreciations of, well, just about everybody: Karl Barth and Roland Barthes, Flann O'Brien and Tim O'Brien. He writes again and again about such favorites as Henry Green, Iris Murdoch, and Vladimir Nabokov. What's more, Updike will immerse himself in an author's entire past work just to write 2,000 words about his or her latest book. He liked, as he said, to give "good measure."

Updike, as you might guess, was no fan of blogs and cyberspace literary chatter. There was nothing casual or twittery about even his most occasional magazine pieces. He was a craftsman, and everything he published was meticulously wrought, as shaped and polished and vivifying as he could make it. Only then, he believed, could art hope to "sidestep mortality with feats of attention, of harmony, of illuminating connection."

In Assorted Prose, Updike once defined an author's oeuvre as giving the impression of "a continuous task carried forward variously, of a solid personality, of a plenitude of gifts exploited knowingly." At the end of his life he might have looked back over his own work as just this kind of substantial, distinctive achievement. John Updike was an amazing writer, and a generous one: He gave us his all. His death leaves a great absence in American letters.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of the memoir An Open Book (W.W. Norton, 2003) and four collections of essays: Readings (Indiana University Press, 2003), Bound to Please (Norton, 2005), Book by Book (Henry Holt, 2006), and Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 55, Issue 23, Page B99