Updike: A book review by Bob Morris

Adam Begley
HarperCollins (2014)

“A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.” Sigmund Freud

John Hoyer Updike (1932-2009) is widely considered among the most accomplished U.S. writers during a period that extends from the mid-1950s until his death five years ago. He is probably best known for his Rabbit Angstrom series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and the novella, “Rabbit Remembered”) but he also wrote more than a dozen additional novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children’s books. Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker, beginning in 1954.

What did his contemporary writers think of him? In a NEH Jefferson lecture in 2008, Philip Roth observed, “John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik evaluated Updike as “the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing … He sang like Henry James, but he saw like Sinclair Lewis. The two sides of American fiction–the precise, realist, encyclopedic appetite to get it all in, and the exquisite urge to make writing out of sensation rendered exactly–were both alive in him.”

After Updike’s death in 2009, in an article for The New York Review of Books, Ian McEwan wrote that Updike’s “literary schemes and pretty conceits touched at points on the Shakespearean,” and that Updike’s death marked “the end of the golden age of the American novel in the 20th century’s second half.” McEwan concluded that the Rabbit series is Updike’s “masterpiece and will surely be his monument”, and describing it, concluded:

“Updike is a master of effortless motion–between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic…This carefully crafted artifice permits here assumptions about evolutionary theory, which are more Updike than Harry, and comically sweeping notions of Jewry, which are more Harry than Updike. This is at the heart of the [Rabbit] tetralogy’s achievement. Updike once said of the Rabbit books that they were an exercise in point of view. This was typically self-deprecating, but contains an important grain of truth. Harry’s education extends no further than high school, and his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, “and not chop them down to what you think is the right size.”

What we have in Adam Begley’s massive biography is an abundance of information and insights that help readers such as I – with only limited knowledge of Updike’s life and work– to understand subjects such as these:

o The nature and extent of influence that Updike’s childhood and youth had on his adult life and career as a writer
o Those who seem to have had the greatest impact on his personal growth
o Those who seem to have had the greatest impact on his professional development
0 Other writers Updike admired most…and why
o Defining moments throughout his life that required a change of course
o What others found most attractive in him as a person
o What others found least attractive
o What his two marriages reveal about his values, for better or worse
o Similarities and differences between Updike and Rabbit Angstrom
O His “lifelong inability to to make what he called a `leap of unfaith'”
o The defining characteristics of his writing style: fiction
o The defining characteristics of his writing style: non-fiction
o During his last few years, what Updike expected the nature and extent of his legacy to be

No brief commentary such as this can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of the material that are provided in this volume. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I appreciate so much what I have learned about John Updike, both as an imperfect person and as an iconic writer. He died eight weeks after the cancer was diagnosed, on Tuesday morning, January 27, 2009, less than two months after his seventy-seventh birthday. He retained until the very last the feeling of a conqueror.

As Adam Begley observes, “In truth, he never tired of writing, never tired of `creation’s giddy bliss.’ Up until the last, when he was too sick to write, he was always that little boy on the floor of the Shillington dining room, bending his attention to the paper, riding that thin pencil line into a glorious future, fulfilling the towering ambition of his grandest dreams. ‘I’ve remained,’ he once said, ‘all too true to his youthful self.'” Only after I had read and then re-read this book could I understand and appreciate how revealing that statement is.

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