Friday, January 30, 2009

John Updike (1932-2009)

For those of my generation, who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, John Updike was an up-and-coming novelist and critic.  I first encountered his work as the author of two light verse collections, yoked together in a Fawcett paperback entitled, simply, Verse [1965].  Verse reprinted The Carpentered Hen [1958], and Telephone Poles [1963].

Updike had begun, somewhat unexpectedly, as an aspiring cartoonist; he went to England to study drawing, and seems to have begun writing almost as an adjunct to his interest in humor. The poems he began to publish in The New Yorker were right in the tradition started by F.P. Adams in the 1920's, a forum which attracted other early practitioners such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker, etc.; but it was actually James Thurber's work which most clearly served as the model for Updike's early efforts.  But, unlike Thurber, and more like White, Updike had a more serious side, and as his career progressed, he turned away from the cuteness and whimsy of light verse, to serious fiction--first in short stories, and later in novels.  

The first novel of Updike's I read was Rabbit, Run.  From the first words of that novel, Updike announced himself as the singer of sensation, the poet of physicality, of close observation, the slippery qualities of tactility, of primary feeling.  The writing was also frank, about sex, about relations between the sexes, and about the vicissitudes of lower-middle-class American life, a world which I knew well.  Rabbit Angstrom was a lot like the high school basketball players I knew, and I could see just how their futures could come to resemble the character in that book.

My first efforts at writing poetry were imitations of the poems in Verse.  Alongside the poems we read in high school English class, which included the likes of Shakespeare, Browning, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, for instance, Updike's flip, glib, hip, witty pirouettes were a refreshing breath of oxygen.  They talked about everything; nothing was too trivial, too mundane as subject.  They took nothing too seriously, and seemed to glide on a roller-ball of excelsior.  

It wasn't until later that I picked up The Poorhouse Fair [1959], Updike's first novel. Poorhouse Fair read like a very pretentious piece of unpretentious emulation of William Maxwell, or the sort of novel that someone who liked Henry Green or William Sansom might have dreamed up. It wouldn't take Updike long, though, to throw off the yoke of that polite literary society and throw his ribbon into the ring as a major novelist, with The Centaur [1963], and Couples [1968]. The last, an unrepentant and unforgiving explication of the hedonistic sexual relationships in a small New England town in the free-wheeling 'Sixties, brought Updike into the bestseller circle, as well as the fame which his earlier books could not command.  

As the years went by, and Updike continued to pile up novels, short stories, reviews, autobiography, and more poetry in a burgeoning surfeit of prolificity, I began to lose interest in his work.  I enjoyed the Bech books, which seemed to be both a celebration of his contemporary Jewish competitors, and a sly (thought not very subtle, really) dig at their peccadillos as well. But by and large, I found his later novels dull, as if he had gone on writing them out of habit, rather than necessity.  

We went to hear him read from The Terrorist when he toured on the West Coast in 2006.  I'd never seen him in the flesh before.  He was cheerful, polite, patient, and witty, to a fault.  He clearly wanted very much to be liked.  Yet, underneath the good cheer, there was an undercurrent of cynicism, a little stream of despair which I always caught just beneath the surface of his prose, unmistakable.  

In the end, I find I admire his poetry, and his essays the most.  He was a polymath.  He could talk about any kind of writing, and had a good familiarity with most of the world's literatures. He taught himself such a lapidary mastery over the materials of his craft that it may almost have become a hindrance to conviction and curiosity.  And yet curiosity was the essence of his intelligence.  Seemingly, he had read about everything, and could tell you about it.  And if he hadn't, he could imagine it for himself, and for you the reader.  

His kind of literary dexterity is rare at any time.  There's no one else presently who seems capable of filling his shoes.  I will miss him.     


Kirby Olson said...

He stayed in touch with his high school class, and went to all the reunions. What a nice man he was, apparently. I wonder what all the ex-girlfriends and so on think of him.

I love your tribute here. I'm so used to the snarkiness of that other guy.

I've never read his poems, except for one about a dead dog, which I thought was dreadful. I loved his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies.

He was also the only serious Lutheran artist this country has had, at least in literature, at least that I know about.

Rabbit, Run placed Lutheranism as a kind of fulcrum between the Beats and the Episcopalians.

The only attmepts to understand his Lutheran connection focus on a kind of clumsy attempt to find some sort of evangelical side to him. That's not it at all. He's a two kingdoms' thinker, with humor as the fulcrum between this world and next.

I hope you keep posting every day!

Norman Lathers said...

I kind of liked "The Coup" (about a fictional African nation undergoing - you guessed it - a coup). Also his collection of short stories, "Museums and Women".