Updike, the most sensuous writer in English

The most sensuous writer in the English language is dead. No one wrote more sensuous prose than John Updike. He carried his lyricism into his 70s. He was 76 when he died yesterday. The cause was lung cancer, according to his publisher, Alfred A Knopf.

He was – for his style and views perhaps – overlooked for the Nobel Prize. But he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999, recalls the Associated Press. It adds:

His literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by “penny-pinching parents,” united by “the patriotic cohesion of World War II” and blessed by a “disproportionate share of the world’s resources,” the postwar, suburban boom of “idealistic careers and early marriages.”

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation’s confusion over the civil rights and women’s movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.

Updike is as famous for his graphic approach to sex as his elegantly crafted dissections of the human condition, says The Telegraph.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Mr. Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts., chronicled all of America’s many anxieties about sex, work, and death. Perhaps his best-known works are the four “Rabbit” novels that feature Harry “Rabbit Angstrom,” a middle-class American who struggled to find his place in society.

The author was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for the third novel in the series, “Rabbit is Rich,” and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the fourth, “Rabbit at Rest.”

Less flashy than Tom Wolfe, Mr. Updike’s nuanced, supple prose caused many to regard him as the most talented wordsmith of his generation.

Obama supporter

Whatever his earlier views, he died an admirer of President Barack Obama. 

His most celebrated character, Rabbit Angstrom, was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat. What would Rabbit make of the present election, he was asked in a New York Times video interview in October 2008. Updike replied:

“I am so much for Obama it would be hard for me to cook up a character who was for McCain. Rabbit would see, I think, the good of McCain… But luckily I am not writing about Rabbit any more.”

His last novel was The Widows of Eastwick, published late last year as a sequel to the successful The Witches of Eastwick.

He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites, says the Guardian.

The New Yorker website features his last story to appear in the magazine, The Full Glass, published in May 2008.

The Atlantic magazine also showcases his stories, poems and essays which appeared in it.

Master of sentence, professor of desire

Troy Patterson writes in Slate:

Updike’s most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era. The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it’s cinematic. Martin Amis, Updike’s only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that “having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes.”

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer his publisher Knopf has ever known. Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievement prize in the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes — avert your eyes, children — the following sentence: “Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea.”

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire.

Updike’s burden

The Guardian writes:

Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the “wrong” side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upper class Wasp, the reality of Updike’s modest origins was forgotten.

He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike’s father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. Updike’s mother, Linda Hoyer, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters’ degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) When asked in later years about her son’s great fame, she coolly remarked: “I’d rather it had been me.”

I’m a vanished man’

Updike achieved fame and celebrity when writers were idolized but now they play a less conspicuous role in our culture, writes Joel Achenbach  in the Washington Post:

Updike knew better than anyone that things had changed. Or at least, it had changed for him, as he told The Post’s David Streitfeld back in 1998:

“I go to a college to speak and am treated like a little king, get applauded at the end — you’d be applauded no matter what you did up there. You get a lot o
f love that way, people line up with the used paperbacks to be signed. But you go into an airport bookstore on the way back and there’s no Updike there. There’s no Updike at all. I’m a vanished man, a nonentity as far as mass readership goes. I didn’t used to always be.”

Swinging Couples, Rabbit and Bech

The Telegraph says:

Updike became famous – and infamous – with his fourth novel, Couples, a sexually-explicit tale of New England suburbia in which jaded thirtysomethings stave off marital boredom by drinking, “frugging”, coupling and uncoupling in an account which captured the mood of souring Sixties optimism. Published in 1968, it was to the ageing trendies of the era what Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was to its teenagers.

In his two series of novels – the “Bech” and the “Rabbit” books – he created two engagingly flawed heroes, versions of himself which somehow seemed to symbolise the American everyman: Bech, a hairy, self-scrutinising American-Jewish writer, and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former basketball champion turned second-hand car dealer trapped in a tedious marriage from which he seeks refuge in extra-marital affairs.

Updike gave his own opinion of Rabbit in an interview with the Telegraph last year:

In Rabbit, Run Harry is not somebody to emulate, although in later novels I think he becomes more middle-class and loveable. My idea in Rabbit, Run is that if everybody follows their dream there’d be a lot of damage – damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, who knows what else.

‘But you have these inner imperatives and the sense of yourself as the centre of the universe; after all, you are you, and you don’t want to botch the assignment. So there is inevitably a conflict between selfishness and niceness. Philip Roth was always writing about people who want to be nice, but then they can’t quite be nice because they have these terrible sexual urges.’

“Wasted” beauty?

The New York Times considers his place in the literary pantheon:

The kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing.

The Times possibly sums him up best:

John Updike once described himself as a literary spy within average, supermarket America. As a chronicler of the financially and sexually liberated middle classes, he had few peers: the novels in his so-called “Rabbit” saga paint as intricate a portrait of a generation as any to be found in an American novel.

Though he found a lifelong home in the sleek metropolitan pages of The New Yorker, Updike remained most at ease in the small-town atmosphere of New England where he grew up and spent most of his life.

Craftsman, critic

Yet he was anything but provincial in his vocation. His prose could be Proustian in its complexity — to the extent that some critics, suspicious of his prolific output, accused him of burrowing too deep into his thesaurus. His prose registered tiny changes of fashion and mood that signified the shifting of society’s tectonic plates, and his expression was often wryly exquisite or comically precise, sometimes a gentle form of bitching about the foibles of his whole generation — from which he certainly did not spare himself. But in the 1980s the generation of short-story writers led by Raymond Carver, who was famously sparing with subordinate clauses, made Updike’s work look a little too much like the work of a jeweller.

Throughout his career Updike was also one of the most cosmopolitan of critics.

Throughout his life he tended to view himself as a craftsman rather than Olympian artist. The mechanics of turning memory into prose — typefaces, fonts and proofs — apparently fascinated him as much as the intellectual process.

Literary career

He first had a short story accepted by The New Yorker in 1954, the year he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. The following year, after his sojourn in Oxford on a Knox Fellowship, he began a two-year stint on The New Yorker, based in the “Talk of the Town” section.

The job gave Updike an entrée into the life of the city, but in 1957 he took the decisive step of leaving Manhattan to live in the relatively conventional surroundings of the coastal mill town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. In those innocent, pre-inflationary days, he calculated that a writer could make a satisfactory living from selling a handful of stories to The New Yorker each year.

His first book was a collection of verse, The Carpentered Hen, in 1958, and throughout his career he continued to produce well-turned light verse (what he called “cartooning in print”). A novel, The Poorhouse Fair followed in 1959. (He had written one before, but decided against publishing it.) But the breakthrough came in 1960, which saw the first appearance, in Rabbit, Run, of Updike’s reluctant Everyman, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high-school basketball prodigy who flounders amid the mundane demands of work and marriage. Updike was drawn back to Angstrom’s wayward suburban existence in Rabbit Redux (1971) a novel that drew on the cultural upheavals of the late Sixties.

There was no doubting the lovingly rendered detail of Angstrom’s daily life. That impression was heightened a decade later in Rabbit is Rich (1981). The book brought its author the coveted “double” of a Pulitzer prize and National Book Award.

When Updike continued the series with Rabbit at Rest (1990), Angstrom’s fleeting sense of contentment had dissolved in the face of illness, economic uncertainty and family upheaval. At the close, as he lies gravely ill in hospital, the reader takes leave of a character who, for all his shallow appetites, remains a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood human being. The book earned Updike his second Pulitzer prize.

Before the publication of Rabbit Redux, Updike had made his commercial breakthrough in 1968 with Couples, an account of the adulterous dalliances of a close-knit group of friends in Tarbox, a fictional town closely modelled on Ipswich.

Updike moved to a vastly different world when he portrayed the literary life as lived by the neurotic and oversexed Jewish character Bech. He developed the conceit a stage farther when he consented to be “interviewed” by his creation. When Bech angrily accused him of knowing nothing about Jewishness, Updike gave a characteristically elegant response: “To be a writer at all, it seemed to me, is to be to some extent Jewish — outsiderish but chosen, condemned to live by your wits.”

Books such as Marry Me (1977), The Witches of Eastwick (1984) — which in 1987 was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer — and Roger’s Version (1986), consolidated Updike’s reputation as the poet of well-mannered promiscuity. Some feminist critics nevertheless complained that his depiction of women was limited to the missionary position.

Although Harry Angstrom’s progress is sketched against the backdrop of oil crises and race riots, Updike invariably shunned social commitment in his writing. His world was intensely personal.

Approaching his journey’s end, Updike was philosophical. “For all the physical handicaps, neurotic symptoms, aberrant thought patterns, and characterological limitations touched upon in these pages,” he wrote in the final chapter. “I think of myself . . . as an amiable, reasonable, interested, generally healthy, sexually normal, dependable, hopeful, fortunate human being. Which goes to show what a vexed thing even a fortunate human being is.”

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