John Updike: Middle-aged love in Rabbit Redux

John Updike
John Updike

Today is the birthday of one of my favourite writers, John Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009). Like PG Wodehouse, he is irreplaceable. No one can take his place. Lawrence Durrell and Jan Morris are the only writers I know with prose as lush and sensuous as his. And few have written of love and sex more vividly than he.

Here is the ending of Rabbit Redux, the second novel in the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom saga set during the Vietnam War era circa 1969. Here Harry and his wife, Janice, reunite after extramarital affairs. They book a room in the same motel which she used to visit earlier with her lover, Charlie Stavros.

Harry and Janice are a middle-aged couple who have known each other since they were high school sweethearts and it shows in the easy intimacy and familiarity with which they make up in the motel room.

After another while, Janice announces, “If you’re not going to make love, I might as well turn my back and get some sleep. I was up almost all night worrying about this – reunion.”
How do you think it’s going?”
The slither of sheets as she rotates her body is a silver music, sheets of pale noise extending outward unresisted by space. There was a grip he used to have on her, his right hand cupping her skull through her hair and his left hand on her breasts gathering them together, so the nipples were an inch apart. The grip is still there. Her ass and legs float away. He asks her, “How do we get out of here?”
“We put on our clothes and walk out the door. But let’s have a nap first. You’re talking nonsense already.
“It’ll be so embarrassing. The guy at the desk’ll think we’ve been up to no good.”
“He doesn’t care.”
“He does, he does care. We could stay all night to make him feel better, but nobody else knows where we are. They’ll worry.”
“Stop it, Harry. We’ll go in an hour. Just shut up.”
“I feel so guilty.”
“About what?”
“About everything.”
“Relax. Not everything is your fault.”
“I can’t accept that.”
He lets her breasts go, lets them float away, radiant debris. The space they are in, the motel room long and secret as a burrow, becomes all interior space. He slides down an inch on the cool sheet and fits his microcosmic self limp into the curved crevice between the polleny offered nestling orbs of her ass; he would stiffen but his hand having let her breasts go comes upon the familiar dip of her waist, ribs to hip bone, where no bones are, soft as flight, fat’s inward curve, slack, his babies from her belly. He finds this inward curve and slips along it, sleeps. He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?

Updike: I write every weekday morning

(Excerpt from John Updike, The Art of Fiction, No 43, Paris Review)

I write every weekday morning. I try to vary what I am doing, and my verse, or poetry, is a help here. Embarked on a long project, I try to stay with it even on dull days. For every novel, however, that I have published, there has been one unfinished or scrapped. Some short stories—I think offhand of “Lifeguard,” “The Taste of Metal,” “My Grandmother’s Thimble”—are fragments salvaged and reshaped. Most came right the first time—rode on their own melting, as Frost said of his poems. If there is no melting, if the story keeps sticking, better stop and look around. In the execution there has to be a “happiness” that can’t be willed or foreordained. It has to sing, click, something. I try instantly to set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity, and at the end of the story or novel to rectify the tilt, to complete the motion.

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