Reading about Robin Williams’ death, I wanted to read what writers wrote in their last days, in their illness or old age, when they knew they were about to die. That is how I came across these poems by my favourite writer, 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.
Today is the birthday of one of my favourite writers, John Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009). Few have written so sensuously of love and sex – or anything else under the sun.
Here is Updike writing about one of my greatest loves – pop music from the Fifties and Sixties. This is from Rabbit at Rest. An ageing Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is listening to oldies but goldies on the radio as he drives through Florida. Here are also videos of some of the songs mentioned in the text.
Love Me Tender — Elvis Presley
Has anyone written better than John Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009)? Today is his birthday. He was a wonderful writer to the end of his days. I loved The Widows of Eastwick .He could make even adultery lyrical, as in Marry Me . And here is the beginning of Rabbit, Redux, the second book in the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom saga:
Who says old geezers can’t write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That’s certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.
Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can’t tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.
There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.
Let’s begin with the journalists.
Can anyone write like John Updike? He could make even adultery lyrical.
He does not turn a blind eye to the toll it takes. The lovers are exposed for what they are — cheating on their spouses and neglecting their little children. But Updike’s powerful prose captures the irresistible magnetism that drives two married people headlong into love.
No book could have a more romantic title than Marry Me.
But it is Updike the sensuous moralist’s bittersweet cautionary tale about the temptations that could ruin a marriage.
Jerry wants to marry Sally, and she wants him.
And when her husband, Richard, finds out, he does not stand in their way.
Instead he threatens to sue Jerry unless he marries her. He wants Jerry to pay for alienating her affections from him.
But Ruth is not letting go of Jerry.
She has broken up with Richard, an affair about which Jerry and Sally know nothing.
There are no innocents in this early 1960s extramarital romance except the little children. Whiny, sulky, helpless little brats who have to be fed and bathed and taken out to play while their parents think of separating.
Ruth tells Jerry he can’t walk out on them — and there are moments when he also thinks he can’t.
He is caught in a terrible bind, yearning for Sally, but his conscience won’t let him go unless Ruth sets him free.
The scenes where they discuss breaking up and then sleep in the same bed or engage in other intimacies show how complex marriage can be.
But Updike is at his best in the early part when Jerry and Sally are rapturously in love, undetected by their spouses.
Here they are making love on a desolate beach in the afternoon.
The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.
Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.
Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.
The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.
Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.
A gay actor and his black magic
Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.
Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.
She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved.
Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.
Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.
It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.
It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.
The Terrorist by John Updike
India, not Iran, was the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses shortly after it came out in September 1988, reminds the Observer.
The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government banned the book under pressure from the opposition Janata Party. Both wanted the Muslim vote.
It was only then that a group of imams in Iran read a section of the book to Ayatollah Khomeini. We all know what followed.
This February marks the 20th anniversary of the ayatollah’s fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.
Rusdhie lives but others have died, reminds Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:
We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.
I think it’s only decent not to hurt others’ feelings.
But this media self-censorship, as Hitchens calls it, has resulted in a dearth of good writing on a serious issue.
Few writers have written about Muslim terrorists the way Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John Le Carre explored previous generations of terrorists and spies.
I haven’t read Le Carre’s latest novel.
But I enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, where he wrote about Kashmir and terrorism. A lyrical novel with a violent ending, it’s a thriller full of magical realism.
And there’s John Updike, who wrote The Terrorist. The September 11 tragedy inspired him to write a novel about a terrorist growing up in America.
New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy is the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide and aspiring painter and an Egyptian father who abandoned them years ago.
Ahmad is outraged by life with his mother who brings her boyfriends home and provocatively dressed girls at school. He seeks refuge in the strict teachings of Islam, but that makes him all the more angry about the temptations he sees. “Devils” is the first word in the book. (Time excerpted the first chapter.)
Devils, thinks Ahmad. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair…
The teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.
But he hides his feelings, takes part in sports and is a bright student. School counsellor Jack Levy wants him to go to college, but he says he wants to be a truck driver instead.
Levy visits him at home to talk sense into him. He ends up having an affair with the mother instead, dropping by when Ahmad is not at home.
Updike portrays the relationship between Jack and Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, beautifully. She is approaching 40, he is 62, with a wife with whom he still sleeps at home. They both know the affair won’t last, but that doesn’t prevent a growing intimacy. And, along the way, Jack begins to feel like a father to Ahmad.
But Jack doesn’t know the 18-year-old is being manipulated by his religious teacher, a Yemeni imam, who wants him to become a truck driver for a very specific reason. He plans to use Ahmad as a suicide bomber.
Ahmad readily agrees when he learns the plan. But on the day of his suicide mission, he is stopped on the road by Jack, who has somehow stumbled onto the secret.
Jack gets into the truck and tries to dissuade the boy. But Ahmad is adamant. He drives on with Jack sitting next to him. You can almost credits rolling across the screen as they continue their journey. The ending is very much like a movie.
Updike on The Terrorist
The problem with The Terrorist is its central character. Ahmad has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. He won’t hurt a fly, refuses to have sex until he is married, and yet goes on a suicide mission to kill innocent people. But then who knows how a terrorist’s mind works?
Updike said when the book was published in 2006:
“I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system…
“I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.”
Jack and Teresa
And he certainly got Jack and Teresa right. They are ordinary people trying to do their best – he as a counsellor, she as a painter – as they age. They are far from perfect – he is cheating on his wife, she is an indifferent mother – but they are also good, honest and attractive in their own ways. We know Jack won’t leave his wife, Beth, and Teresa will continue to chase her dreams for the right man and as a painter.
And there is Updike’s prose. No one writes better than him.
Here Jack is watching Teresa – Terry – put on her clothes after lovemaking:
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.
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.
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.’
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 is a perfectionist — not a flamboyant writer. He can make even
the shocking seem almost natural.
In Rabbit At Rest, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom ends up in bed with his
daughter-in-law, Pru. Imagine how the scene would have played in a Greek
tragedy. But here it becomes just a family embarrassment which sends Rabbit
fleeing to his second home in Florida. He can’t face his wife, Janice, and his
son, Nelson, after Pru in a fit of conscience reveals their one-night stand. But
Rabbit expects everything will be sorted out in the end and Janice will join him
in Florida. And when he speaks to Pru on the phone, it is clear she still likes
him. He even gets her to say she does not think of him as an old man at all.
Yes, it’s that kind of a novel.
Put like that, it might seem amoral. And Rabbit doesn’t help matters when
Janice, learning of the incident, confronts him on the phone from her son’s
home. “What’s this ‘perverted’?” he retorts. “We aren’t blood-related. It was
just a normal one-night stand. She was hard up and I was at death’s door. It was
her way of playing nurse.”
And those callous words, spoken just before Rabbit flees his old hometown,
Brewer, Pennsylvania, forever, outline the plot of this novel — a meditation on
old age, death and dysfunctional families.
It won the Pulitzer prize like the preceding Rabbit Is Rich, about Rabbit in
his prime. It is rich in characters and social commentary. Updike writes
about Rabbit with such marvellous affinity that he becomes like Everyman — an
ageing Everyman. It’s the Great American Novel set in the Reagan era. Rabbit even gets to take part in a Fourth of July parade as Uncle Sam, cheered on by the people in his old hometown who remember he was a high-school basketball star.
Those glory days are long gone, however.
It happened one night
Rabbit is 55, retired, suffering from heart problems. He wants to be in
charge again of Springer Motors, the Toyota dealership inherited from his
father-in-law, but Janice won’t let him. She wants Nelson to run the business.
But he suspects the boy is taking drugs and stealing money from the business.
His suspicions prove correct. Nelson is packed off to a rehabilitation centre.
That is when the sex scene occurs. Pru comes into his arms when he tries to
comfort her after she talks of the abuse she has suffered from her husband. He
has always been attracted to her, and it just happens:
Rain whips at the screen… A brilliant close flash shocks the air everywhere
and less than a second later a heart-stopping crack and splintering of thunder
crushes the house from above. As if in overflow of this natural heedlessness,
Pru says “Shit”, jumps from the bed, slams shut the window, pulls down the
shade, tears open her bathrobe and sheds it, and, reaching down, pulls her
nightie up over her head. Her tall pale wide-hipped nakedness in the dimmed room
is lovely much as those pear trees in blossom along that block in Brewer were
lovely, all his it had seemed, a piece of Paradise blundered upon,