Updike on writing

John Updike, Wilfred Owen and George Plimpton were all born on March 18, reminds the Writer’s Almanac. My favourite writer, the most celebrated First World War poet, and Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, which he helmed from 1953 till his death in 2003. I remember reading excerpts from Paper Lion, his book about his pre-season training with the Detroit Lions, an American football team, in the 60s.

But most of all I miss Updike.

Continue reading “Updike on writing”

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:

Continue reading “Updike, the most sensuous writer in English”

Rabbit, rest in peace

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

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,

Continue reading “Rabbit, rest in peace”

Rabbit’s last songs

I finished reading Rabbit at Rest by John Updike and the only word for it is
Wow! Here is a great writer who knows how to bring scenes and characters to
life. He is not flashy or literary, just a supremely gifted writer who can
describe a person or a scene with the telling detail, get into a character’s
mind and write pitch-perfect dialogue.

Here he is describing his hero, Harry
“Rabbit” Angstrom’s thoughts and impressions as he listens to music on the radio
while driving from his old home in Brewer, Pennsylvania, to the condo in Florida
where he and his wife, Janice, have retired. But Janice is not with him: he is
driving alone on what will be his last journey. He is 55, listening to oldies,
and see how the music reminds him of old times. It is the summer of 1990. Updike
is using music to flash back to Rabbit’s younger days. Anyone who has
listened to these songs will feel a rush of nostalgia. Just read the passage:

Continue reading “Rabbit’s last songs”

Rabbit’s last songs: Love Me Tender

These songs are for John Updike fans. It’s one of the last songs Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom hears on the radio driving from his old home in Brewer, Pennsylvania, to the condo in Florida, where he and Janice have retired — only Janice is not with him, not on this drive almost at the very end of Rabbit at Rest, the fourth Rabbit book, set in the twilight of his life. Elvis Presley sings Love Me Tender.

Updike writes:

“knock him all you want, before he got fat and druggy and spooky in the end he had a real voice, a beautiful voice, not like foghorn Sinatra…”

Well, Sinatra was good — memorably so in Something Stupid and Strangers in the Night — but Elvis was and is the King, right up there with the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Rabbit’s last songs: I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You

These songs are for John Updike fans. It’s one of the last songs Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom hears on the radio driving from his old home in Brewer, Pennsylvania, to the condo in Florida, where he and Janice have retired — only Janice is not with him, not on this drive almost at the very end of Rabbit at Rest, the fourth Rabbit book, set in the twilight of his life. Ray Charles sings I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You. Wow! A voice that cuts to your soul.