Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rabbit Angstrom's creator has died--John Updike

John Updike
March 18th, 1932 to January 27th, 2009

Ah, fond memories of Rabbit Angstrom and adolescent, literary eroticism. Updike wrote the following on Mars...

Mars has long exerted a pull on the human imagination. The erratically moving red star in the sky was seen as sinister or violent by the ancients: The Greeks identified it with Ares, the god of war; the Babylonians named it after Nergal, god of the underworld. To the ancient Chinese, it was Ying-huo, the fire planet. Even after Copernicus proposed, in 1543, that the sun and not the Earth was the center of the local cosmos, the eccentricity of Mars's celestial motions continued as a puzzle until, in 1609, Johannes Kepler analyzed all the planetary orbits as ellipses, with the sun at one focus.

All the fanciful Martian megafauna—Wells's leathery amalgams of tentacles and hugely evolved heads; American journalist Garrett Serviss's 15-foot-tall quasi red men; Burroughs's 10-foot, 4-armed, olive-skinned Tharks; Lewis's beaver-like hrossa and technically skilled pfifltriggi; and the "polar bear-sized creatures" that Carl Sagan imagined to be possibly roaming the brutally cold Martian surface—were swept into oblivion by the flyby photographs taken by Mariner 4 on July 14, 1965, from 6,000 miles away. The portion of Mars caught on an early digital camera showed no canals, no cities, no water, and no erosion or weathering. Mars more resembled the moon than the Earth. The pristine craters suggested that surface conditions had not changed in more than three billion years. The dying planet had been long dead.

The triumphant deployment of the little Sojourner rover in 1997 was followed in 2004 by the even more spectacular success of two more durable rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In four years of solar-powered travels on the red planet, the twin robots have relayed unprecedentedly detailed images, including many clearly of sedimentary rocks, suggesting the existence of ancient seas. The stark, russet-tinged photographs plant the viewer right on the surface; the ladderlike tracks of Spirit and Opportunity snake and gouge their way across rocks and dust that for eons have rested scarcely disturbed under salmon pink skies and a pearlescent sun. In this tranquil desolation, the irruption of our live curiosity and systematic purpose feels heroic. Now the Phoenix mission, with its surpassingly intricate arm, scoop, imagers, and analyzers, takes us inches below the surface of dust, sand, and ice in Mars's north polar region. Spoonfuls of another planet's substance, their chemical ingredients volatilized, sorted, and identified, become indexes to cosmic history.

The dead planet is not so dead after all: Avalanches and dust storms are caught on camera, and at the poles a seasonal sublimation of dry ice produces erosion and movement. Dunes shift; dust devils trace dark scribbles on the delicate surface. Whether or not evidence of microbial or lichenous life emerges amid this far-off flux, Mars has become an ever nearer neighbor, a province of human knowledge. Dim and fanciful visions of the twinkling fire planet have led to panoramic close-ups beautiful beyond imagining.

"John Updike, Pulitzer-winning author, dies"


Mary Rourke

January 27th, 2008

Los Angeles Times

John Updike, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction whose novels and short stories exposed an undercurrent of ambivalence and disappointment in small-town, middle-class America, died Tuesday. He was 76.

Updike's death from lung cancer was announced by Nicholas Latimer, vice president and director of publicity for publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Updike was a resident of Beverly Farms, Mass., but the announcement did not indicate where he died.

In a career spanning half a century, Updike published more than 50 books, more than 20 of them novels, and countless short stories, as well as collections of poetry. In recent years, he was best known for his art criticism and essays. His last published piece was a review of Toni Morrison's novel "A Mercy," in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of the New Yorker.

By the late 1980s, Updike had achieved what a Times writer called "the near royal status of the American author-celebrity," but critical views of his fiction were often mixed.

Lorrie Moore, writing in the New York Review of Books in 2003, said Updike was "quite possibly . . . American literature's greatest short story writer, and arguably our greatest writer."

But Harold Bloom, writing years earlier in a collection of essays on Updike's work, noted that though the novelist was capable of crafting a "beautifully economical narrative," he lacked depth, which Bloom saw as a requirement of great fiction. He viewed Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."

Despite the critical divide, two of Updike's most memorable fictional characters, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and Henry Bech, became emblems of the displaced American male that fascinated him as a writer. Angstrom, a man he often referred to as his alter-ego, is the disenchanted middle-class drifter in Updike's four-book series about "Rabbit." Bech is the Jewish-American novelist, breaking away from his cultural roots and immigrant heritage to become a fully assimilated American. Each in his own way reflects Updike's major themes.

Early in his career Updike said that he wrote most often about the world he came from, "the American Protestant small-town middle class," as he described it in a 1966 interview with Life magazine. "It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."

Updike took this previously unchartered territory and "made it common American ground," wrote Cynthia Ozick in a 2003 essay for the New York Times Book Review.

In addition to his Pulitzers, Updike also won the American Book Award and the National Book Award for his novel "Rabbit Is Rich."

Updike was still in his 20s when his second novel, "Rabbit Run," brought him national attention in 1960. Several reviewers immediately saw the book's main character as an icon of his generation.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was a small-town Pennsylvania boy who grew into a high school basketball star. He married young, quickly found adult life disappointing, left his wife and young son and set off alone.

Three more novels about Angstrom followed: "Rabbit Redux" in 1971, "Rabbit Is Rich" in 1981 and "Rabbit at Rest" in 1990. The last two in the series each won a Pulitzer. As Rabbit muddled through the collapse of established sexual mores, the rise of the technological age and the beginnings of globalization, he became a "purposely representative" American male, Updike explained in "Self-Consciousness," his 1989 memoir. He referred to Rabbit as his alter-ego.

Many critics found "a great divide between Updike's exquisite command of prose and . . . the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on," wrote critic Eliot Fremont-Smith about Rabbit in a 1981 article for the Village Voice.

Others saw Rabbit's story as "a subtle exposé of the frailty of the American dream," wrote literary critic Donald J. Greiner, a scholar who wrote extensively about Updike's work.

Updike said Rabbit was a typical man, weighed down by the pressures and disappointments of adulthood that few men spoke of in his generation.

"I knew I had things to say about it, things I thought, that nobody else was saying," Updike told Time magazine in 2006.

He got his first inkling of this literary theme as a boy watching his father, Wesley Updike, a teacher. They rode back and forth to school together, and Updike listened to his father worry about their old car and the family bills.

"I saw that it's not easy to be an American male," Updike said in a 2004 interview with the Academy of Achievement, an educational center in Washington, D.C.

As a writer, Updike aimed to "sort out, particularize and extol with the proper dark beauty" those struggles, he wrote in "Self-Consciousness."

Starting with his first published collection of short stories, "The Same Door" in 1959, Updike was admired for his "lean and lapidary prose," critic A.C. Spectorsky wrote in the Saturday Review in 1959.

Looking back 40 years later to see Updike's influences more clearly, critic Louis Menand pointed out three in particular. Ernest Hemingway taught Updike and many other young fiction writers "the importance of suppressing information, and the use of dialogue to convey significance," Menand wrote in a 2003 article for the New Yorker magazine.

Another influence, Vladimir Nabokov, modeled "almost religious commitment to linguistic hyper-clarity." And there was James Joyce. "Everywhere you find the eucharistic metaphor that was at the heart of Joyce's aesthetics," Menand wrote of Updike's fiction.

Most of Updike's short stories appeared first in the New Yorker, where he was briefly a staff writer and, for decades, a regular contributor.

As a young writer, his view of aging and mortality was ominous. Novels and stories allude to "the fear of death, the fact of decay and the inevitable collapse into nothingness," wrote critic Tony Tanner in an essay included in"Modern Critical Views, John Updike" in 1987.

His first novel, "The Poorhouse Fair" (1959), published when he was 27, is about senior citizens in a retirement home, cut off from the world except during their annual fair.

Updike referred to the book as an example of his "shadowy vision" of adult life.

Some reviewers praised the novel for its precisely observed details and lush prose. "The Poorhouse Fair" is "a work of art," the New York Times declared in 1959.

Others found the story to be thin and the style "overly lyrical, bloated like a child who has eaten too much candy," wrote Norman Podhoretz in a review for Commentary magazine.

Updike's third novel, "Centaur" (1963), which won a National Book Award, is about a high school science teacher and his teenage son.

The novel draws parallels between the teacher and Chiron, the wisest of the centaurs, in Greek mythology. Updike said the book was a tribute to his father.

Some critics were not impressed. "Basically, this is a pretty good novel about a father and son in small-town Pennsylvania." wrote Orville Prescott in his review for the New York Times in February 1963. "Or . . . it would have been if Mr. Updike had relaxed and told his story for its own sake."

Updike returned to myth and fantasy in several other novels and stories. Far more often, however, he made religion a theme. In "Music School," a short story of 1966 now considered a classic, a man sits in a church basement contentedly waiting for his daughter to finish her piano lesson. His thoughts drift to the random violence and deathly illness his acquaintances have suffered. It leads him to a revelation: "The world is the host; it must be chewed."

"Updike's world is secular, its mundane beauty God-made, a gift to be lived, to be 'chewed,' " Greiner wrote in a 2006 essay. In "Couples," a 1968 novel, restless spouses in small-town New England try to build a paradise of sexual freedom. The novel's titillating subject matter kept it on the bestsellers list of Publishers Weekly for 36 weeks.

Several reviewers commented on the book's undertow of religious longing. In "Couples," the characters' attempts "to spiritualize the flesh" feels familiar "since for many in our time, the 'flesh' may be all that remains of religious experience," wrote Joyce Carol Oates in 1987.

But Updike's style threatened to overtake substance, in some critics' view. He "can brilliantly describe the adult world without conveying its depth and risks," Alfred Kazin wrote in a 1968 critique. Updike took note of the comment and later quoted it in his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," noting that Kazin was not alone in his view.

At times, Updike moved outside his familiar territory to write about other worlds: an imaginary African nation ("The Coup," 1978) interracial love in the tropics ("Brazil," 1994), a futuristic war between the U.S. and China ("Toward the End of Time," 1997), Danish royalty ("Gertrude and Claudius," 2000), radical Islam in New Jersey ("Terrorist," 2006), all to mixed reviews.

He was perhaps more successful in his 20 or so stories about Bech, the famous Jewish American novelist who suffers from writer's block and gets by on his past literary glories.

Updike joked that he invented Bech to grab some of the attention away from his major competitors. When he started his Bech stories in 1964, that list included Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, all acclaimed Jewish American writers.

"I created Henry Bech to show that I was really a Jewish writer also," Updike teased in a 1982 interview with Time magazine.

He said that Bech was loosely based on J.D. Salinger, who wrote "Catcher in the Rye," to blazing praise in 1951 but stopped publishing altogether in 1965. Like Salinger, Bech's fans kept up their loyal admiration. "Bech: A Book," in 1970, was followed by "Bech Is Back" in 1982 and "Bech at Bay" in 1998. Three years later, all the stories were compiled in "The Complete Henry Bech."

Ozick complained that Updike cut Bech off at the roots. A secular Jew, married to a WASP, Bech was "pathetically truncated," she wrote in her essay "Bech, Passing," reprinted in her book "Art and Ardor" (1983).

But Updike got some things right about his character, she allowed. "Bech is a stupid Jewish intellectual," Ozick wrote. "I know him well."

Several of Updike's novels were made into movies. "The Witches of Eastwick," where realism spins off into fantasy, shows what happens when bored suburban women capable of witchery meet one devilish man.

If Updike proves to be like other novelists who wrote a lot but left behind only "a single, remarkable book," Bloom observed, "in my experience of reading Updike, that book is 'Witches of Eastwick.' "

His last book, "Widows of Eastwick," published last year, was a sequel to "Witches."

Late in his career, Updike compiled "John Updike: The Early Stories" (2003). The book revealed that Updike's main male characters, despite their different names, seemed to be the same person at various stages of life; a mid-20th century white, middle-class American boy, teenager, bachelor, husband, father, divorcée.

Several of the earliest stories in the book -- "Pigeon Feathers" (1960), "A&P" (1961) and "Museums and Women" (1967) -- are considered classics.

His torrent of fiction never seemed to slow Updike's output of essays and book reviews. He often critiqued new fiction by his famous contemporaries, including Roth, Oates and Gabriel García Márquez, usually with a generous eye.

There was one famous exception. Updike was 29, still a fairly new name among New Yorker writers, when he reviewed "Franny and Zooey" by Salinger, who was by then a legendary contributor to the magazine.

Updike's 1961 review for the New York Times was blunt and precise and has since been included in several critical anthologies.

He complained of one "interminably rendered conversation" between two of the characters. He questioned the "impossible radiance" of the characters' beauty and intelligence and regretted Salinger's efforts to "instill in the reader a mood of blind worship" of the Glass family, the novel's central figures.

He suggested that Salinger ought to move on from his beloved Glass family and write about other lives.

"Salinger was irrevocably pissed off," Updike wrote in a letter to Greiner. Salinger the recluse didn't retaliate in public.

Updike's interest in the art world continued throughout his career. Many of his art reviews are compiled in "Just Looking: Essays on Art" (1989) and "Still Looking, Essays on American Art" (2005).

In an essay on Edward Hopper, Updike went to the essence of the American painter's best-known work, "Nighthawks," a lonely diner scene of 1942. "The quality might be called largeness -- a largeness of patience and peripheral vision," Updike wrote in "Still Looking."

"He was one of the most brilliant and talented art critics," Silvers said. "He had a very close critical feeling about actual techniques of art, of talent and of drawing. . . . He was fascinated by the development of concepts of art over the years. This was a marvelous gift for us."

His poetry almost seemed an aside. For many years, he wrote light verse that he referred to as "cartooning with words" and a "kind of verbal exercise" in his preface to "Collected Poems, 1953-1993."

John Hoyer Updike was born in Shillington, a suburb of Reading, Pa., on March 18, 1932. He was a gawky, sickly child who had a stammer, asthma and psoriasis, which he describes in meticulous detail in "Self-Consciousness."

Through high school, he was more interested in drawing and painting than writing. He attended Harvard University, where he was a cartoonist for the Harvard Lampoon. He also took creative-writing classes and wrote short stories, light verse and essays. By the time he graduated, summa cum laude, he had decided to be a professional writer.

A severe case of psoriasis kept him out of military service.

He married Mary Pennington in 1953, the year before he graduated from college. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1976.

A year later, he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard. She had three children from a previous marriage.

Survivors include his wife and stepchildren; four children from his first marriage, sons David and Michael and daughters Miranda and Elizabeth Cobblah; and several grandchildren.

In 2004, with decades of writing and more than 50 books to his credit, he said he was ready to slow his pace. He would reduce "product," as he referred to his fiction but not stop. "Writing makes you more human," he said.

"John Updike, a Lyrical Writer of the Ordinary, Is Dead at 76"


Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

January 28th, 2009

The New York Times

John Updike, 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, died today at a hospice outside Boston. He was 76 and lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.

The cause was cancer, according to a statement by Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher.

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. His best-known protagonist, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname — "Rabbit, Run," "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest" — the author traces the sad life of this undistinguished middle-American against the background of the last half-century’s major events.

"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."

From his earliest short stories, set in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he once described as "a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid," 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 latter position was perhaps most acutely defined by James Wood in an essay, "John Updike's Complacent God," in his collection "The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief" (Random House, 1966).

"He is a prose writer of great beauty," Mr. Wood wrote, "but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey."

Comments like these did not deter Mr. Updike from plowing ahead with his work, turning up three pages a day of fiction, essays, criticism or verse, and proving the maxim that several pages a day was at least a book a year and would add up to many dozens of books in a lifetime.

"I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottle, if I had to," he told The Paris Review in 1967. "The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me."

His essays and criticism alone filled more than a dozen volumes, and ranged from "Golf Dreams: Writings on Art" (1996) to "Just Looking: Essays on Art" (1989) and "Still Looking: Essays on American Art" (2005) to "Self-Consciousness: Memoirs" (1989) to his famous piece on the baseball star Ted Williams’s last game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (1977), which first appeared in The New Yorker on Oct. 22, 1960.

While his vast output of poetry has tended toward light verse, in "Midpoint and Other Poems" (1969), the title work undertakes a self-examination at age 35, comically combining a homage to past great poets, autobiography and experimental typography in what the author called "a joke on the antique genre of the long poem."

The poem concludes:

Born laughing, I’ve believed in the absurd,

Which brought me this far; henceforth, if I can,

I must impersonate a serious man.

As his fiction matured, Mr. Updike's prose grew leaner and more muscular, and his novels waxed more exotic in form, locale and subject matter, especially in "The Coup" (1978), set in an imaginary African country; "Brazil" (1994), a venture in magic realism; "Toward the End of Time" (1997), whose story occurs in 2020, following a war between the United States and China; "Gertrude and Claudius" (2000), about Hamlet’s mother and uncle, and "The Terrorist" (2006), a fictional study of a convert to Islam who tries to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.

But the gold standard of Mr. Updike's writing remains, in most critical views, his short stories, which he turned out by the several hundreds, most of them first appearing in The New Yorker.

It was here, at a length of prose that seemed ideally suited for his outsize talents, that he exercised his exquisitely sharp eye for the minutiae of domestic routine and the conflicts that animated it for him — between present satisfaction and future possibility, between sex and spirituality, and between the beauty of creation and the looming threat of death, which he summed up famously in the concluding sentence of "Pigeon Feathers," the title story of his second collection (1962).

The story is about a boy, David, who is forced to shoot some pigeons in a barn, and then watches, fascinated, as their feathers float to the ground: “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

John Hoyer Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pa., and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington. The only child of Wesley Russell Updike, a junior high school math teacher of German descent, and Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike, an aspiring writer, he lived a solitary childhood made more so by his family’s move when he was 13 to his mother’s birthplace on an 80-acre farm near Plowville, Pa. From there both he and his father had to commute the 11 miles to school in town, but the isolation fired the boy’s imagination as well as his desire to take flight from aloneness.

Sustained by hours of reading in the local library and by his mother's encouragement to write, he aspired first to be either a Walt Disney animator or a magazine cartoonist. But a sense of narrative was implanted early and likely nurtured by summer work as a copyboy for a local newspaper,T he Reading Eagle, for which he eventually wrote several features. As he told The Paris Review, "In a sense my mother and father, considerable actors both, were dramatizing my youth as I was having it so that I arrived as an adult with some burden of material already half formed."

After graduating from high school as co-valedictorian and senior-class president, Mr. Updike attended Harvard College on a scholarship. Although he majored in English and wrote for and edited The Harvard Lampoon, he continued his cartooning. In 1953 he married Mary Entwistle Pennington, a Radcliffe fine arts major.

Graduating from Harvard in 1954 summa cum laude, he won a Knox Fellowship at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford. In June of that year, his short story "Friends from Philadelphia" was accepted, along with a poem, by The New Yorker. It was an event, he later told The Paris Review, that remained "the ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life."

Following the birth of his first child, Elizabeth Pennington, the couple returned to America, and Mr. Updike went to work writing Talk of the Town pieces for The New Yorker.

Two years later, with the arrival of a second child, David Hoyer, the couple, needing more space, moved to Ipswich, Mass., an hour north of Boston, where Mr. Updike kept his ties to The New Yorker but concentrated on his poetry and fiction. In 1959, his third child, Michael John, was born, followed the next year by a fourth, Miranda Margaret.

The move proved creatively invigorating as well. By 1959 he had completed three books — a volume of poetry, “The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures,” a novel, "The Poorhouse Fair" and a collection of stories, "The Same Door" — and placed them with Knopf, which would remain his publisher throughout his prolific career.

From 1954 to 1959, he published more than a hundred pieces in The New Yorker: essays, articles, poems and short stories.

More important, the move to a small town seemed to stimulate his memories of Shillington and his creation of its fictional counterpart, Ollington. All his early stories were set there, as well as three of his first four novels, "The Poorhouse Fair," "The Centaur" and "Of the Farm," excepting only "Rabbit, Run" (1960), which was set in another small Pennsylvania town.

"I really don't think I'm alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first 18 years of their life," he told The Paris Review. "Nothing that happens to us after 20 is as free from self-consciousness, because by then we have the vocation to write," he continued. "At the point where you get your writerly vocation, you diminish your receptivity to experience."

"The Poorhouse Fair" (1959), avoiding the usual coming-of-age tale of most beginners, established Mr. Updike's reputation as an important novelist. Based on an old people's home near Shillington, the novel explores the homogenization of society among members of the author’s grandfather’s generation. It won the Rosenthal Foundation Award.

“The Centaur” (1963), more autobiographical, welds the Greek myth of Chiron, the wounded centaur who gives up his immortality for the release of Prometheus, to the story of a mocked Olinger high-school science teacher who sacrifices himself for his son. It won the 1964 National Book Award for fiction.

"Of the Farm" (1965), set not far from Olinger, focuses on the mother of a farm family who fears she will die before her son, gone into advertising in New York, will fulfill her dream of his becoming a poet.

Only with "Couples" (1968), his fifth novel, did Mr. Updike move his setting away from Pennsylvania, to the fictional Tarbox, Mass., where he explores sexual coupling and uncoupling in a community of young marrieds. The couple, Wilfrid Sheed wrote in a praising review in The Sunday Times Book Review, "wanted to get away from the staleness of Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural centers."

Mr. Sheed concluded that "Updike's slide-lecture on this crowd skewers them better than any sociological study has done, or could do."

With the Rabbit quartet, he launched his keen, all-seeing eye into a still wider world. Where "Rabbit, Run" plays out its present-tense narrative in domestic working-class squalor, its three sequels, published in 10-year intervals, encompass the later 20th-century American experience: "Rabbit Redux" (1971) the cultural turmoil of the 1960's; "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981) the boom years of the 1970's, and "Rabbit at Rest" (1991) in the time of what Rabbit calls "Reagan's reign," with its trade war with Japan, its AIDS epidemic and the terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Rabbit lies dying in a hospital at the end of the last volume, overweight, worn-out, felled by a coronary infarction during a one-on-one basketball game with Tiger, a young black man. ("Tiger stands amazed above the fallen body — the plaid Bermuda shorts, the brand-new walking Nikes, the blue golf shirt with the logo of intertwined V's.")

With his life over, critics judged that Rabbit had entered the pantheon of signal American literary figures, to join Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield and the like.

"Rabbit Redux" was considered the weakest of the set, but "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest" both won Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. Reissued as a set in 1995, "Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy" was pronounced by some to be a contender for the crown of great American novel.

As a small-town businessman of limited scope, Rabbit is obviously very different from his creator. Yet the two of them share a middle-American view of the world, with the difference that Mr. Updike was exquisitely self-conscious. Against the grain of his calling and temperament, he strove, like the German writer Thomas Mann, for a burgherly existence.

As a citizen of Ipswich, he participated in local affairs, serving on the Congregational church building committee and the Democratic town committee and writing a pageant for the town's Seventeenth-Century Day. Although politically liberal, he was virtually alone among American writers to declare himself in support of the Vietnam War.

He worked downtown, in an office above a restaurant. "I write every weekday morning," he told The Paris Review. "I write fairly rapidly if I get going, and don’t change much, and have never been one for making outlines or taking out whole paragraphs or agonizing much. If a thing goes, it goes for me, and if it doesn't, I eventually stop and get off."

In 1974 he separated from Mary, and moved to Boston, where he taught briefly at Boston University. In 1976 the Updikes were divorced, and the following year he married Martha Ruggles Bernhard, settling with her and her three children first in Georgetown, Mass., and then in 1984 in Beverly Farms, both towns in the same corner of the state as Ipswich.

Along with his widow, his first wife survives him, as well as his sons, David of Cambridge, Mass., and Michael, of Newburyport, Mass; his daughters, Miranda Updike, of Ipswich, Mass., and Elizabeth Cobblah, of Maynard, Mass., and several grandchildren.

With the storehouse of his youthful experience emptying and his material circumstances enriched — "Couples" proved a big bestseller and put its author's face on the cover of Time magazine — he found the formerly easy flow of his prose diminishing somewhat. Yet determined to publish a book a year, he plodded on.

"Writing's gotten to be a habit," he told Michiko Kakutani in an interview for The New York Times in 1982, a year after the publication of "Rabbit Is Rich." "Sometimes the books do seem kind of silly and very papery, but there are moments when a sentence or a series of sentences clicks."

Among the dozen or more novels he brought out in the next quarter century, some clicked, like "The Witches of Eastwick" (1984), celebrated as an exuberant sexual comedy and a satirical view of women’s liberation. It was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer.

In his last novel, "The Widows of Eastwick," published in October, Mr. Updike returned to the three witches now as widows revisiting the town. Rather than preying on men as they once did, now they are "ordinary women," Ms. Kakutani wrote in her review, "haunted by the sins of their youth, frightened of the looming prospect of the grave and trying their best to get by, day by day by day." But other later Updike novels seemed on the thin and papery side. "Roger’s Version" (1986) and "S" (1988), which formed a trilogy, begun with "A Month of Sundays" (1975), that were three takes on Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"; "Memories of the Ford Administration" (1992), a linking of personal guilt to history; "Seek My Face" (2002), an improvisation on the life of Jackson Pollock, and "Villages" (2004), about small-town adultery: these novels all conveyed a sense of the author going through his talented motions. They also suffered from what Mr. Updike himself described to Ms. Kakutani as the limitations of "my imagination and experience, which are both severely finite."

Some readers also carped about his portrayal of women. Mr. Updike admitted as much in an interview with The Times in 1988, when he acknowledged the complaint that "my women are never on the move, that they’re always stuck where the men have put them." His "only defense," he said, "would be that it's in the domesticity, the family, the sexual relations, that women interest me. I don't write about too many male businessmen, and I'm not apt to write about too many female businessmen."

Yet in purposely attempting to rectify this so-called fault by creating what he called "active and dynamic" women in "The Witches of Eastwick" and "S," he only succeeded in making things worse. What reviewers mostly detected behind the author’s apparent respect for these female dynamos was more his ambivalence than anything else.

Critics also pointed out the lack of violence in Mr. Updike's plots, which seemed at odds with the contemporary world he was presumably depicting. In response to this charge, he invoked the defense that he wrote out of his experience. "I have fought in no wars and engaged in few fistfights," he told The Paris Review. "If, as may be, the holocausts at the rim of possibility do soon visit us, I am confident my capacities for expression can rise, if I live, to the occasion. In the meantime let’s all of us with some access to a printing press not abuse our privilege with fashionable fantasies."

Meanwhile, the essays, book reviews, art criticism, reminiscences, introductions, forewords, prefaces, speeches, travel notes, film commentary, prose sketches, ruminations and other occasional jottings poured forth inexhaustibly, as if the experiences of his five senses only became real once recorded on paper.

The novelist Martin Amis sketched Mr. Updike plausibly in a 1991 review of a collection for The Times Book Review: "Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem — but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel."

Over the decades, the assorted nonfiction filled five thick volumes, "Assorted Prose" (1965), "Picked-Up Pieces" (1975), "Hugging the Shore" (1983), "Odd Jobs" (1991) and "More Matter" (1999). The impression they left most indelibly was their author's vast range in time, space and discipline as a reader, and his deep capacity to understand, appreciate, discriminate, explain and guide. As he once said: "I think it good for an author, baffled by obtuse reviews of himself, to discover what a recalcitrant art reviewing is, how hard it is to keep the plot straight, let alone to sort out one's honest responses."

And whatever his flaws as a novelist, his growing mastery of the short-story form continued to define him as a writer. As Anatole Broyard put it in a review for The Times of Mr. Updike's sixth collection of stories, "Museums and Women and Other Stories" (1972): "His former preciousness has toughened into precision." He concluded, "His language, which was once like a cat licking its fur, now stays closer to its subject, has become a means instead of an end in itself."

Not incidentally, it was in a story collection — his fifth, "Bech: A Book" (1970) — that Mr. Updike created in the character Henry Bech a counter-self living a counter-life. Bech is an unmarried, urban, blocked Jewish writer immersed in the swim of literary celebrity, or as Bech himself put it in the third volume devoted to him, "Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel" (1998), following the second, "Bech Is Back" (1982), "a vain, limp leech on the leg of literature as it waded through swampy times."

As Mr. Updike's opposite, Henry Bech not only entertained his readers in a voice very different from his creator's — world-weary, full of schmerz and a touch of schmalz — he also undertook certain tasks that Mr. Updike avoided, like attending literary dinners, tsk-tsking over a younger generation's minimalist prose and maximal tendency to write memoirs, working off grudges, murdering critics and interviewing John Updike for The New York Times Book Review.

Bech even wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, something Cynthia Ozick once speculated that Mr. Updike had failed to do because, as she wrote in a review of his "Early Stories 1953-1975" (2003), "among contemporary fiction writers" he "is the most rootedly American (though of German, not WASP, stock), and the most self-consciously Protestant."

She concluded: "The Protestant idea of God ... is not conspicuously the Lord of history. This may be the reason the Nobel literary committee, afloat on the turbulent waves of vast historical grievances, has so far overlooked Updike."

By contrasting so sharply with his creator, Henry Bech also defined Mr. Updike more distinctly, particularly his determination to stick to the essentials of his craft. As he told The Paris Review about his decision to shun the New York spotlight: "Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, have them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf."

A conversation with John Updike from the New York Times

"Remembering Updike"--The New Yorker

John Updike

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

John Updike possessed a truly beautiful mind; he didn't just write well, he wrote wisely