Granta.com has asked writers from America and around the world to reflect upon John Updike’s contribution to literature. We will be updating this page over the next few days, as tributes continue to come in.
I first met John Updike in Paris during the Reagan years at the American consulate. The officials present didn’t seem to know who he was – they certainly didn’t know who I was. We both wondered what we were doing there. The ambassador’s wife, who was a psychic, was present, but her crystal ball hadn’t told her who John Updike was.
Later I had dinner with him several times at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. My boyfriend, Michael Carroll, was a great fan and was thrilled to be seated with Updike, who treated us both with great charm and warmth. He was a straight-shooter; I suppose there were questions he’d avoid, but those he did answer (about his work and his life) he answered with directness and simplicity. He was very alive to the absurdities of life without being cruel in any way. When the Academy inducted Ann Patchett she wanted to be seated at Updike’s table; he was wonderfully gracious to her. Despite a long life of being famous he never became arrogant; in that way he was like another near-contemporary and friend of his, Joyce Carol Oates.
Some of Updike’s early stories were almost sublimely beautiful; I remember one about a man who lived in the forest. The non-mythological sections of The Centaur are wonderful. I thought some of the sexual and romantic parts of Marry Me were lyrical and delicately observed. Rabbit at Rest rang many bells for me as an aging white male, though I’ve never sold cars or retired or lived in a Pennsylvania town.
Updike certainly was the last true man of letters in America – someone who wrote a play, lots of verse, art criticism, short stories, essays, great novels – he was a towering figure and he will be sorely missed.
I didn’t know John Updike but I glimpsed him a few times, starting with a startling encounter in the 19th floor hallway of The New Yorker in 1989 or so. He’d been such a hero of mine that it was like running into Ted Williams or Cary Grant – what can you say? Nothing. You just stand there and make yourself not say things, like ‘For me, you are the greatest living, you embody what I hope for in American literature’ – so we just nodded and smiled at each other. And then a few years ago, we did a promotional interview together for an anthology that included something of his and something of mine, a collegial moment. He was a beaming man in his later years; his eyes glittered, he had a generous smile.
When I last saw him, a year ago, we were at a literary function in far uptown Manhattan, where he’d read a moving tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. He walked with my wife and I to the subway and I got to compliment him on Gertrude and Claudius, which I had just read. We rode downtown together, and a band of seminary students boarded our car and recognized him and said all the things I’d made myself not say years ago. He was very gracious with them, jokey and off-hand. He was a great man, and when he wrote me a note saying he liked a story of mine, I treasured that more than one should. He was an uncomplaining writer, a genius but also a workman, and he seemed to pick up energy in his last decade, which is encouraging to the rest of us. The Centaur is still my favourite of his books, a work of filial devotion, with the Olinger stories a close second. God bless his memory.
In 2001, I was given an Academy Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which at the time I had never heard of (embarrassing to say!). I went to New York to receive the award. All the members who were present and all those who were receiving awards sat in rows on the stage for a rather lengthy presentation by A.S. Byatt. John Updike sat next to me. In the intervals between the various remarks from the podium, he chatted with me in a charming and personable way, as if he were not JOHN UPDIKE. I did my best, but I couldn’t get over the fact that JOHN UPDIKE was making irreverent comments to me. Later, I discovered that it was Updike who had nominated me for the award. What I noticed then and the few subsequent times I met him was that he had a bona fide twinkle in his eye – maybe the only person I’ve ever known to really have such a thing. I always thought Updike had many more layers to his personality and his work than most people gave him credit for – he was kind and friendly and he wrote intelligently and beautifully, but there was also an underlying trickster quality that made his work and his conversation mercurial and fun. I think the greatest compliment you can give to a writer is to say, ‘I'm glad he leaves behind a lot of work’. That’s my compliment to Mr Updike.
I grew up thinking that John Updike was an Irish writer because his novel Couples was hidden on the top of a wardrobe by my mother in the company of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls and John McGahern’s The Dark. I thought all three of them were Irish pornographers and was filled with excitement at the possibility that I might one day read their work. But when I eventually read them I found another excitement there, one that I did not expect, the excitement of good prose and, in the case of Updike, vivid and, at times, brilliant description – he wrote like a painter – and a sense of time as a darkening shadow over desire and love and comfort. There is an early story of his called ‘Should Wizard Hit Momma?’ which I read and re-read, and another called ‘The Happiest I’ve Been’ which I am afraid to read too often because it is so good. The last book of his I read was Still Looking, a collection of his writing about American painting, which was clearly written, with a deep knowledge and a sharp sense of the American sublime.
It is odd, isn’t it, to have such a big chunk of the literary landscape fall off the cliff. The US is now a slightly smaller country.
I enjoyed his work. Not all of it, but some of it, which is what counts. Also, one of his books taught me a life lesson. In The Centaur, whenever the protagonist’s father meets up with a talkative maniac or a narcissistic psychopath, the father always says, ‘You’ve clarified my thinking’. It’s what I always say to talkative maniacs. It seems to calm them down; a spell of quiet often descends on them. Thank you, John Updike.
Though I’ve seen John Updike around over the years at events in New York – I am thinking about the American Institute of Arts and Letters ceremonies in upper Manhattan in the spring – I’d only met him once, back around 1990 or so when the late cartoonist Doug Marlette whom I had gotten to know through Pat Conroy invited me to a Christmas party thrown by the National Cartoonist’s Society which was held (I think) at the Players Club (though I cannot remember exactly where). Updike was being honoured for his cartooning as a student at Harvard; reproductions as well as originals of his work from that time, years and years before, were on exhibit, and, I must say that the man, easily the tallest fellow in the room, seemed to show the most infinite patience when it came to chatting away with the quite merry, mostly sloshed cartoonists on hand that night: these included Lee Falk, very old, wearing a black eye-patch, the creator of The Phantom back in the 1930s. Updike, I must say, seemed to float above the proceedings – was it shyness or aloofness, I cannot say – but when I met him he seemed bemused to be there at all: I did not get the impression that he was modest, but rather very private, and, while polite, not as jubilant as some of the cartoonists honouring him.
I picked up a copy of John Updike’s The Centaur from my parents’ bookshelf when I was a young teenager. I remember reading the opening scene of the broken-down car in the snowstorm and being stunned by the crackling, visceral quality of the language. I just hadn’t realized that it was possible to write that way – it was a revelation I’ve carried with me ever since. The world will be a quieter, emptier place without his voice.
Updike was a student of the human condition not just in his fictional portrayals but in his commentary on the role of fiction in understanding ourselves. In a turn-of-the-millennium magazine article, he endorsed evolutionary psychology and presented a fiction writers viewpoint on human nature that is as insightful as any I have seen: ‘A writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true, and the unit of truth, at least for a fiction writer, is the human animal, belonging to the species Homo sapiens, unchanged for at least 100,000 years. ... To be human is to be in the tense condition of a death-foreseeing, consciously libidinous animal. No other earthly creature suffers such a capacity for thought, such a complexity of envisioned but frustrated possibilities, such a troubling ability to question the tribal and biological imperatives. So conflicted and ingenious a creature makes an endlessly interesting focus for the meditations of fiction.’ Simply brilliant.
Alain de Botton
I’m more grateful to Updike than to any other writer in the world – for he paid for my house. Back in 1997, he wrote a far too generous three page review of a book of mine on Proust in The New Yorker – and single-handedly made my career in the United States (for a long time, I’d quip: ‘How Updike can change your Life’). But there are other reasons to be deeply sad too. I loved Updike the essayist for his genial tone of voice and for his beautiful insights into 19th century american art. The Rabbit books will always remind me of a couple of summers I spent living in the States in my twenties, when I was reading them and seeing the world through their magnificent transformative eyes. I also feel indebted to Updike for inspiring Nicholson Baker to write U + I, one of the most inventive pieces of literary criticism out there. That Updike’s mind will never produce another thought again makes one feel lonely and bereft.
It is hard to imagine that as we approach the second decade of this young century, with the life we share growing, year by year, more baroque and less intelligible, that John Updike will no longer be there to help us chronicle and comprehend that life. So much of my understanding of the post-World War II era, and in particular of the Seventies, the decade of my childhood, which I at the time experienced without anything approaching understanding at all, is owed to Updike’s work. The work, thankfully, will not be taken from us; and there is so much of it (where did he find the energy?) that I might perhaps never get through it all. I will certainly not get to reread his best books as many times as I would like. Yet it is, nonetheless, a sadness to think that there will be no more.
He was, it seemed, someone who could think as fast as things happened, and someone who could write as fast as he thought. I never doubted, while reading him, that his words captured the world exactly; that that is just what that person would have said, or just what that character would have been thinking. I don’t know how he earned that trust, with no apparent effort at all. It was like a magic trick – and something, perhaps, you had to be born with. (I still find it impossible to imagine Updike becoming a writer, as if there were something else he might have turned into instead.)
Men and women, men with and men without women – these were of course his favorite topics. But he seemed able to write brilliantly on any topic, in any genre – he must at times have been disappointed that the world did not offer more genres for him to master. He was a poet, and not only when he was writing poetry; the prose of his novels and short fiction was a kind of poetry as well. And his way with metaphor was extraordinary; he seemed always to have at hand the perfect detail to make a scene or story sing, and resonate with its own singing. As in his story ‘Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer’, in which the tension between the two main characters (a man and a woman, what else?) crystallizes in her inability to properly pronounce the word ‘realtor’ – and her subsequent refusal to say it at all. ‘This tiny refusal stunned him,’ he writes. ‘A blow to the heart.’ Updike leaves us with so much. Still, the news of his passing is stunning. It is a blow to the heart.
In the company of others, I once had lunch with John Updike, an occasion I remember for his exaggerated courtesy: he called me ‘Mr Kirby’ when he shook my hand and continued to do so throughout the meal. When someone asked him how he was able to produce so much memorable writing in so many genres, he allowed as how he was ‘fixed in facility’, a claim that would seem arrogant in anyone else, though I took it to mean that he had reached a point at which, schooled by experience and the best of his own temperament, he simply knew what to do and did it, in life and on the page.
John Updike fearlessly fulfilled the fundamental artistic imperataive – nothing that is human is foreign to me. He touched the deepest recesses of the soul, its darkest places and most profound strengths.
The first book by John Updike I read was Pigeon Feathers (1962), a collection of his New Yorker stories. I was deeply impressed by his ability to make slight episodes from ordinary life glow with significance through the fidelity and freshness with which he described them. He was from an early age a master of the Joycean epiphany, ‘when the soul of the commonest object seems to us radiant’ as Stephen Dedalus says. Updike was the most extravagantly gifted prose stylist of his generation of American writers, which is saying something. His few peers, Bellow, Mailer, and Roth, were all Jewish. Updike brought a quite different, WASP perspective to bear on contemporary American life, especially the sexual revolution, notably in Couples, a key book of its time, and in the Rabbit novels. But he also boldly created a fictional Jewish novelist, Henry Bech, whose adventures in the literary world, recorded in three books, are among his finest and most enjoyable achievements. If he had a weakness as a novelist it was in narrative: he never quite mastered the knack of drawing the reader on by the lures of well-paced mystery and suspense. Instead he seduced you with style, and if the style slackened you could become impatient. But looking at his career as whole, contemplating the prolific output of novels and short stories, and also the huge body of criticism, poetry and occasional writing, one can only feel awe, admiration, and (if you are a writer yourself) humility.
I met John Updike’s son David through my sister Carrie in the late ’70s and we became good friends. David lived not far from where I grew up in Massachusetts and one Friday evening I had dinner at his mother Mary’s house and his father stopped by. John Updike was the first REAL writer I ever met, and one that I had also actually read, so it made an impression to put the work alongside the author. For a beginning writer the demonstration of being a human was crucial – andit helped to know that a writer might look cheerful and actually eat dinner on a Friday night. My awe for the man who had written the wonderful Pigeon Feathers and the racy novel my parents read when I was much younger Couples did not dim upon meeting. There were other family around the table and I remember how every now and then it was quiet. In between talk there were silences. This was not something which ever happened at my house with six or seven people interrupting each other. I thought, people around this table are thinking.
That was the only time I remember meeting him, though perhaps we crossed paths again. But with writers, when you have their books you can feel they are always a little in your life.
When I published my first short story in The New Yorker in the early ’80s, I received a postcard from him congratulating me for it. It meant a great deal at the time and even more to me now. That he took the time and attention is something which I see now at this time in my life was terribly generous. I remained in awe of John Updike as he continued to write throughout his life, in awe of his passion for words and his commitment to his work. His example if one no writer can ignore. His essays were always absorbing and a pleasure to read, his work ethic a sterling example. As a lover of short stories, I find his Maple Stories the most touching of his works.
John Updike said of Deborah Eisenberg’s stories, ‘ . . . she has found words for sensations and emotions I have never seen described before’. The same could be said of Updike. Over the years, many of his concise, epigrammatic phrases have embedded themselves in my memory. In the story ‘Twin Beds In Rome’, for example, a husband tells his wife of many years that he will grant her a divorce, but his will to leave her is jeopardized because, once he agrees, her face is ‘released from the tension of hope’ and she becomes more beautiful than ever. That hopefulness can be a labour, a source of prolonged anxiety as well as anticipation, is typical of the small revelations everywhere in Updike’s work. In Self-Consciousness, his collection of memoirs, he may have found words that best describe why he was driven to write: ‘In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one can not contemplate in the dark with out turning in panic to God.’
John Updike was a great perceiver, a great anatomist of contemporary relationships, a great master of descriptive economy in fiction, and he was a professing Protestant. His literary effects were commonly so artful that even readers disconcerted by some of his philosophical figures-in-the-carpet admired his work. The man wrote some absolutely perfect short stories.
It was 1993 when I finally got to meet John Updike. That year’s book was Memories of the Ford Administration. It had been arranged for us to meet at the St Botolph’s club on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue but the weather turned nasty and Updike asked if I could travel instead up to Beverly Farms and interview him in his house. I tried my best to mask my enthusiasm. The one proviso he made was that the piece contain no mention or description of his house or its location because he wasn't going to tell his wife that he’d allowed access to a journalist.
As the train drew into Beverly Farms I was about the last person left on board. I caught sight of Updike on the opposite side of the tracks, dressed pretty much as he is one the cover of Odd Jobs. He was walking north while I was heading south. It seemed an unpropitious start to our encounter. At the house, which was preternaturally immaculate, he made cups of herbal tea, and asked how long the interview would take. Since it had taken me three days to reach him I may have sounded a little peeved. When I said a couple of hours he beamed. I think he thought he was in for a much longer interrogation.
On my proof copy of Memories of the Ford Administration he wrote: ‘For Alan who knows me better than I know myself.’ Which, of course, was him merely being polite, which he was to a fault. He asked if I was heading back to Boston. I replied that I was thinking of spending the night in Salem, whereupon he offered to drive me there, an offer I accepted with alacrity. He even recommended a guest house in which to stay and a restaurant where a good dinner was guaranteed. It’s name was In a Pig’s Eye.
I’ve always had the sense, reading John Updike’s work and various interviews with him, that he possessed two wholly compatible, lucky writerly sensibilities wrapped up in one prodigiously exemplary literary career. Of course he was an old-school, Harvard-educated WASP whose language was clear and brilliant as sunlight on lakewater, incisive, bracing, unblinking and masterfully intelligent; his brand of realism is so startlingly Technicolor and 3-D, it’s trippy sometimes to read. But twinned like a second DNA strand with this literary-realist genius is a carnal/soulful sensibility that strikes me as oddly Buddha-like – photos of him show a beatific man evidently at peace with himself, alive with cosmic, amused, endless intelligence. Going by his work and interviews, his attitude toward other writers and his own characters alike seems to have been consistently generous, compassionate, frank, open-minded and curious, without apparent judgment, infused with wit and warmth. I imagine him beaming at us all now from wherever the greatest people and artists go when they die.
A world without Updike signifies literary climate change: his was the air we breathed.
John Updike mattered to me as only the first contemporary can matter whom you discover for yourself, i.e. before everyone knows and has an opinion. This was around 1965, and the stories from his Pennsylvania childhood, ‘Flight’, ‘Pigeon Feathers’, ‘The Happiest I’ve Been’, along with his third novel, The Centaur (which belongs to the same mood and setting), were favourites of mine, which I reread and loved to think about. The original
note they struck was related to Salinger’s, exhilarating in its fidelity, but also more somber; for perhaps personal reasons, this always seemed to me
the deepest layer of Updike’s work. There is nothing else like it in American fiction, and no one who cared for it would pretend that its secret was mere virtuosity. Rabbit, Run grows out of the same childhood and high-school years – a story of one of the popular boys whom the author knew at a distance. Updike had conceived of it as a movie, and it would have been a wonderful movie if it could have been made at the time, just as he imagined it, in black-and-white, and at the end the hero running away, running nowhere in particular, as the closing credits roll.
My one contact with John Updike was through the Book Critics Circle. I attended the 1990 award ceremony, having won the NBCC prize for criticism that year. (Alas I was only finalist in 2005!) John was there having a natural interest in art criticism. He introduced himself and we had an affable conversation of the sort one has on such occasions. The only memorable thing came up when I introduced my wife, Barbara Westman, who drew covers for The New Yorker. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were black. I thought the magazine had finally hired a black artist.’ Barbara is not black. But her colours were more colourful that the typical cover of the era, which were a bit pale and watery. Afterward I thought that in thinking Barbara black, he had made an art critical judgment about The New Yorker covers. He thought: it was very white art. Barbara’s art obviously made a comment on such judgments. So there was a silent exchange of views on art and politics.
I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of Updike’s novels (how is this even possible, in a life of reading?); but I followed his reviews and essays with great interest. He was one of the great champions of the printed word, of the value of books and publishing. He was a force for good. I’m so sorry we’ve lost him.
Jeffrey Renard Allen
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with John Updike at a great Italian restaurant in Long Island City. It was a lofty occasion with authors Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer among a dozen or so of us seated around a long table. Updike was certainly the most humble of these literary heavy-hitters. He was happy to answer my questions. He smiled often. We talked some about his Pennsylvania roots, which led to some talk about – what else? –basketball and how the sport has figured in his fiction. He was tall, slim, looked like he could take the court at a moment’s notice. And I sat there thinking, ‘An Updike sentence has the fluidity, balance and surprise of a clever basketball technician like, fellow Pennsylvanian, Larry Bird or LeBron James, all elegance in motion. The page/the court.’
In a letter to my father, the editor Herbert Mayes once made the following observation about John Updike: ‘On request he will give you, and quickly, a long story or a short one, an essay, a poem, a novel, a review of the theatre, the life of a cockroach, a small opera, the toilet habits of Siamese twins.’ Mayes didn’t mean this pejoratively. He meant that Updike was a cornucopia. You just couldn’t stop him. Out poured sixty-one books, in seven different genres, and if he’d lived till June, he would have seen his sixty-second (a short story collection), and if he’d lived longer than that, who knows what he would have given us? He wrote about pigeons and muons, Protestantism and terrorism, Pennsylvania and Ethiopia, Kierkegaard and Jong, adultery and baseball. He is the only man of our age to whom I would apply Virginia Woolf’s description of the similarly fecund, similarly versatile, similarly complicated Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘As we enter his radius he seems not a man, but a swarm.’
In Bech is Back, Updike’s fictional famous novelist Henry Bech finds himself besieged by autograph hunters while trying to seduce a pretty young publishing assistant over lunch. He reflects: ‘The world, by one of those economic balancings whereby it steers, had at the same time given him success and taken from him the writer’s chief asset, his privacy.’
Updike was better than Bech at protecting his privacy – on occasion, he deftly avoided interviews by fashioning ‘talks’ with Henry Bech for the New York Times. When Rabbit is Rich came out in 1982, Updike ‘told’ Bech: ‘I can only decry the drain on the brain, the assumption that a writer is a mass of opinions to be trucked in and carted off for his annual six minutes on the pan-American talk show…. His duty is, in a sense, to turn his back.’
Updike did not completely turn his back. He was enormously generous to young writers, in print and in person. I met him once, at a party in Cambridge, not long after I graduated from college – and was too much in awe to speak. A few years later, after I wrote an essay about one of his books, he sent me a postcard, which of course I’ve treasured ever since. Only in the days since his death have I learned how many of those postcards he wrote, answering fan letters as well as graciously nodding to the countless writers who wrote about him. How, in that phenomenally productive literary life, did he have time?
The phenomenally unproductive Bech travels instead of writing, giving lectures in what we then called the Third World on subjects like ‘The Cultural Situation of the American Writer’, and ‘The Role of the Writer in Society’. At one point, giving a talk on ironic points of light, Bech has an epiphany: he feels ‘sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever. He had meddled with sublime silence. There was in the world a pain concerning which God has set an example of unimpeachable no comment’. Bech, like Updike, had been reading Melville, who once described American writers, outside the political system, as ‘ironic points of light’. We are immeasurably blessed that Updike meddled with sublime silence.
In spite of the contentious take that many women had on John Updike’s take on them – on us – we need to be grateful for the imaginative doors he opened. He stood almost alone in his fictional preoccupations at a time when Bellow and Mailer and Roth were arguing through their work that greatness lay in another direction. Without his elegant, painstaking attention to the detail of domestic life, without the intense fictional energy, the intricate precision of language he brought to examining its deep pleasures, its familiar abrasions and disappointments; without the sense he conveyed that the world could be contained in the everyday, if the everyday was examined carefully enough, it is difficult to imagine the work of many of us who followed him.
Three years ago, John Updike and I were finalists for the NBCC prize in criticism, an improbable coincidence that pleased me no end. When a local newspaper called, I attempted humorous humility: ‘Hey, if I beat Updike, I’m the man; if he wins, I bet my ego can handle it; if we both lose, we finished in a dead heat, right?’ We both lost. When a member of the deciding tribunal came up shaking his head, to tell me I hadn’t won the prize, he said ‘But you and Updike were the stylists’. This compliment, from even one professional critic, represents the zenith of my literary career.
I never met Updike. But he was never out of my sight, not from the first serious reading I attempted, when Eisenhower was president and Updike was The New Yorker’s Boy Wonder. Readers like me could appreciate the fiction of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger and Bernard Malamud – no first-rate writer is parochial – but the urban Jewish experience that informed their voices was as alien to us as Paris or Buenos Aires. Updike was our guy, a literary celebrity from a part of the country I know very well, from a family much like mine. One farewell to Updike described him as an ‘old-school Harvard WASP’, which is true in each of its terms but false in its aristocratic implications. Updike was a member of the rural meritocracy, one of those brilliant provincials that Harvard or Yale sometimes discovers and nurtures, but most often overlooks. He was a hick like me, a boy who probably marched in Memorial Day parades in a Cub Scout uniform and remembered the World War I veterans in the vanguard, with their big stomachs and ancient rifles. The Centaur, still my favourite of his novels, was the proof of his kinship.
On occasion he seemed obsessed with sex, which never surprised his readers when our own hormones were still coming to a boil. Looking back, I suppose it was his reaction, as an artist and a man, to that same rural, pre-Sixties Protestant mindset. He was fascinated yet uncomfortable with the freeing up of human sexuality – like one of Marilynne Robinson’s Mid-American clergymen, he wasn’t quite sure where the Lord came into it all. I found this incredibly endearing, not because I was ever a more seasoned libertine than Updike but precisely because I wasn’t, and could share his Puritan uneasiness about the thing we all think we want the most.
Updike was a product and protégé of the smalltown priesthood of English teachers and librarians – a bibliophile underground with a passion for Art and Literature that’s only intensified by its great distance from every centre of cultural activity. Surrounded by philistines and illiterates, they keep a small torch burning and pass it on when they can, to the brightest local students or to promising children of their own. Every blue moon or two they might pass it to someone like John Updike, who could carry it so high and so far.