I don’t want to come down too hard on John Updike. Not only haven’t I read the Rabbit Angstrom novels, but the sheer weight of his achievement – novels, collections of poetry, short stories, and essays, plays – defies appraisal. At the university library, his collected oeuvre, like the thick, mucus-green, neglected hardcovers of the collected Meredith and Balzac, intimidates the hell out of me. Here is a vocation, a job beyond well done. Art as edifice.

Marble is cold. I’ve read The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick and a dozen short stories (the perennials “A&P” and “The Happiest I’ve Been” haven’t lost their ability to provoke discussion). As an Old Master before he was forty, Updike projected a certain complacency. Beyond the exploration of an anxiety that even when it dealt with sex rarely burned with the existential fervor that his contemporaries Bellow and Roth would have taken for granted, his novels were content to elide pain and mystery. His productivity masked a reluctance to probe beneath the surface of a situation; he substituted depth for range. The style for which he was (in)famous caulked over these aesthetic shortcomings, and was often itself a shortcoming. Michiko Kakutani cites a characterization of Jewish protagonist Bech as “recherche but amiable” as an example of Updike’s sumptuousness; to me, it’s a case of ornamentation that verges on decadence, disintegrating upon closer scrutiny. The same goes for a description of a film projector (a “chuckling whirr.” Really — “chuckling”?). Updike is often compared to John Cheever, whose own prose shone with a similar high gloss that defined The New Yorker voice, for better or worse. In the compendium of excerpts and appraisals up on the site, this bit from Cheever’s journal, in which Cheever confesses how much the younger man and his writing mean to him, illuminates the differences between the two writers:

As for John, he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him, although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully, there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance presaged a cruel, untimely, and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed that as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations.

So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer, who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in. This is a wish founded on the desirable simplicity of being charitable; one of her best characteristics. I am distempered, forlorn, and idle.

This is generous, sweet, and precise. Cheever never wrote a novel as architecturally sound as Updike, but he rarely lapsed into glibness or mere word-watercolors.

It’s hard to call his literary journalism as anything but masterful — of a kind. Odd Jobs and Hugging the Shore flaunt an impressively catholic range; he’s a pedantic but observant critic of the visual arts, and did his part to support European up and comers like Kundera and Handke. I give him more credit than Gore Vidal for awakening my interest in the perennially underrated William Dean Howells. But the limits of his expansiveness showed in 1999, when reviewing Alan Holinghurst’s wan The Spell, and I was struck by how such a tireless manufacturer of material could have no clue about homosexuality, or why there are some novelists for whom homosexuality was text not subtext.

So I’ll miss the old man. When Gore Veedal smirks his way to death, the last generation for whom a devotion to literature remained the only constant will have passed into history books. Updike showed how a facility for fleet-fingered filigrees could lead to financial renumeration, maybe for the last time. The world sighs, mildly, leaving no chuckle to whirr.

5 thoughts on “

  1. Your feelings about (and experiences with) Updike’s “oeuvre” are similar to mine. He’s too big and prolific to really dismiss, but I can not tell you that any individual thing I’ve read by him has really shaken me. (“AP” is a perennial anthology favorite, but is hardly amazing- I personally prefer that other one “The Rumor” (I believe?) which I think you will like.) I feel remiss not having read the Rabbit novels; like you,I read “The Centaur”- way too strained, did not like; “A Month of Mondays”- did not adore it; “Claudius and Gertrude”, which was mediocre at best; and “Terrorist”, where you can actually point out whole sections of crappy writing. I enjoy his short stories, in that “New Worker” way- genteel, but no transcendence. Updike lovers can easily point out that we missed some of his greatest peaks, but can we be blamed if there’s just too much of his works that are just not that impressive? Writers “reveal” themselves to individual readers in different, almost magical ways, anyway.

  2. “Updike lovers can easily point out that we missed some of his greatest peaks, but can we be blamed if there’s just too much of his works that are just not that impressive?”

    Well, yes… James wrote several bad novels and tens of really poor short stories, but I certainly wouldn’t take you seriously – actually, I’d think you were an idiot – if you announced on the basis of reading Watch and Ward, Washington Square, and The Princess Cassamissima that James just wasn’t very good, particularly when it’s not like there’s any great mystery about which of his works are really important and you, on this hypothetical, wouldn’t have read any of them. Similarly I don’t really know what to make of someone who pontificates on Updike on the basis of late work that’s commonly acknowledged to be bad, while not having read the stuff that made his career.

  3. The Witches of Eastwick is not “commonly acknowledged to be bad” – a couple of critics (Harold Bloom for one) think it’s the best thing he’s ever written. I like it fine. Plus, your James analogy doesn’t hold up, unless you think Washington Square and The Princess Cassamissima qualify as “late work that’s commonly acknowledged to be bad,” when they’re neither late work, nor are they commonly acknowledged to be bad, especially in MY canon, which in this context is all I’m interested in.

  4. Well, that was more directed at me, so I’ll step in. I specifically acknowledged he’s not dismissable, and that I intend to read the Rabbit novels. Having gone through several of his novels, essay collections and “The Early Stories (1953-1975)” does however qualify me to say that he’s an influential writer that has not particularly done anything for ME. Is that fair enough? If after several serious attempts at getting into an author, nothing catches you, you should be forgiven for giving up- (and I haven’t even given up, Rabbit on the way! But it better be good!) If the above hypothetical reader reads four random Henry James novels that happen to not be the best, yes, he would be foolish to say: “Well, he never wrote ANYTHING good,” but he would probably be making a very wise decision backing off for a while. It takes a conscientious reader to repeatedly tackle “canonical” authors that don’t grab them- considering most people don’t even touch anything that they haven’t already decided they will like.

    I’m not the big Henry James, fan, Alfred is, but I actually liked “Watch and Ward” and “Washington Square” well enough. Just because they’re not James’ top classics doesn’t make them turn-off novels. Unless they are to YOU. Personal taste might be a factor, no?

  5. Also, I’m not sure at whom the “pontificating” comment was aimed- but I AM pretty sure there was none of that in either the original post or the comments.

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