When John Updike died in January – of lung cancer, aged 76 – it was received as dreadful news by most of his readers. Updike was still producing novels and stories at a dazzling rate; he was still granting interviews and grinning for photographers. Of living American writers, he was, without question or competition, the most personally adored. But he was also a figure of great suspicion among critics, and, throughout the long period of Jewish dominance in American fiction, their chief whipping goy.
Updike’s dirigible, thumbprinted prose was judged insufficient to the tasks to which he put it, a style for some occasions but not all. And his love of being in print, which he took every possible opportunity to declare, had led to the publication of too many stories and even novels that would have been better placed in his bottom drawer. The announcement of his unexpected death ended this treatment. Living authors are judged by their last book, dead ones by their best; Updike the author of The Widows of Eastwick became the author of Rabbit is Rich – and Roger’s Version and The Centaur and Couples. The low points dissolved, and the highlights of a busy 50-year career were restored to prominence. The death of the author was also his rebirth.
“Of course, he does write well,” Updike’s disparagers would concede, still failing to acknowledge the intricacy of his prose and its central, even total importance. For Updike, getting the prose right was not an aesthetic aim, but a religious duty; as he construed it, with the help of Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, God was in the detail. And initially at least, it was not something that he could “just do”, with a few flicks of the wrist; it was, rather, an achievement of passion and patience and daring and care, a parade of mots justes (the “elasticity” of an old man’s toothless mouth), defiant syntax, exotic metaphor, lexical ingenuity, eagle-ish perceptions (“that strange way monologuists have of ending a conversation as if their time had been wasted”), adjectives giddily repeated (“Gregg was happy, proud, happy”) or boundingly commaless (“dusty hunched patient unknown people”), verbs tricked into new uses (“An emotion of fermented guilt and fondness would seek to purge itself upon me”) – all of this play inhabiting his intrepid long sentences, with their bunched clauses and air of happy splashing excess.
Yet it remains the case, even as Updike’s death prompts memory of the good times, that his admirers, reading by way of mourning, will find most of the good times long in the past. Updike’s work as a novelist was divided down the middle. The first period – from the late 1950s until the early 1980s – comprises a run of ten fine novels, the most remarkable of which are the third and fourth, The Centaur (1963) and Of the Farm (1965), autobiographical works composed almost entirely in golden sentences. And there were his two novels about marriage and the sexual revolution: Marry Me (1976), a slender “romance” set in 1961, during what one of the characters calls “the twilight of the old morality”, and Couples (1968), a hunky novel set a few years later.
The second period, bookended by his regrettable visits to Eastwick, contains a number of novels that seem to have been written on a whim. After the most pressing projects were completed, Updike tended either to revisit his pet territory, with decreasing vigour, or to make honourable but mostly doomed excursions elsewhere. Throughout, he subsisted on three presumptions: women exist to be amorous and aromatic; verbs such as “glisten” possess enormous descriptive power; wood is always interesting. In this period of unfruitful productivity, only Roger’s Version and Rabbit at Rest stand as true exceptions to the tale of struggle and decline.
But if it were not for the renewed dynamism, at the same age and during the same period, of Philip Roth, Updike’s stutters would barely have been worth remarking. After all, the list of writers who have produced significant work in their sixties and seventies is a short one. And there is, of course, so much else to commemorate. Updike was one of the few American writers of the postwar period who applied first-rate gifts to parochial material; his aim was to reveal beauty where it was thought least likely to dwell. For the most part, he wrote of the Protestant East, a land where paradise is fleetingly regained through lovemaking and natural glories. His work was principally a mixture of theology, sociology and gynaecology – but there was also mythology, futurology and Egyptology, to pick three from 30. He wrote a miraculous tetralogy, and two less accomplished though still estimable trilogies, one spinning variations on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, the other concerning the Jewish-American novelist Henry Bech. And his fiction is also a serial feat of both geography and autobiography – Updike invented and peopled two towns, Tarbox, MA, and Olinger, PA, the latter a tweaked fictional version of Shillington, the town where he was born and educated. In the 17-poem sequence Endpoint, which has been published in an extraordinary collection with 51 other poems, he thanks his classmates for providing him with “a/sufficiency of human types . . . all a writer needs,/all there in Shillington”.
A writer also needs other writers, as Updike knew. In “Midpoint”, the predecessor to the new poem, he praised the English novelist Henry Green, “whose lyric spirits sift/Through gestures, glances, shrugs, and silly drift”. It was Green, with his disregard for convention and faith in the reader’s tolerance, who licensed the quirky surprises of Updike’s early prose; no American novelist would ever write a line of dialogue such as “This about two a.m. in the morning, mind you” if they were not under the absinthe-like influence of Green’s prose. It was also Green, with Joyce, who stirred Updike to his most enduring project – the Rabbit books. From the cinephile Green, Updike took the present tense (“Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches . . .”) and permission to locate transcendence in dailiness. Joyce also granted this permission, and Updike’s sensory greed, his onomatopoeic zeal, is Joycean – where Leopold Bloom hears the “mrkrgnao” of a cat, Peter Caldwell in The Centaur hears the “unnhn-ah” of a struggling car battery.
Updike’s younger characters often think of their upbringing as four corners – four grandparents, or two parents and two grandparents – and Updike the developing writer had the perfect four. There was Green and there was Joyce; there was also Salinger, whose stories had made parochial concerns fashionable, and Proust, for whom the novel was a retrospective enterprise. Unfortunately, there was a fifth wheel. The example of Vladimir Nabokov is there, evident in the form of the “quasi-novel” Bech: a Book, which Updike constructed from short stories printed in the New Yorker, as Nabokov had constructed Pnin. It is there as well in the book’s winking metafiction, which Updike, usually a traditionalist, had learned from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. But the ornery behaviour of Updike’s prose gave way to cheaper splendours when he looked to Nabokov – the creaseless Nabokov with his ceaseless descriptions – rather than to Green. And the final book of stories, My Father’s Tears, is the sad product of the nabokovised Updike in combination with Updike the small-town nostalgist, too easily roused to the expression of feeling.
In a speech given in 1964, Updike asked: “Is the syntactical sentence plastic enough to convey the flux, the blurring, the endless innuendo of experience as we feel it?” But there came a point at which he was no longer concerned with attaining this plasticity, preferring to “freeze the flux of life in the icy permanence of print”, as he put it elsewhere. The stories in My Father’s Tears reflect the latter impulse, though the frozen substance is no longer “flux” to begin with. In the story “Varieties of Religious Experience”, which concerns the mental behaviour of four characters on or around 11 September 2001, Dan Kellogg, a 64-year-old probate lawyer, watches the South Tower fall from a penthouse terrace in Brooklyn. He imagines how it would have felt to be in “that building – its smoothly telescoping collapse in itself a sight of some beauty, like the colour-enhanced stellar blooms of photographed supernovae, only unfolding not in aeons but in seconds”. Certainly, it would not have felt like that.
My Father’s Tears is a self-consciously “late” work, with elderly protagonists recalling the days before dotage. Most of the stories involve marriage and courtship; all of them proffer a series of sweetly turned details before petering out with a puff. The book is, obviously and egregiously, far too long. Even Joyce was pushing it a bit in Dubliners, but whereas the 15 stories in that collection were coherent, the 18 stories here, with their planished prose and weakness for homily and epiphany, are merely homogeneous. The material in all but one or two of them is available, in less creepy form, in The Centaur, Couples, Of the Farm and In the Beauty of the Lilies. The book exhibits all the infirmities of the sex-and-sycamores formula that Updike favoured throughout his last two decades.
It was always apparent that Updike had more talent than sense, but it grew to be a significant problem only once he had used up his liveliest material. “The Laughter of the Gods”, a very thin tale from My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, begins: “Benjamin Foster – an ungainly name, carrying in the bearer’s own ears a certain formal, distant resonance, as if he was a foster child . . .” Surely this is precisely not how someone who had always been called Benjamin Foster would think of the name? Elsewhere, Updike surrenders to base impulses. The reader prays that a story entitled “My Father’s Tears” and beginning “I saw my father cry only once” does not end with the father’s death and the line: “My father’s tears had used up mine.” But in this upsettingly bad book, Updike routinely delivers on your worst fears.
A fiction writer with these shortcomings might do better as a lyric poet. In the final book of stories, Updike struggles to invent full-fleshed stand-ins and alter egos; in the final book of verse, he addresses the reader without artifice, though not without art. Some of the poems that form Endpoint were written in hospital beds last December, and the resulting work is, not unexpectedly, mournful, much of it peering towards “that unthinkable future/when I am dead”. Yet the book also contains a number of short observational poems. Indeed, the light-hearted sonnet seems to have been the ideal form for the Updike who was not merely content but eager to put inconsequential thoughts down on paper. His tributes to the golfer Gary Player, to Doris Day, or to doo-wop, are far more affecting than the essay-sketches he ploughed into his novels; the little noticings that Updike made on various holidays are better expressed in his own words than when donated to Brad Quigley in “Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage” or Henry Milford in “The Apparition”.
In the final section of Midpoint, a manifesto for his “aesthetic of dots”, Updike wrote: “The Infinite is just littleness heaped high.” As a sentiment, it is plausible enough, but that verb “heaped” was ominous of Updike’s later lack of discrimination, his weakness for data. The word “asphalt”, for instance, appears a dozen times in the new stories, though never significantly; it is just another word in the bank, another seven letters to be typed idly. But back when Updike was first unpacking his bag, a word could conjure a world:
I wonder if any man ever enjoyed walking in the small ugly cities of the East as much as my father. Trenton, Bridgeport, Binghamton, Johnstown, Elmira, Altoona: these were the cities where his work as cable splicer for the telephone company had taken him in the year before and the years just after he married my mother, the years before my birth and Hoover’s depression stalled him in the sticks. He feared Firetown and felt uneasy in Olinger but adored Alton; its asphalt and streetlights and tangent façades spoke to him of the great Middle Atlantic civilisation, bounded by New Haven in the north and Hagerstown in the south and Wheeling in the west, which was his home in eternal space. To walk beside my father down Sixth Street was to hear the asphalt sing.
My Father’s Tears and Other Stories
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £18.99
Endpoint and Other Poems
Hamish Hamilton, 97pp, £12.99