Farewell, King John of suburbia

Rabbit is finally at rest. A colossus of American letters, John Updike leaves us shortly after the departure of two of our own most treasured writers, Harold Pinter and John Mortimer.

Updike had the stature of Pinter, both literally and literarily. Tall, honour-laden, celebrated stylists, the two men etched their names on that roll call of authors destined to live beyond their time. Both, too, painted identifiable landscapes of the mind. The term "Pinteresque" needs no explanation, and if Updike's surname does not lend itself so felicitously to adjectival usage it still conjures up a very particular scenery.

Yet in his preoccupations, the indulgent sage of the East Coast perhaps had more in common with Mortimer. Not for nothing was he known as a "chronicler of suburban adultery". Updike's most famous novels - Couples, the Rabbit tetrology, The Witches of Eastwick - were peopled by characters, such as Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, who were lax-conscienced pleasure-seekers barely troubled by illicit sexual adventure.

The description is well fitted to Mortimer. News of a forthcoming biography of the knight, barrister and writer once prompted the headline, "Mortimer smarts at claims he was Rumpy-Pumpy of the Bailey". But it is Updike to whom the association will cling. Only last year, he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction prizes. He did not turn up; but one hopes it prompted a smile from that wry, genial recorder of human frailty.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling