I’ve been thinking about John Updike, so masterful and also so familiar. Losing him is like losing a member of the family. My friend Deborah recently lost her mother, and she says that a thousand times she imagines picking up the phone to call–only to remember that her mother cannot answer. Many readers will feel that way about Updike. A thousand times we will pick up The New Yorker and expect to see a new short story, or one of his elegant book reviews. He won’t be there.
Of course, his books remain. Millions of words. I must say that I prefer his short fiction to his novels, and I like the early work better than the late. There was something about those youthful stories of his. Sentence by sentence, he wrote with such clarity and grace. He never lost his limpid style, and he never surpassed the freshness of his early vision. He excelled at the first kiss, the soft flesh on a girl’s upper arms, the sudden nakedness revealed by bathing suits–oh those girls walking into the A&P. The stories of divorce and infidelity and aging were good too, but those tales in “Pigeon Feathers” speak with such immediacy. They are my favorites. He was gifted at the young point of view, an innocent awareness. He inhabited the older man’s perspective with authority, but I’m not drawn to his middle aged adulterers in quite the same way. Updike could write sixteen, or twenty-three, or even twenty-eight like no one else.
I think people mistake rough edges for ideas. Philip Roth is a rougher writer than Updike. Saul Bellow more loquacious, his narratives more dialectical. This does not mean that Roth and Bellow have more to say than Updike. He had ideas as well. He wrote about America as well. He wrote about love and sex and betrayal and religion and materialism and history and memory with great intelligence. He also chose to dissolve his themes in observation and description. He was not as didactic as Roth and Bellow. He had a lighter touch, and, I think, ultimately, a comic imagination. He was more playful than his peers.
Updike’s great subjects are conjugal, familial, and domestic. He did attempt allegory–The Witches of Eastwick, and myth–The Centaur, and experiments in alien points of view–The Terrorist, but he is at his best where he treats the classroom and the gym, the small town boy, the high school reunion, the young couple driving home from their parents’ house, the disintegrating marriage. Call Roth and Bellow Hals and Rembrandt. Updike is Vermeer, suggesting so much with such delicacy, the young girl’s glance, the light through the window.
But Updike is unlike Vermeer in one crucial measure: his body of work. While Vermeer left few paintings, Updike was prolific, returning again and again to his people and personas, his Pennsylvania landscape, his New England towns. He was constantly writing–not only a book a year, but essays and reviews and poetry. The essays show what an insightful and curious reader he was all through his life. He was a fine critic, and a generous one, clearly fascinated by new fiction. He loved to read and he loved to work, and I think this life of reading and writing sustained him. For he did have a cheerful face. I noticed that, on the few occasions that I spoke to him. Those small bright eyes, that scholarly proboscis, that playful smile–hovering just this side of smirk, but never settling.
Updike had the look of a man who enjoyed his gift. Of course he was one of the most successful writers in America, and had been lionized since his youth. I am sure that he had periods of doubt. I’m sure he suffered in his life. I don’t think writing was necessarily easy for him, although he made it seem so. However, he was comparatively well paid and well praised.
Quite apart from the praise, the best sellers, and the prizes, I think Updike took an artisanal pleasure in his writing. He always struck me as a man who took huge joy in drawing from life and from memory–every detail, down to a boy’s wonder at girls: “(do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)” The language is stagy overly literary. No boy has ever articulated this question so beautifully, but Updike’s language conceals and at the same time reveals the deeper question: who are these creatures? The boy’s mind–his little buzz, his bafflement at girls’ mystery–is what Updike captures again and again. Everyone is young once, but Updike could write young. That’s lightning in a bottle.