Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike Is Dead, Alas

The mighty, mighty Johnny Up has passed away, and it's a shame. I admired him even when I didn't feel like reading him, and he was one of my heroes even though I've never wanted to be like him. If that sounds like faint praise it shouldn't. If my affection for his work had nothing to do with emulation, it also had nothing to do with ambition, and if my admiration wasn't founded on imaginative identification neither was it tainted by my self-regard. I've loved other writers more, but none less selfishly; Updike's appeal was stronger even than my egotism.

I respected Updike for his sheer chops, and for the pellucid artistic honesty with which he used them. Even when I felt alienated from the conventional middle-class "realism" practiced by Updike's inferiors, and hostile to its conventions, I could never begrudge Updike, who was clearly following his own artistic angels and demons where they led him and whose unrelenting eye made his work realistic in the strictest and rarest sense of that word. Updike was an original on an endless rack of knockoffs, a blessed soul in a massive congregation of hypocrites. That his artistic obsessions led him to a comfortable middle ground, wearing a sensible, inconspicuous suit, was hardly his fault. You couldn't tell him to change; he was doing what came naturally, and anything else would have been faking.

Perhaps more important was the reflexive and self-effacing generosity with which Updike used his fame. He had the best claim, for decades, to the title of Greatest Living American Writer, but refused to occupy the throne. There's no doubt that, had he chosen, Updike could have thrown his weight around, extorting homage and punishing rivals, but he doesn't seem to have been tempted. Best of all, perhaps, is that Updike's refusal to play king meant no one else could. Pretenders like Norman Mailer might brawl for the position of Top Writer, but it was hard to play the part convincingly with Updike off in the country somewhere. (Mailer, naturally, came to hate Updike, which is only one of the reasons to love him.) Updike kept American letters a democracy through his own constitutional shyness. And he used his bully pulpit in the New Yorker, his power to review essentially any book he liked, to build audiences for writers whose work was profoundly unlike his own. (If you doubt that Updike had more weight to throw around than he used, imagine what some other writers might do with the freedom to publish anything they chose, as often as they chose, in The New Yorker.) Updike's reviews introduced Nabokov and Garcia Marques, among others, to a mainstream American readership. Updike was never partisan when it came to art, and never insecure enough to insist upon this orthodoxy or that one. Every time I passed over Updike in the bookstores for some Latin American magical realist, I had Updike himself to thank; those writers would never have found their ways into American paperback without him. Updike the critic didn't grind an ax for his own selfish interests, or even for his own literary idiom, but generously led readers to books that Updike himself could never have written, but was wise and confident enough to love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Odd as it may sound for a child of the 70s and 80s, _Rabbit, Run_ was my revelation: I was about fifteen, and though I had no experience with infidelity or late 1950s suburban American middle-class angst, I knew I had never seen prose glow like that, alive purely in itself and its rhythms. (It's no surprise he spent a year at the Ruskin School -- above all else, the guy knew how to _describe_ a thing.) What few good passages I ever produced as a fiction writer were good only as they imitated Updike: the intricate musicality of the phrasing, the crispness of the diction, the cosmic lyricism of the mundane. (There's painting again -- his pictorial counterpart, technically at least, would be Vermeer. Only the maid wouldn't be reading a letter or pouring out a pitcher of water, she'd be sitting at the edge of a hotel bed smoking a cigarette and watching a soap opera on TV, faintly dissatisfied with the midday sex she's just had with the man in that bed, through whose perspective the entire composition would (and always would) be framed. Updike at fifteen also did not especially help me form healthy attitudes toward women; are his ever anything but broken or hollow?) So he has the distinction of both inspiring me to become a writer, and making me realize I'd never be a writer, though the epiphanies were separated by several painful years. I desperately wanted to, and knew that I never could, Be Like 'Dike; I was the Anxiety to his Influence. (Check out Nicholson Baker's _U and I_ on this.)

I attended a reading Updike once gave on a cold winter's night at the University of Toronto, where I was studying in the early 1990s. I don't recall the reading; I think it was _In the Beauty of the Lilies_. What I do recall is waiting on line for about half an hour to get his autograph and to exchange some inevitably mawkish words of tribute with him. When I finally got to the table, he was deep in conversation with someone about how hard it is to find a good cardiologist; he took my book, signed it, and moved on to the next one without even breaking his gaze. The cosmic lyricism of the mundane.

Rest, Rabbit. I forgive you.