Sunday, February 1, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

I was greatly saddened by the death of John Updike last week at age 76. He was one of my favorite authors, a brilliant writer who truly succeeded in "giving the mundane it's beautiful due," as he once said. Updike wrote beautiful sentences, and he could, and did, write well about anything and everything. His death came as a shock to me; I had fully expected him to live well past 90 and that for the next decade and a half I would still see a steady stream of new Updike books in the stores. No one could ever accuse Updike of wasting his talents, the man was prodigious and prolific in his staggering output. In the library at college I used to marvel at the full row of his books on the shelf. I would sit nearby and hope that through osmosis I would absorb but a fraction of his brilliance. He wrote some 60 books during his 50-year career. He published 846 pieces in The New Yorker. Which, averaged out at 50 issues a year, would be one entirely new piece in every issue for 17.5 years!

I met John Updike once, when I was a freshman he gave a reading at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, not far from the college I attended. (Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois.) My Dad and I and two of my best friends went to hear him read. It was amazing, there's nothing like hearing an author read their own work. He read from Gertrude and Claudius, before it was published. He also read some of his light verse, and I think he read a story from Trust Me. Afterwards, we got to meet him and I got my copy of Pigeon Feathers signed. I said something to him about John Cheever, another one of my favorite writers, and Updike said what a wonderful person Cheever had been. In my brief encounter with John Updike he seemed like a very nice person, with no giant ego getting in the way. Everything I've read about him seems to confirm this. His obituary in The New York Times said, "And though as a youth he suffered from both a stutter and psoriasis, he became a person of immense charm, unfailingly polite and gracious in public."

Like John Cheever, Updike was a master of the short story. My favorite books of Updike's are two collections of his short stories: Pigeon Feathers and Too Far To Go: The Maples Stories. In Too Far To Go, 17 stories trace the story of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, from beginning to divorce, the chronology of the stories paralleling Updike's own first marriage. Like all his best work, the Maples stories are sad, funny, moving, heartbreaking, and very real. I recommend "Sublimating," "Separating," and "Gesturing" from Too Far To Go, and "A&P," and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car" from Pigeon Feathers.

There is a study of Updike's work with a wonderful title: John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. That's as succinct and accurate a summary of his subject matter as one could hope to find. Updike had a wide-ranging intelligence, I get the feeling that he loved learning new things and sharing them with people through his writings.

Fortunately, Updike's talent has left us with much to remember him by. Great fiction can make things seem clearer, can help sharpen one's own thoughts and actions, and this is what Updike's work did. Thank you John Updike, for making all of us see our own world a little more clearly.

I'll close with a small sample of Updike's own words, in which he describes the wonder he still feels at publishing a book. "To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another."


Anonymous said...

So you're using your old college column name. I'd forgotten about it, but it works. Very good tribute to our old friend John. This could be the medium for you, if it could make some money. It's a good way to hone your writing skills. I'll e-mail you mine when I finish it. Dad

Holly A Hughes said...

The news about Updike saddened me immeasurably. I can never decide which I love most -- the crystalline perfection of his short stories, or the elegant development of his novels. I can't think of any other writers -- okay, maybe Mark Helprin -- who excel so in both forms.

Back in the days when The New Yorker didn't put bylines at the head of their stories, I used to set myself a rule: If I wasn't hooked by the third paragraph of a story, I wouldn't read any more. For years, that saved me from wading through so many precious minimalist short stories. But occasionally I'd be locked in from that first paragraph on, and when I got to the end almost invariably I'd find out why: because it was Updike.

The prose was unbearably beautiful, yet it never seemed overworked or mannered. I always wondered: do that gorgeously formed prose just flow out of him, or did he rework thing obsessively? It never felt like it had been labored over, yet when you studied his sentences, you'd have to marvel at word choice and placement -- the artistry was simply amazing. No surprise that he was a poet too!

RIP, maestro.

Mark said...

Hi Dad, thanks for the kind words!

Holly, I agree with you about Updike's style, it was just gorgeous, and never seemed mannered to me. It just felt natural, like it flowed out of him, as you said. But his style did seem so perfect, he must have taken the time to really sharpen everything. His death is a huge loss for American literature.