on 4 May 2014
Borges once said of James Joyce that he was less a man of letters than an entire literature. If you wanted a sentence that sums up the career of John Updike - who published over fifty books over a long writing career and twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - you'd struggle to dream up a better one than that.
Admittedly, 'struggle' isn't the first word you associate with Updike's career, but after reading Adam Begley's assured, informative biography, you might well modify that judgement. Updike was the only child of poor, Depression-era parents. The creator of juvenile basketball ace Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom doesn't sound like the type of kid you'd pick for the school team. Young Updike was gawky, shy with a bad stutter. Besides psoriasis, Updike also suffered frequent stomach pains, hay fever, and his hair would, at times, suddenly fall out in clumps. Home life was idyllic but secluded after his Mother moved the family to a farm. If you overlook Mother's mood swings, lack of ability for farming, producing publishable manuscripts, and tendency to ban her little treasure from seeing girls, she was undeniably devoted to pushing her son towards his literary destiny. In an interview, she talked of receiving 'a premonition' that if she married Updike's father, 'the results would be amazing'. She was not exaggerating.
Those results were longer coming than you might think. Updike entered Harvard on a scholarship and remained a hard-working student, but often felt out of his depth among the rich, privately-educated boys who formed the bulk of the studentry. His repeated submissions to the New Yorker came back with depressing regularity. Applying for Archibald MacLeish's creative writing class, he was rejected twice; homesickness struck him dysentery. Somehow, as if by magic, things suddenly began to go right. Updike met a girl, continued to produce and send out cartoons, poems and stories, and saw his humourous pieces published in a college periodical. A publisher, keen on those student pieces, asked him if he'd care to submit something to them for publication. A short story first written in the classroom, submitted to the New Yorker largely unchanged, netted him not only an acceptance but, four months after its publication, a job offer at the magazine. The jammy sod married the girl, too.
Begley wisely focuses much attention on Updike's short stories, not just for practical reasons. (The New Yorker's 'whale sized' cheques financed Updike comfortably for the length of his writing life, ensuring he would never need a publisher's advance.) At their best, the stories are matchlessly sharp and poetic, but they also form a running commentary on Updike's life, from dreamy, precocious teenager to happily married father, from not-so-happily-married father to serial adulterer and beyond. Fiction isn't life, of course, but it's hard to deny that a great deal of life provided the blueprint for Updike's fiction. Like all literary biographers of merit, Begley does a tactful job of tying his subject's characters to the people that inspired them. (Sometimes those ties were too close: one of the husbands from the time Updike was writing Couples, who also happened to be a lawyer, very nearly sued him.) Updike asked for some of his rawest stories to be 'banked' by the New Yorker for publication years into the future, and the novel Marry Me, first written in the mid-sixties, was shelved for over a decade before seeing publication. Although 'the vessel of circumstantial facts is all invented', Updike wrote, 'the liquid contained may, if spilled soon, scald somebody'.
On the novels that follow, Begley makes a qualified case for Marry Me, and gives considerable space to Couples (which, we learn, made Updike over a million dollars, and saw his annual income rise from around $50,000 in one year to $410,000 in the next after the sale of the film rights). As is only proper, ample space is given to the Rabbit novels (though, oddly, little on Rabbit At Rest: a mistake, since it's the tetralogy's crowning achievement). Canny readers will have spotted Rabbit's predecessors in Updike's work, notably in the poem 'Ex-Basketball Player'. Now, we know Updike's editor, Katharine White, actively discouraged him from writing about people the New Yorker of the time looked down upon. She also told a friend, somewhat acidly, that fiction wasn't Updike's best vein, and wondered if he was 'too versatile for his own good'. Far from being a New Yorker 'creation', Updike's greatest fiction was created almost in defiance of it.
Begley knows when to trust the details, especially the small ones, and has room for the illuminating anecdote. For his first New Yorker story (out of 136) Updike was paid $490, $612.50 for his second and $826 for his third, at a time when his Father's annual salary amounted to $1,200. We may have noticed that Rabbit At Rest ends in Florida (where Rabbit was unsuccessfully trying to escape to at the end of Rabbit, Run), but we now know the city where he dies is named for the hero of one of his mother's unpublished novels. A celebrated piece on the famous baseball player Ted Williams was written only because Updike had called on a nearby mistress who wasn't at home.
To his credit, Begley doesn't indulge the biographer's vice of hagiography, but I think he is unduly harsh in places. Having established that Updike wanted to leave New York to avoid narrowing his fiction, Begley then snaps the verbal ruler on Updike's hand, then claiming instead that he did it solely to be 'a big fish in a small pond'. Writers, I think Begley will find, are a competitive lot, and often have grumpy spells, not just Updike. I doubt Updike actually did carry out a malicious act of literary vandalism when he described his Mother as an author on the dust jacket of one book, then called her 'an aspiring author' on its inside cover. I am not convinced by Begley's case for Updike's poetry, and I think he gives too little space to Updike's personal and professional relationship with John Cheever, and on the last three decades of Updike's life. (Admittedly, given his often unsparing depiction of Updike's second wife, there may be a good reason for that.)
I also wish that a man keen on overseeing a surge in Updike's posthumous reputation had used the most powerful weapon in his arsenal more often: namely, his language. A few sentences from the short stories, although unpacked well, simply won't do. Whether describing what passes through Rabbit's mind while jogging, the scratch of a key in a lock, the texture of human flesh or even a row of condoms at the local drugstore, Updike's writing makes you look at things as if they have never existed before. When people say Updike was a poet moonlighting as a novelist they pay him a sincere compliment, for his best work celebrates the ordinary, richly fulfilling its creator's aim of 'giving the mundane its beautiful due'. There will be other lives of Updike, but they will have to run fast to overtake this one.