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on 2 June 2017
I'm not an Updike fan, have read several of his books, he wrote gorgeous prose but always left me cold. Begley is clearly a huge fan, and sadly, this is greatly to this biography's detriment. It reads like one long book review, as the author takes us through seemingly every novel, short story and poem Updike ever wrote. If you've read Updike all your life, you may well find this fascinating. I haven't, so I didn't.
Updike's complicated personal life, two wives, numerous affairs, children, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren, is treated very much with kid gloves. It's not ignored, but Begley seems to feel it unseemly to go into it in very much detail. This seems to me a strange decision, when the line between Updike's work and life is so thin, given how brazenly he transplanted real people and events into his writing. It sums up the overly respectful, somewhat cold, tone of Begley's book, which greatly resembles Updike's style, I felt, minus the poetic similes. I ploughed through this big book in over a week, simply to get it over with, and it convinced me that I need never open an Updike book again. For that, perhaps I should be grateful to Begley.
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on 3 April 2017
Begley writes with grand fondness for his subject, an affection that doesn't dim his ability to point a critical lens at Updike's oeuvre. However, the book is far stronger when it comes to it's essential core which is personal biography, and Updike's life is fleshed out in extraordinary detail, with autobiographical reflections of his life in his work painstakingly detailed by Begley.
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on 21 July 2014
An excellent, detailed and moving account of a flawed literary genius. Precocious, prolific and priapic, Updike stirs mixed emotions, especially among feminists. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, he was a doted on only child, encouraged in his ambitions by his mother, a highly educated woman who had unrealised literary ambitions of her own. He seemed to find his feet early and easily in comfort zones, like Harvard's Lampoon Club for budding graphic humorists, then the New Yorker, who first employed him full time, then accepted his stories as a freelancer for the rest of his life, then Knopf who published his novels. He married twice and you sense that the author has more sympathy for the first wife than the second. He also had many affairs, the context of which he fictionalised in his most controversial novel, Couples. His fiction mirrored the life he led in late twentieth century suburban America, which captured the mood of his time. He was particularly noted as a stylist, but his portrayal of women increasingly was considered to have left much to be desired. A thoroughly absorbing read.
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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.
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on 4 August 2015
Adam Begley's mammoth bio of the great John Updike is more than complete, it is a fat 9 course Rabbit meal. I read it before - and after - Roth Unbound (shifted out of Ch.3 into Roth), which I ran through. I love both authors but preferred Roth's bio, because Updike's life, like many of his books, are not as interesting as Roth. So forgive the comparisons, but it is impossible to avoid them.

Like Roth, Updike wrote of real life best, with great observation and revealed himself at least as much as any writer I know. He is the Vermeer of writers, minute and painstaking. He could find the big in the small like no one else. He wrote best in his range, his own life, and lost the plot when he veered from it - Brazil, The Coup, Terrorist, etc. But what can compare to Couples, the Rabbit books, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Roger's Version - God, I could go on. Maybe his range was smaller than Roth. Roth admits Updike is the better writer, which he was - a
technical genius, capable of cold fury, as opposed to the scalding Roth. They were colleagues, competitors, and ultimately fell out over a bad review/comment on Claire Bloom's blame it all anti-Roth book.

Feminists often hate both writers and label them misogynists. I label them idiots. I think both men have been very unfairly treated by these
women. Fortunately Claudia Roth Pierpont. is having none of it about Roth, and all of the women Updike wrote of and for, like his mother, wives, and fellow writers - well they all know better. Ideology is crap literature. Even Margaret Attwood loved Updike. There is a lot of scattered criticism in this account, some of it justified, some of it not. Updike wrote huge amounts, and a tonne of reviews - no wonder he comes in for it. The book is too long ands more detail than anyone would ever care to know. It is never dull, but not as compelling as Roth Unbound.

But I would list Couples and Rabbit Redux as two of my favourite novels, and add those to Roth's Sabbath's Theatre, American Pastoral and the Human Stain, and you have a pretty good idea of late 20th Century American literature, man style.
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on 27 July 2015
One of the best biographies of a writer I have ever read. Considering that Updike spent most of his life simply sitting at a desk writing, Adam Begley makes of this an extremely interesting read, as beautifully written and structured as some of Updike's work itself, with very skilled interweaving of life and art: indeed Begley's central focus is on how closely Updike based his works on his own life. His understanding of Updike as a man and as a writer is acute, clever and perceptive. There is absolutely no putting of words into Updike's mouth, as least as far I can judge, and this is one of the besetting sins of biographers. Granted, he had a wealth of material to draw on, very carefully indexed as proof. His treatment is measured and even-handed, especially of Updike's serial adultery and the less heinous scattering of writerly sins such as envy of other upcoming writers and the competitiveness which made it difficult for him to maintain friendships with writing peers. My only reservation; too much quoting of Updike's poetry and not enough of the prose. But it has made me want to re-read Updike in a big way, particularly 'Couples and the 'Rabbit' books. At the time some of the books were coming out I found them misogynistic and never went back to them; this may have been my mistake and on the strength of this biography I hope to revise that opinion. If a biography has the effect of reviving and revising interest, it has succeeded.
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I may not be the best person to offer an objective evaluation of Adam Begley's "Updike" because of my utter infatuation with the skill of nearly everything I've read by John Updike himself.

I hold Updike in high regard, and would argue long and hard for his place among the top four American writers of the 20th century (along with Hemingway, Steinbeck and Vonnegut; I don't care so much about how they are ordered, as long as they are all present).

Begley offers a detailed glimpse at Updike's life, including excellent primary sources (as in: Updike's mom, for starters). While this biography is overwhelmingly positive, it is not a hagiography, and we learn plenty about the traits that separate the strong writer from the pedestrian issues we all face.

Especially strong are his examination of Updike's time at Harvard, his first marriage while still an undergraduate and his time at Oxford as an art student. This is the time when Updike faced Frost's "two roads", and departed a promising cartooning road for a career as a writer (and we are all richer for it). It was also a time --sadly passed-- when there was a vibrant market for short story writing in America that gave Updike further traction as one of the last century's best writers. Begley also offers interesting insights into the "administrative" details of Updike's life as a writer; I enjoyed the looks at some of his early income-producing works and the payments they yielded.

Beyond Harvard, "Updike" catalogs its subject's changes from an awkward-but-talented rural Pennsylvanian to Ivy League educated, to young New York literary figure to the New England suburbanite whose environs would lead to his own (and his first wife's) excursions into infidelity that would feed many of the storylines in Updikes novels and short stories.

This book will mean more to those already familiar with some of Updike's work. If you aren't so blessed, take this on the side with some heaping helpings of Updike reading; you won't be disappointed.
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on 28 May 2015
A simply superb biography. While Adam Begley clearly admires the work of John Updike, this is no hagiography. He is particularly perceptive on Updike's autobiographical literary style. The book is never pedestrian or dull and there is a wealth of personal detail not dealt with by Updike himself in his various memoirs. A must for all interested in the great author John Updike.
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John Hoyer Updike (1932-2009) is widely considered among the most accomplished U.S. writers during a period that extends from the mid-1950s until his death five years ago. He is probably best known for his Rabbit Angstrom series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and the novella, "Rabbit Remembered") but he also wrote more than a dozen additional novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children's books. Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker, beginng in 1954.

What did his contemporary writers think of him? In a NEH Jefferson lecture in 2008, Philip Roth observed, "John Updike is our time's greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne."

In The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik evaluated Updike as "the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing ... He sang like Henry James, but he saw like Sinclair Lewis. The two sides of American fiction--the precise, realist, encyclopedic appetite to get it all in, and the exquisite urge to make writing out of sensation rendered exactly--were both alive in him."

After Updike's death in 2009, in an article for The New York Review of Books, Ian McEwan wrote that Updike's "literary schemes and pretty conceits touched at points on the Shakespearean,"and that Updike's death marked "the end of the golden age of the American novel in the 20th century's second half." McEwan concluded that the Rabbit series is Updike's "masterpiece and will surely be his monument", and describing it, concluded:

"Updike is a master of effortless motion--between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic...This carefully crafted artifice permits here assumptions about evolutionary theory, which are more Updike than Harry, and comically sweeping notions of Jewry, which are more Harry than Updike. This is at the heart of the [Rabbit] tetralogy's achievement. Updike once said of the Rabbit books that they were an exercise in point of view. This was typically self-deprecating, but contains an important grain of truth. Harry's education extends no further than high school, and his view is further limited by a range of prejudices and a stubborn, combative spirit, yet he is the vehicle for a half-million-word meditation on postwar American anxiety, failure and prosperity. A mode had to be devised to make this possible, and that involved pushing beyond the bounds of realism. In a novel like this, Updike insisted, you have to be generous and allow your characters eloquence, "and not chop them down to what you think is the right size."

What we have in Adam Begley's massive biography is an abundance of information and insights that help readers such as I - with only limited knowledge of Updike life and work-- to understand subjects such as these:

o The nature and extent of influence that Updike's childhood and youth had on his adult life and career as a writer
o Those who seem to have had the greatest impact on his personal growth
o Those who seem to have had the greatest impact on his professional development
0 Other writers Updike admired most...and why
o Defining moments throughout his life that required a change of course
o What others found most attractive in him as a person
o What others found least attractive
o What his two marriages reveal about his values, for better or worse
o Similarities and differences between Updike and Rabbit Angstrom
o His "lifelong inability to to make what he called a `leap of unfaith'"
o The defining characteristics of his writing style: fiction
o The defining characteristics of his writing style: non-fiction
o During his last few years, what Updike expected the nature and extent of his legacy to be

No brief commentary such as this can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of the material that are provided in this volume. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of what I have learned about John Updike, both as an imperfect person and as an iconic writer. He died eight weeks after the cancer was diagnosed, on Tuesday morning, January 27, 2009, less than two months after his seventy-seventh birthday. He retained until the very last the feeling of a conqueror.

As Adam Begley observes, "In truth, he never tired of writing, never tired of `creation's giddy bliss.' Up until the last, when he was too sick to write, he was always that little boy on the floor of the Shillington dining room, bending his attention to the paper, riding that thin pencil line into a glorious future, fulfilling the towering ambition of his grandest dreams. 'I've remained,' he once said, 'all too true to his youthful self.'" Only after I had read and then re-read this book could I understand and appreciate how revealing that statement is.
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on 29 April 2014
I had already tried John Updike's Autobiography and not been overly impressed so . altho the reviews were favorable I was not expecting too much but I was pleasantly surprised. It proved a really enjoyable read and Adam Begley made a much more interesting job of presenting Updike than he himself had been able to achieve.
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