All he does is write his novel
‘I had this foresight,’ John Updike’s mother, Linda, once told a journalist, ‘that if I married his father the results would be amazing.’ Was Updike amazing? In the most simple terms, which were the ones he favoured, he was an exemplary American success story: a child of the Depression who passed from a hardscrabble youth through the halls of the meritocracy to become a rich man on the earnings of his fiction. Note the defensive modesty of the epitaph Updike suggested for himself: ‘Here lies a small-town boy who tried to make the most out of what he had, who made up with diligence what he might have lacked in brilliance.’ The claims he made for his short stories are those of a lacklustre publicist: ‘my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me – to give the mundane its beautiful due.’ Of his choice to make suburban life his primary subject, he said: ‘Out there was where I belonged, immersed in the ordinary, which careful explication would reveal to be extraordinary.’
The ordinary/extraordinary cliché is wrong side up: Updike submerged his extraordinary sensitivities and artistry in the lives of Everyman characters like Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom and, even so, he filled a life like Rabbit’s with plenty of not very mundane drama: serial family abandonment, accidental infanticide, free love, death by house fire, alcohol and drug addiction, business fraud, spouse-swapping, semi-incest. And if facility is a sort of brilliance, Updike’s genius is hard to deny. He wrote three pages every day before lunch, and didn’t bother with more than one draft. ‘I write fairly rapidly if I get going,’ he told the Paris Review in 1968, ‘and don’t change much, and have never been one for making outlines or taking out whole paragraphs or agonising much.’ It’s easy to see him as a force of inertia in postwar American literature, drawing all around into the orbit of his ‘relentless domestic realism’. But better to think of him as a feature of the landscape, a sea-level or horizon line against which the rest of the panorama could be measured.
He came from a family of Bible readers. Linda was the daughter of a tobacco farmer who in the 1920s sold his plot, put his money in the stock market expecting to live off the returns, and moved to the small town of Shillington, Pennsylvania. He was ruined by the crash of 1929. By the time of his grandson’s birth in 1932 the last of his investments had withered. Linda and her husband, Wesley, had moved in with her parents. That summer, Wesley lost his job as a telephone company lineman, and the household entered a state of ‘severe Depression-shock’. Linda had a master’s in English from Cornell, and thought herself better than the small-minded Shillington middle class. She was a frustrated writer. ‘My mother,’ Updike wrote in a late poem, ‘knew non-publication’s shame.’ It was a shame that hardly troubled him after the age of 25, when his first mature attempt at a novel was turned down. (Called Home, it was dismantled and used for spare parts.) But one gets the sense from Adam Begley’s sharp and diverting biography that he felt a little bit dead anytime a piece under his byline (or, in the old New Yorker, with his name at the end) wasn’t on the newsstands.
‘Johnny knew it was possible to be a writer because he saw me trying,’ Linda told another journalist. His intervention would help her into the New Yorker, which published ten of her stories. (By Begley’s count, it published ‘no fewer than 146’ of his, nearly 80 per cent of the short fiction he submitted.) An autobiographical story of hers that appeared in 1969, ‘Hindsight and Foresight’, casts her premonition about her son in semi-religious terms. Born the wrong size, like a ‘fat rooster’, her alter ego Belle Minuit is told by a supernatural voice that she’ll be granted a son as a sort of correction: ‘You aren’t going to the football game today because you aren’t right. But your son will go. Everywhere. Your son will be truly representative of the clan. Go back to your dreary little room with your books and forget the football game. You can’t go with the boys. Never.’ After the child’s birth, she writes:
It was almost as if I, that rude daughter of the fairy tale from whose lips fell an assortment of toads and frogs had become, when Eric was born, her blessed sister, whose words were diamonds and pearls. Confident that my every word would be welcome, if not infinitely precious, I lay in my hospital bed with a happily expectant air.
It’s hard not to see Updike’s tremendous output – more than sixty books over five decades – as the fulfilment of a filial quest. Linda had a bad temper, and administered ‘stinging discipline’, whipping his calves with a switch. His youthful drawings and writings were a way of placating her, Begley says: