All he does is write his novel

Christian Lorentzen

  • Updike by Adam Begley
    Harper, 558 pp, £25.00, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 06 189645 3

‘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:

The image that recurs again and again in his writing is of that young boy lying on the floor, busily drawing or tracing or colouring, or doing the same at the dining room table under the stained-glass lampshade, reproducing the comics and cartoon characters that he so loved, already certain that his efforts would meet with the unstinting approbation of his parents and grandparents.

Then there was the example of his father, ‘running scared financially for much of his life’, employed by the Works Progress Administration until he qualified as a schoolteacher. Updike retained an acute sense of thrift long after his novels made him a millionaire, and was a lifelong Democrat, defending FDR’s reputation against revisionist neoconservatives. His father’s sister Mary had been Edmund Wilson’s secretary at the New Republic: she took the boy on his first trip to MoMA and bought him a New Yorker subscription for Christmas in 1944. She also turned Linda, who had a few unpublished historical novels on the shelf, towards writing autobiographical fiction. Updike was his mother’s editor from the age of ten. He approached his creative endeavours with the air of a professional from early adolescence, and there remained something boyish – a constant grasping at the gold star – about his professionalism to the end of his life.

The child was ‘delicate’: he suffered from hayfever, asthma, nervous stomach aches, psoriasis (‘red spots, ripening into silvery scabs’, an inheritance from his mother); he was afraid of ghosts and of death; he stammered. The momentous, and to his mind terrible, event of his youth was his mother’s decision in 1945 to move the family from Shillington back to her parents’ old farm 11 miles from town. (She bought it back with her earnings from working at a parachute factory during the war.) Updike and his father hated it there, and he would return to the displacement over and over (and over) in his fiction. Here are the boy David Kern’s parents, George and Elsie, fighting about it in the early story ‘Pigeon Feathers’:

Mother’s anger touched David’s face; his cheeks burned guiltily. Just by staying in the living room he associated himself with his father. She appeared in the doorway with red hands and tears in her eyes, and said to the two of them, ‘I knew you didn’t want to come here but I didn’t know you’d torment me like this. You talked Pop into his grave and now you’ll kill me. Go ahead, George, more power to you; at least I’ll be buried in good ground.’

Linda, again, had a quasi-mystical sense that she was returning to a lost Eden. The isolation of the farm only sharpened Updike’s work ethic: there was nothing else to do but read (Wodehouse, Thurber, Perelman, Hemingway), write and draw. His talents, he wrote, ‘developed out of sheer boredom those two years before I got my driver’s licence’. As a teenager he was, in his words, ‘skinny, scabby, giggly, gabby, frantic to be noticed, tormented enough to be a tormentor, relentlessly pushing his cartoons and posters and noisy jokes and pseudo-sophisticated poems upon the helpless high school’. He smoked Kools, played pinball and basketball, and survived on hamburgers and coffee from the local luncheonette. He was a dynamo for the school newspaper (285 contributions in total) and he started placing his light verse in obscure magazines around the country. He had a summer job as a copyboy at the nearest city newspaper, the Reading Eagle.

He had a girlfriend called Nancy Wolf, against whom Linda connived: she wouldn’t have Johnny getting stuck in Pennsylvania on account of the pretty girl on the debate team (as Updike portrayed her double Molly in the story ‘Flight’); he was supposed to be the one who got to go everywhere. In his 1988 memoir Self-Consciousness (a sort of pre-emptive strike against biographers that Begley both exploits and shows to be evasive), he calls Nancy Nora:

It was courtesy of Nora that I discovered breasts are not glazed bouffant orbs pushing up out of a prom dress but soft poignant inflections … She was as fragrant and tactful and as giving as one could wish; in the relative scale of our youth and virginity, she did all that a woman does for a man, and I regretted that my nagging specialness harried almost every date and shared hour with awareness of our imminent and necessary parting.

What a burden, being the special boy in town, but the non-nagging bit sounds fun, whatever it actually means ‘in the relative scale’. Updike never shied from applying his descriptive powers to the female body the way he would to, say, rural scenery; as the years went by, it wasn’t something that endeared him to his critics. (His defence: ‘description is a form of love.’)

High school was the only place, with a few exceptions, where he made close, lifelong friends. His arrival at Harvard brought on homesickness and haemorrhoids. He roomed for three years with Christopher Lasch, later the social historian who wrote The Culture of Narcissism (of which Updike was arguably an exemplar; certainly many of his characters were, particularly Harry Angstrom). Begley quotes Lasch’s letters home about his roommate: ‘None of his courses seem to demand any work … All he does is write his novel.’ Later: ‘Updike keeps plowing ahead on his novel. He has written about ninety pages. Some of it is very good. The book … is about high school. He is well qualified to write that book.’ It was called Willow, and chronicled the romantic entanglements of his Shillington gang; he later described it as a teenage version of Couples, his 1968 bestseller of suburban adultery. He did English and had flawless marks, but after Willow found its permanent home in the drawer the bulk of his energies were channelled into the Lampoon. It was a social club as well as a magazine, and here Begley rings the note of provincialism or class alienation you hear in the biographies of most Harvard-educated writers when the subject finds himself among the sons of the East Coast establishment, from William Burroughs of St Louis to Norman Mailer, the Brooklyn Jew. The Lampoon officers recognised the worker in the ‘cultural bumpkin’: he could put out the magazine single-handed while everyone else was horsing around and drinking, a vice Updike hardly ever indulged in to excess. (He was a chain smoker until a routine exam in his twenties showed that his lungs were ‘slightly emphysematous’; he switched to cigarillos. He would die of lung cancer in 2009.) In a draft of one of his stories set at Harvard, ‘Homage to Paul Klee’, Updike set out the terms of assimilation: ‘he ticked off his baggy-elbowed tweed coat, his unpressed suntans, his button-down shirt, his striped tie, his groping-for-exactitude self-deprecatory stammer, his nicotine-scalded fingers; and realised he belonged here.’ He was twice rejected from Archibald MacLeish’s creative writing seminar; otherwise his path through university was frictionless.

Part of the process of shedding his status as ‘an inlander’ was wooing a Radcliffe girl. At the end of his sophomore year he married a fine arts student called Mary Pennington, the daughter of a Cambridge Unitarian minister; her apartment was decorated with New Yorker covers. ‘She sounds alright to me,’ Linda said to John in a letter (she wrote to him nearly every day; he would reply once a week). At the wedding ceremony Updike forgot to kiss the bride, a detail recalled in ‘Divorcing: A Fragment’, one of The Maples Stories. To read that collection after Begley’s biography is to have the sense of reading a different version of the same book, one in which the hero’s intellectual life has been drained away. Rabbit, Updike wrote, ‘like every stimulating alter ego, was many things the author was not: a natural athlete, a blue-eyed Swede, sexually magnetic, taller than six feet, impulsive and urban’. Not so stimulating, if we’re to take Updike’s word, were Richard Maple and many of his cousins. With Mary and the four Updike children as his most generous sources, Begley is able to trace the degree of autobiography present in Updike’s fiction. It’s in many places very high. When Mary and John separated after two decades together, did Updike break the news to his son after picking him up from a rock concert in Boston, as Richard Maple does in ‘Separating’? Not quite: it was a jazz club in Cambridge. Did he say to him, ‘My father would have died before doing it to me’? The son doesn’t recall. Did the Updikes engage in outright spouse-swapping as the Angstroms do in Rabbit Is Rich? Apparently not. Updike himself made conflicting statements on autobiography in fiction. He told the Paris Review at the time of Couples: ‘I disavow any essential connection between my life and whatever I write.’ Two decades later in Self-Consciousness, he wrote of family and friends: ‘the nearer and dearer they are the more mercilessly they are served up.’ One consequence for the biographer is that there are no secrets to unearth: most of Updike’s experience made its way into his writing, arranged on an axis of joy and guilt; in the Rabbit books these themes were exaggerated and set against the upheavals of recent US history, which he saw through the lenses of decline and nostalgia. He may have been a Democrat, but he had a conservative temperament and reactionary impulses; he supported the Vietnam War and would (like Richard Maple) mock civil rights leaders’ oratory. In the company of liberals like Mary, he considered this part of his ‘underdog-rage’. It was an outlook magnified in Harry Angstrom.

On graduating, Updike won a fellowship to study abroad and enrolled at the Ruskin School in Oxford. Though he would later write that he left Harvard ‘85 per cent bent upon becoming a writer’, at the time he was still saying that his dream was to become an animator, ‘the next Walt Disney’. What united the two ambitions was a yearning to be an artist with mass appeal but, Begley writes, ‘he now recognised that he was a better writer than a cartoonist.’ (He enjoyed looking back on his cartoons, many of which featured Chinese jokes that don’t sound very funny today: ‘Happy birthday, Tu Yu’ etc.) His new lodestars were Proust and Henry Green. In the month after he graduated, the New Yorker accepted a handful of his light verse as well as a short story, and offered him a job on his return from England. He spent 19 months reporting Talk of the Town pieces, then quit the city, with Mary and their two children, for Ipswich, Massachusetts, just after he turned 25. Updike gave various reasons for the move: at a party of New Yorker writers he feared he’d become just another among the city’s ‘elegant hacks’; it ‘was no place to raise a family or hatch novels’; it was ‘a vast conspiracy of bother’; it was not original fictional terrain, ‘too trafficked, too well cherished by others’. But the truth might have been, as he wrote of Richard Maple, that he hated the city.

It was in Ipswich that he adopted the regimen of three pages every morning; the afternoons were for reading, going over proofs, and dealing with editors. His social life was a contained whirl of golf and poker with local doctors and carwash owners, and Saturday-evening drinks parties and Sunday volleyball with the neighbourhood couples. Adultery was de rigueur and Begley reports that of Updike and Mary’s circle only two couples, the two who never went in for bed hopping, did not divorce. Sleeping with others led Updike and Mary to two crises: the first they put behind them by fleeing to Europe for a spell in the early 1960s; the second was fatal to the marriage. In 1975 Updike decamped for a time to Boston, then married Martha Ruggles Bernhard, who as an undergraduate at Cornell had been called a genius by his latest and last hero, Nabokov. (Of her character, Begley says little; she wouldn’t speak to him, and he risks no secondhand reporting other than to say that in the view of the Ipswich crowd Martha set her sights on Updike and got what she wanted. When the sons of her first marriage entered his fiction, her ex-husband threatened legal action, and they vanished.) Updike revelled in being ‘a stag of sorts’ in Ipswich, and not only because of the sex: it was readymade material, though he took the precaution of having the New Yorker hold his stories for months and years if the episodes he was treating were still too raw. (His first novel about adultery, Marry Me, finished in 1964, sat unpublished in a bank safety deposit box until 1971, and suffered critically because in the wake of Couples it was old news.) If they were too racy, as was the case with ‘Gesturing’, which had perhaps one too many pubic hairs for the prudish William Shawn, he would instruct the editors to forward the manuscript directly to their counterparts at Playboy. He plotted out Couples on the backs of Sunday programmes at church, a site where his feelings of joy and guilt came together. After it was published he and the family moved to London for a year to escape the gossip.

*

For the rest of his life he was a celebrity: a personality frequently sent around the globe on State Department-sponsored cultural exchanges (many of these trips were re-created in Nabokov-apeing stories featuring another alter ego, the Jewish novelist Henry Bech); a cool-headed book reviewer who appeared monthly in the New Yorker, earning a little extra to make up for his alimony payments; an art critic in the New Republic and the New York Review who never tired of writing about painting and sculpture in religious terms; the author of poems that read like detached bits of essay if you remove the line breaks; a recipient of literary prizes second only to his former friend Philip Roth (their bond went cold after Updike wrote about Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir). After he killed off Harry Angstrom in 1990 with Rabbit at Rest, his reputation suffered. Unlike Roth’s novels of the 1990s, with their turn to politically inflected historical themes, the late Updike books – with forays into history, Shakespeare, science fiction, and autobiographical retread – don’t reflect a coherent project. Old complaints about Updike were amplified. There was too little (‘Updike has nothing to say’, in John Aldridge’s early formulation) or too much (‘Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?’ David Foster Wallace wrote, quoting a friend; another friend of Wallace’s called Updike ‘a penis with a thesaurus’, though the more you read him the less you sense he required such aids). In 1986 Frederick Crews was pointing out Updike’s ‘class-based misanthropy’, ‘belligerent, almost hysterical callousness’ and ‘outbursts of misogyny’, and in 2001 James Wood echoed him, lamenting Bech’s ‘hard, coarse, primitive, misogynistic worldview’. By the end, it seemed, not even his sentences could save him. Quick to point out when a story is flimsy or a novel rushed (16 weeks seemed to be the minimum required), Begley still makes a convincing case for Updike’s posthumous survival. Above all, the biography paints him as a creature of his times; self-absorption and sexism were part of the package. For all his erudition and style – for all his going everywhere – he never transcended the attitudes of Shillington in the Depression. He never really wanted to.