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The Snug Opaque Quotidian

Kevin Stevens

Updike, by Adam Begley, Harper, 576 pp, £17.00, ISBN: 978-0061896453

All literary biographers face the challenge of assessing the raw facts of a life, to the extent that they are discoverable, in light of the versioning of those facts in the subject’s work. All literary biographers must, like their subjects, contemplate the tangled, delicate relationship between art and experience, knowing that the artist has been there first, with more knowledge of his history than they can ever have, and with the unique advantage of his licence to alter, disguise, and transmute. And when all the research and writing is complete, the biographer must wrestle with the suspicion that the assembled collection of facts, chronologies, analysis, and historical context may fall short of the set task: to capture the truth of a life. As John Updike put it in his memoir Self-Consciousness, “What I have written here strains to be true but nevertheless is not true enough. Truth is anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian.”

Of course, Updike would say that. Though perhaps the most complete man of letters the American scene has produced in the last fifty years, he was first and foremost an artist. Fictional narrative was his coin of the realm. And Self-Consciousness, written nearly thirty years before his death in response to a rumour that someone was planning his biography, is slender and selective. Though brimming, as you would expect, with elegant observation and thoughtful insight, it is more a collection of essays on aspects of his character than autobiography. Yet leave it to Updike to put his finger on the shortcomings of a mode he nevertheless masters as he deprecates. As he observes in the preface to the book, with characteristic verve and apt metaphor, “Perspectives are altered by the fact of being drawn; description solidifies the past and creates a gravitational body that wasn’t there before. A background of dark matter – all that is not said – remains, buzzing.” And no better way to explore the resonant mystery of that dark matter, he implies, than through poetry and fiction.

You would think that Updike’s relative reluctance to explore his past in nonfiction might leave the decks clear for a biographer. But Updike, the most prolific American fiction writer of his generation, mined his own experience so thoroughly that even the most casual reader feels he knows the personal history. Twenty-three novels and over two hundred short stories (most of them published in The New Yorker) chronicle his childhood and family life, his marriages and affairs, his ailments and ecstasies. Via numerous fictional alter egos, who pop in and out of his oeuvre across fifty years of publication, Updike showed us in intimate detail what it was like to be a son, grandson, student, lover, husband, father, churchgoer, friend, writer, traveller and celebrated author. He often spoke guiltily of how he “plundered” his own life and the lives of those closest to him:

Fiction is a dirty business; discretion and good taste play small part in it. Hardly a story appears in print without offending or wounding some living model who sees himself or herself reflected all too accurately and yet not accurately enough – without that deepening, mollifying element of endless pardon we bring to our own self. Parents, wives, children – the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up.

David Foster Wallace famously quoted a friend who asked if Updike had ever had one unpublished  thought. A better question would have been, had he ever had an experience he didn’t plumb for its fictional potential? In tackling Updike’s life Adam Begley is competing against this prodigious output of anecdote and narrative that, while always shaped by a controlling aesthetic intelligence of great subtlety, aligns extremely closely with the detail of his experience. And Updike covered the key moments of his life over and over again. His Pennsylvania childhood at home and in school, his Harvard years, the New York interlude, family life and “pagan, bourgeois bliss” in the suburbs of Massachusetts, his divorce and remarriage, his travels, his fame.

A good example of his cyclical return to core experience was his treatment of his family’s move from the town of Shillington (Olinger in the fiction) to a farm in the Pennsylvania countryside, which happened when he was thirteen years old. This disruption, which he called “the crucial detachment of my life”, formed the basis of his 1965 novel Of the Farm as well as several of his most important short stories, from “Pigeon Feathers”, published in 1961, to “A Sandstone Farmhouse”, his moving account of his final visit to the farm after the death of his mother. “Pigeon Feathers” is one his most anthologised stories, a small masterpiece on religious awakening that set the stage for Updike’s many fictional forays into faith and doubt. The equally remarkable “A Sandstone Farmhouse”, which won the O. Henry Prize in 1991, is a sublime study of death and the persistence of the past. If a writer could so fruitfully capture the same central personal event in discrete fictions spread across thirty years, what hope does a biographer have of shedding further light?

Begley faced other formidable obstacles, some of them self-imposed. He started writing the book just after Updike’s death five years ago, without a pause to allow the roil of celebrity and posthumous praise to recede. As a result, it can feel as if, page to page, he is competing with a contemporary image of Updike in the public mind. Of course, if he hadn’t written it, someone else would have, such is the demand in the industry to rush biographies of the famous into print. For Updike was indeed famous, and not just among readers. The novels Rabbit Run and The Witches of Eastwick and the short story collection Too Far to Go were made into feature films, and several stories, including “Pigeon Feathers”, were dramatised on American television. Many who have never read a word of his massive output know his name and face. It is true that his celebrity peaked in the late sixties, when the novel Couples earned him a million dollars and led to his snaggle-toothed photograph appearing on the cover of Time magazine above the legend “The Adulterous Society”. But to his death Updike remained a consistent seller for Knopf, a featured speaker on the cultural circuit and an established figure in the media. He had great literary presence and was unfortunate not to have won the Nobel Prize.

As for sources, Begley has been aided by the fact that Updike, a careful curator of his own creative materials from the beginning, began depositing his papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library in the sixties, and for the next forty years delivered drafts, galley proofs and personal correspondence to the archive. Begley also had the benefit of interviews with a huge range of Updike’s family, friends, New Yorker colleagues, ex-students, and even golfing and poker buddies. But access to Updike’s wives was lopsided. Updike’s first wife, Mary Weatherall, was an “inspiration” to Begley who, he says, “made me want to write a book she would recognize as a faithful portrait of Updike’s life and work”. Martha Bernhard Updike, on the other hand, to whom Updike was married from 1977 to his death in 2009, chose not to interview with Begley, and though he makes a great effort to be even-handed, the withholding of her input makes a full, unbiased view difficult. Mary is in front of us, three-dimensional, often quoted. Martha is seen through the eyes of others, many of whom lack Begley’s attempt at objectivity.

Martha’s silence also has the effect of tipping the balance of perceived significance in the biography, at least in relation to marriage, to the first half of Updike’s adult life. As a great domestic realist, Updike (author of Marry Me, Couples, “Wife-Wooing”, “Separating”, “Your Lover Just Called” and countless other novels and stories about the married state) drew greatly upon the experience and views of his wives for his fiction – though how accurately he captured the female perspective is a matter of some debate. Yet the women, though both critical to an understanding of Updike’s life and work, are reflected in the fiction in very different ways. Married at a young age, Mary and John grew into his fame together. He used her as a model without hesitation, through courtship, young married life, children, affairs (his and hers) and divorce. During the Ipswich years, his self-confessed role of “a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife does” was reflected without disguise in his stories, adding to the strain of a progressively more unstable marriage. During the seventies, there was a long run of submissions to The New Yorker which Updike asked his editor, William Maxwell, to put to the side until the events on which they were based – the state of his marriage, the evolution of an affair – had resolved themselves.

Martha, on the other hand, came into Updike’s life when he was already a star. Hardheaded and direct, she assumed the role of gatekeeper. “When her husband wanted room to write,” Begley tells us, “she held the world at bay, gradually assuming the management of his time, doing her best to make sure that nothing and no one encroached on the hours devoted to his work.” Martha is also less vivid in the fiction. Updike did use her as a model, but he was more cautious than he had been with Mary, perhaps because of Martha’s character, perhaps because he had matured to a place where he had more respect for a wife’s privacy. He disguises her more effectively, careful not to expose her. So she is doubly removed from the reader – her choice, of course, but as she was one of Updike’s literary executors, it would have been interesting to have her perspective on their relationship, not to mention the detail she would have brought to an account of his life.

In spite of these many challenges, Begley has done a good job of charting Updike’s aesthetic development from his precocious, protected childhood in Shillington to his long period as one of American fiction’s grandmasters. “What mattered most profoundly to him,” Begley says, “wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered was writing.” And with the life so well chronicled in the work, Begley made the sensible decision to focus on the writing: Updike’s magic touch in turning the ordinary into the universal, the differences between the drama of life incident and the drama of fictional narrative.

“From an early age, prodded by ambition,” Begley writes at the beginning of his book, Updike “exploited with remarkable and enduring discipline his knack for imitating the life he knew.” His relentless exposition of the self exerts a powerful fascination on the reader precisely because it is so well crafted, so well expressed, so heightened. “When we think we recognize his presence in the work, we’re also recognizing its potent realism … His alter egos seem real to us because they are real, or near enough. They seemed real, in any case, to the author.”

Yet Updike’s skill at recreating the actual can disguise a love of artifice, and Begley’s steady exposition clearly separates the core biographical incidents from the glittering fictional constructs. He shows how the alter egos – the New York Jewish writer Henry Bech, the sensitive David Kern, the boorish Rabbit Angstrom, the adulterous, anguished paterfamilias Richard Maple – embodied aspects of Updike’s own complex character. He is also good at examining Updike’s influences and the evolution of his famous style. Throughout his career, Updike was dogged by critics who claimed he “had nothing to say”, that he was, in Harold Bloom’s oft-quoted phrase, “a minor novelist with a major style”. That many thought he was all sizzle and no steak was partly due to lack of respect for his domestic subject matter in an age of upheaval. As Louis Menand put it, Updike “wanted to rescue serious fiction from what he saw as a doctrinaire rejection of middle-class life and an apocalyptic interpretation of modern history”. But it was also an overreaction to the lushness of his prose. At its best, the style needs no apology, but Updike was an able self-defender:

My own style seemed to be a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena, and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is what it wasn’t – other-indulgent, rather. My models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green as I read them (one in translation): styles of tender exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real. In the entwining and gently relentless effort there is no hiding that the effort is being made in language, [and] printed language is what we all know we are reading and writing, just as a person looking at a painting knows he is not looking out of a window.

Updike’s success (and he wasn’t always successful) illustrates the paradox of mimesis: the greater the artist’s powers of illusion, the easier it is for a reader to suspend disbelief. “Potent realism” is sleight of hand, or sleight of phrase. The real is apprehended, recreated, and presented to the reader in a dance of pretence. What seems real commands a reaction as if it is real. So rather than the fables of Vonnegut or the cartoon history of Pynchon or Mailer’s cumbersome dramas of machismo, we get convincing moments in a boy’s or man’s life presented with consummate legerdemain. Like Proust and Joyce (whose photos hung on the wall of his study in Ipswich), Updike used his own life as the basis for almost everything he wrote, and succeeded because, like them, he mastered language to the point where he could manipulate words and their effect at will.

Updike’s facility with language is supported by a lyricism influenced by his interest in visual art. From an early age he loved cartoons and comic strips, and throughout his years at Harvard he valued his drawing over his writing; his ambition during college was to “be the next Walt Disney”. In Self-Consciousness he comments: “Illustrations affected me more strongly than reality; a picture of falling snow, for example, whether in black-and-white drawing or blurry four-color reproduction, moves me more than any actual storm.” After Harvard, Updike spent a year at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing in Oxford on a Knox Fellowship. “I’ve never done anything harder,” he said of the work he did that year, “than try to paint things the way they are … a very good lesson for me as far as accuracy in all things artistic.” He continued to observe painting and sculpture with a sharp eye, writing regular reviews that he collected in two volumes, Just Looking and Still Looking, that attest to the visual’s lifelong effect on his sensibility.

Things the way they are – this was Updike’s mantra. “My only duty,” he said, “was to describe reality as it had come to me – to give the mundane its beautiful due.” When we consider the sweep of his fiction across five decades of publication, it is this dutiful capture of the middle ground of American life that, along with his style, is his great achievement. And of all his heroes, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, whose life is delineated in a rainbow of four novels and one novella published decennially between 1960 and 2000, is the most successful embodiment of Updike’s essential themes: money, sex, death, fatherhood, and the Calvinist tug-of-war between virtue and prosperity that is at the heart of the American psyche. Begley is at his best when analysing these fictions – especially Rabbit is Rich, Updike’s finest novel – and relating them to their author’s inventiveness, his focus on “domestic and quotidian concerns” and his way, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, “of mesmerizing us with his narrative voice even as he might repel us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes”.

The Rabbit books are the keenest example of Updike’s lifelong exploration of American material culture and its attempt to make up for the century’s erosion of faith. In book after book Updike delights in describing, often in religious terms, the cornucopia of American consumer culture and its appeal to boys like David Kern and men like Rabbit Angstrom. Or, indeed, to Updike himself, as is obvious from this description of a visit to Shillington decades after he had left:

A few housefronts farther on, what had been Henry’s Variety Store in the 1940s was still a variety store, with the same narrow flight of cement steps going up to the door beside a big display window. Did children still marvel within as the holidays wheeled past in a slow pinwheel galaxy of altering candies, cards and artifacts, of back-to-school tablets, footballs, Halloween masks, pumpkins, turkeys, pine trees, tinsel, wrappings, reindeer, Santas, and stars, and then the noisemakers and conical hats of New Year’s celebration, and Valentines and cherries as the days of short February brightened, and then shamrocks, painted eggs, baseballs, flags and firecrackers? ... In Henry’s Variety Store life’s full promise and extent were indicated: a single omnipresent manufacturer-God seemed to be showing us a fraction of His face, His plenty, leading us with our little purchases up the spiral staircase of years. Department stores, with their escalators and clouds of perfume and ranks of nylon lingerie, were like Heaven itself.”

Updike grew up and chose to remain within an American Protestant tradition that believed in the guilt and shame of financial failure. Writing of his grandfather, who left his Presbyterian ministry only to fail in the real-estate and insurance business, he said: “A failure of economic fortune must be a moral failure: in my mythic sense of my family the stain of unsuccess ate away at my grandfather’s life as if in some tale by Hawthorne.” The arc of Rabbit Angstrom’s life through 1,500 pages is, like America itself across the time span of the tetralogy, one of greater and greater prosperity. And yet Updike is always aware of the paradox of the Calvinist creed – that the end it seeks destroys the foundation of frugality and moderation on which it is based. And the objective correlative in the fiction is Rabbit’s “typical” American heart, the failure of which, “tired and stiff and full of crud”, causes his death on a Florida basketball court. After a lifetime of believing in the American dream, Rabbit, at the moment of his death, is flooded with the sudden perception that the trappings of the culture he so loved – from the tinselly Christmases of his childhood to the pop music of his adolescence to the advertising jingles of his business life – were all calculated commercial frauds. Updike, as Adam Gopnik has written, “viewed the material culture of American life with a benign, appreciative ironic eye. But he had no illusions, either, about its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality.”

Updike’s vast output was bound to catch up with him, if only because he identified and cultivated his greatest strengths so early in life. By the early eighties, when he was only fifty years old, he had the air of a grand old man of literature; he was secretary of the prestigious Academy of Arts and Letters, a frequent member of numerous prize committees and a regular official representative of American culture abroad. Begley notes how, around the time of his second marriage, Updike started to worry “that he was putting too much distance between himself and the sources of his inspiration”. As Updike himself said in the late seventies, “One of the problems of being a fiction writer is that of gathering experience. The need for seclusion, and the respectability that goes with some success, both are very sheltering – they cut you off from painful experience.”

He had become settled and safe. And not just because he had abandoned behaviours that, though good for his fiction, were not so good for his marriage. He was also famous. “Celebrity,” he said, “is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf.” In the three decades of life remaining to him, the parade of novels, short stories, poems, reviews, and essays that flowed, year in year out, from his prolific pen, included several wonderful stories and the fine novels Rabbit at Rest and In the Beauty of the Lilies. But a gap begins to grow between his lyricism and his narrative intent, so that style becomes, in some cases, an end in itself. “The language lifts itself up on pretty hydraulics,” as James Wood describes it, “and hovers slightly above its subjects, generally a little too accomplished and a little too abstract.” When he moved beyond his natural world of domestic realism, he usually missed the mark; when he did not, he often recycled old themes. Updike’s ease of output now worked against him, and many of his novels did not reach the high standards readers had come to expect: Begley lumbers through them in quick succession: S. (1988), “thin and stretched and uncomfortably manic”; Brazil (1994), which “baffled or dismayed” readers; Toward the End of Time (1997), which “summoned more bile from critics than any previous Updike novel”; Villages (2004), “a doggedly autobiographical retelling” of stories told more successfully four decades earlier.

The wilt in form is graphically illustrated by Begley’s own narrative pace. His modus operandi of tracking the life against the work reveals a telling imbalance: he uses only the last sixth of the biography to cover the second half of Updike’s writing life, a romp through 37 books published between 1982 and 2009. It was as if the comfort of Updike’s status and the settled nature of his personal life had resulted in a corresponding fattening and flattening in his fiction. “Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer,” Updike wrote in the late eighties. He knew himself the arc his career had taken.

And yet there is so much, at every point, that is so good. And though there are some who see his crowning achievement in the Rabbit novels, and others who insist the short stories must take pride of place (“American literature’s greatest short story writer”, Lorrie Moore dared to say), a final judgment must consider the totality, great and not-so-great, of this marvellous writer’s oeuvre. And Begley’s biography, in addition to its balance, insight, and warmth, performs this very valuable function. We feel the sweep. We see how the failures are failures only by comparison with the masterpieces. We are guided through the life and work with sympathy and sure touch, but without over-adulation. But above all Begley helps us understand that Updike wasn’t just a great producer of fiction but a great believer in the enterprise of art, especially art that uses the highest standards of craftsmanship and personal vision to convey the wonder of ordinary experience.

For Updike writing was, indeed, almost a religious endeavour, and contemplation of religion, a favourite activity for him and many of his characters, prompts some of his most interesting conclusions about his calling:

One believes not only to comfort one’s self but for empirical and compositional reasons – the ornate proposed supernatural completes the picture and, like the ingredient that tops up and rounds out the recipe, gives reality its true flavor. Similarly, in art one has to add a little extra color, some overanimation, to bring the imitation up to the pitch, the bright roundedness, the repletion, of the actual model.

Updike’s frequent defence of religious experience – even as he pokes holes of doubt in the fabric of his own belief – became almost indistinguishable from the stated purpose of his fiction: to affirm the value of experience ‑ in all its bright roundedness – in the face of the terrors of consciousness and guilt. “The fabricated truth of poetry and fiction,” he wrote, “makes a shelter in which I feel safe, sheltered within interlaced plausibilities in the image of a real world for which I am not to blame.”

Such shelters are alive with the buzzing dark matter of all that is not said. We are so very fortunate to have them.

1/10/2014

Kevin Stevens is a novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz based in Dublin and the US. His most recent novel, Reach the Shining River, is published by Betimes Books at $16 and is also available for Kindle for $4.99. He blogs at http://reachtheshiningriver.wordpress.com/

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