John Updike was one of the major American literary titans of the 20th century but now, ten years after his death, Updike’s cultural stock has gotten pretty low, and it’s getting lower still, with Steve Donoghue looking like he mighta been right when he predicted that, incrementally, Updike’s books would be almost completely out of print within the first couple decades after his death.
I’m in a different headspace now than when I was trying (and mostly failing) to read his books through high school and college. Back then I just revered him because it seemed that everybody else revered him, because he could turn a good sentence and crank out some critically-praised novels and stories. If, back then, I read something by Updike that didn’t grab my attention, I blamed myself, not him, whereas now, when I crack one of his books, I can be swept up in a great paragraph here and there, and I’ll routinely catch a line that I wanna memorize, but for the most part I feel like he lavishes too much attention on the weather, on outfits, on the runniness of gravy over a slice of roast.
What I revere about him now is the fact of his being, as I think David Remnick put it, a Man of Letters. Maybe one of the last. By which he meant that Updike was kind of a literary allaroundsman. Short stories, poems, thousands of letters, book reviews and art reviews and think pieces and author profiles, remembrances, novels, op-eds, plays.
But I also see, now, a smarmy, sticky, pitch-dark misogyny that, as a teenager, just struck me as tastefully libidinous, poetic and manly, because Updike would do this thing of invoking, like, lilies of the field, or the glimmering mysteries of the cosmos, in all of these long, languid, austere poetic sentences that culminated in the words “her cunt.”
But I do think he was talented and I still enjoy telling myself ever five or six months that I’m gonna read one of his novels, whereafter I zip through the first forty or fifty pages in total rapturous awe before hitting, inexplicably, some brick wall and putting the book down for what I think will be a day or two but turns into forever.
Anyway. He really did only come to
mind because it was rainy when I came into the coffee shop this morning and I got
to thinking about how he spends too much pagespace talking about rain and wind
and sunlight and flowers.