Wednesday, 4 February 2009

John Updike RIP

John Updike died of lung cancer, in a hospice, last month, at the age of 76. Many would say he was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, deserving of the Nobel. He was certainly one of the most prolific: in a career spanning five decades, Updike published 28 novels, 14 brick-thick collections of short stories, and 9 volumes of poetry. Add to this the countless reviews he wrote, on subjects as varying as golf, paintings, and cartoons—he was apparently an able cartoonist—, and you will get some idea of the intellectual fecundity of the man. Like the great Somerset Maugham, renowned for writing a few pages every day, 365 days a year—on days when he did not feel inspired, Maugham would fill pages with his signature—Updike, too, till the end, laboured in front of his typewriter for several hours every day.

It was ineluctable that some or more of the output was ordinary, especially his later works with their super-clever premises, which seemed mere vehicles for Updike to deluge his readers with digressive, random pontifications on whatever subject that happened to be on his mind at the time . The patience of all but the most generous reader would surely stretch and snap as they plough through Toward the End of Time, Updike’s 18th novel, as its senescent garrulous narrator yammers on about quantum mechanics and horticulture. The gimmicky Seek My Face, his 54th book, written in just one chapter—indeed one paragraph— left the readers less than enchanted with pages and pages of textbook criticism, and offered no new insights into the works (or lives) of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, the two artists upon whom two of the main characters of the novels were based. Gertrude and Claudius, his self-conscious prequel to Hamlet, was strangely devoid of any passion or drama, as it meandered along, never getting out of the far left lane. In Terrorist, his final novel, Updike showed glimpses of his sly wit and linguistic brilliance that had earned him legion of admirers in his distinguished writing career, but the novel, which, in contrast to his more recent novels, was well paced, suffered from a weak central plot and was ultimately unconvincing.

It seems that once he was through writing the great novels of American man (I am using the word in its gender specific sense) and the sexual revolution sweeping the middle classes in the sixties, Updike, driven by the need—an eye on the Nobel perhaps?—to move on to weightier subject matters, ended up writing plenty about not very much. What also became increasingly noticeable in the later works was his obsessively detailed eye for the quotidian. The unstoppably vivid descriptions of mundane occurrences such as a car being started and going past an observer or the preparation a tuna salad, running into several paragraphs and giving the reader no way-stations to pause for rest, served little purpose other than adding to their sense of ennui. The stylistic excellence and pseudophilosophical insights failed to camouflage the lack of coherent or, in some instances, plausible premise, and the work was about as captivating to the common reader as a monograph studying Julius Caesar's Latin and comparing its rhythmic structure to Byzantine hymns. The whole exercise, it seemed, no longer had any goals beyond enjoyment, dare I say egotistical?, of its own overbred faculties.

However, posterity will judge John Updike not on his lesser, autumnal offerings, but on novels such as the Rabbit books, the zeitgeist series that represented the silent American men of his generation (and won him the Pulitzer twice), and Couples, which made him famous and which won him the reputation of the novelist of sexual revolution, or, as a critic once put it hyperbolically, the novelist who kicked down the doors of American bedrooms. Updike made his reputation on effectively transcribing the angst of common people who outwardly appeared to be content with their lot; and the deliberately provocative manner in which he wrote about sex earned him millions of fans all over the world, but also made him vulnerable to the charge that what he wrote was mild pornography disguised as social insight. Be that as it may, Updike perhaps realised that the seam was too narrow, and moved on to different, abstruse, subjects. Shorn of new ideas he kept going by giving himself technical challenges; writer's block was but a surface for him to practise his craft. Herman Hesse, the great German novelist and Nobel Laureate, published The Glass Bead Game, in 1943. Hesse was 65 when his magnum opus was published. He did not publish a single novel in the remainder of his life. Not everyone has the courage or insight to accept that the stream of creativity has dried up. What you end up doing then, to borrow a phrase from Truman Capote, is typing, not writing.

Philip Roth, Updike’s contemporary and no less a chronicler of American, albeit Jewish American, adultery, was the first to pay him the following tribute:

‘[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. His death constitutes a loss to our literature that is immeasurable.’

Updike was an accomplished and technically gifted wordsmith. He had, in abundance, all the virtues a writer would dream of. Was he a great writer? Probably.