The Charms of the Conqueror

How John Updike Made It Look Easy

Imagine a writer who would be the perfect antithesis to today’s literary culture, where confessional narratives of family dysfunction and personal struggle, conveyed in prose styles edgy, blunt or angry, reiterate the eternal theme of the Tormented Artist. Our Un-Tormented Artist would be an Ivy League–educated WASP, groomed for success by his family. His precocious career would have proceeded from triumph to triumph; his prose would combine effortless eloquence with an easy comfort in its own leisurely peregrinations. Abjuring urban literary enclaves, he would spend his life in the suburbs, hanging out with lawyers and accountants and golfing three times a week. His wife would sacrifice her own career aspirations to support his. Our writer would rack up every literary prize short of the Nobel, while assiduously presenting a face of genteel modesty graced with wry self-deprecation. He would be a churchgoing Christian. Serenity, rather than struggle, would be his hallmark; praise, rather than pungency, his métier. He would never suffer a single hour of writer’s block.

He would be, in other words, John Updike.

Is it difficult to see why some resented him so heartily? From the start Updike’s detractors derided him for empty aestheticism and, worse, a privileged complacency. Alfred Kazin called him “wholly literary...the quickest of quick children.” To Alfred Chester he was “profoundly untroubled.” Garry Wills criticized his “reactionary dandyism,” blasting his novels as “profligate with pretty writing.” Updike’s fictional portrayals of women, critics asserted, amounted to a kind of soft misogyny, the obnoxious ramblings of a man obsessed with sex and given to writing about it with frivolous poeticality—“a penis with a thesaurus,” jousted David Foster Wallace. Updike’s inveterate use of his own life for fiction, combined with his habit of writing luxurious sentences that conveyed the feeling of having been cherished by their creator, left him vulnerable to charges of self-love while saddling him with the paradox of being a writer routinely condemned for writing well.

Defending Updike against such criticisms is a chief goal of Adam Begley’s excellent biography, Updike (Harper, $29.99, 576 pp.). Begley’s father, novelist Louis Begley, was a Harvard classmate of Updike’s, and in his preface Begley fils (former books editor of the New York Observer) confesses that one of his “fondest wishes” is to champion Updike, who died six years ago at age seventy-six, and help prod “a surge in his posthumous reputation.” But his larger challenge is to tell a life spent mostly in the library and study, and moreover one that Updike himself wrote about relentlessly. This relentlessness complicates Begley’s task. How can a biographer work a field already so thoroughly plowed by the subject himself?

Updike proceeds chronologically, beginning with the author’s 1940s small-town childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania. The novelist prized his childhood, mining his family experiences to create such early works as The Centaur and Pigeon Feathers. In the characters and byways of Shillington he saw an idyllic world that his ambitions took him away from forever—thus rendering that world available for recapture in fiction, a paradise lost and regained. “Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start and not / at the end of life,” he would write poignantly, in one of his last poems, as he was dying.

Begley chronicles Updike’s Harvard years, where he worked at the famed literary magazine, the Lampoon, and in the process provides an illuminating look at elite cultural networks in the 1950s. As an undergrad Updike gets a letter from the chairman of Harper & Brothers, the publishing house, urging him to submit a novel. He gets a letter from William Maxwell, famed fiction editor of the New Yorker, inviting him—still an undergraduate—to come to New York and “discuss over lunch his future as a New Yorker writer.” Such remarkable overtures seemed to strike Updike as his birthright, and his complaint, years later, that “people assume I fell into the New Yorker right from Harvard’s lap, but I had been trying for eight years” only highlights the astonishing fact that he’d begun submitting work—to the New Yorker—as a thirteen-year-old.

After Harvard, following a yearlong detour to art school in England, came his stint as staff writer at the New Yorker, a time he called “the ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life.” Updike was a natural “Talk of the Town” writer, his prose, as Begley says, “breezy and sharp and tremendously self-assured.” But after two years he moved his growing family—by his mid-twenties he had three children, with another soon to come—to the Yankee redoubt of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There he and his wife Mary joined a group of young married couples whose weekend frolics and rampant infidelities he soon began transforming into fiction, culminating in Couples (1968), the novel that made him rich and famous.

TO GET AT HIS subject’s “private, hidden self,” Begley explores the gap between the way Updike presented himself—his insistence that he was “a pretty average person,” what one friend called “his passive-aggressive aw-shucks pose”—and the titanic ambition behind the façade. From the start he was a monster of productivity, contributing nearly three hundred poems, stories, movie reviews, essays, and drawings to his high-school newspaper, a frantic pace that continued throughout his adult life, unabated into old age.

How did he do it? Updike was freakishly articulate, on the page as in person, and seldom needed to rework his drafts. He was fast. And behind his gentleman-amateur demeanor lay a steely single-mindedness. “A certain ruthlessness was required,” Begley writes, “to divest the day of unwarranted distractions.” Perhaps most important, he had a doting—and ambitious—mother. Begley quotes Freud’s remark that “a man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.” A would-be writer herself, with a master’s degree in literature but mired in a Depression-era life in the boondocks, Linda Grace Hoyer Updike cultivated her only child to seize the success that had eluded her. Feeding him a childhood diet of the New Yorker and Saturday Evening Post, she engendered in Updike an ambition so specifically focused on literary achievement that when he graduated from high school, he pointed to a bookshelf in the family house and vowed to her that he would one day fill it with his works.

But the real secret of Updike’s prodigious output lies in the relation of his life to his writing. Most autobiographically minded fiction writers require a working-through phase, in which life events percolate before they are ready for use—especially painful ones. Updike defied such norms, acting with what Begley accurately calls “dizzying speed” to transform his life into fiction. In July 1974, for instance, he and Mary informed their children of their intention to divorce, and the heartbreaking story Updike composed about this encounter, “Separating,” was finished—finished!—a mere two weeks later. It is hardly a joke to say that Updike could divorce on Friday and write about it on Monday.

Everything in his life got used, big or small. Updike’s omnibus collections of nonfiction are stuffed with ephemera: three pages on the history of suntans; a page and a half on bad haircuts; three hundred words on the attractions of the letter V...and on and on. This promiscuity elicited a hilarious riff in Martin Amis’s 1991 review of Odd Jobs, imagining a typical afternoon chez Updike: “The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants ten thousand words on his favorite color. No problem—but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.” Less charitable was the envious riposte from David Foster Wallace: “Has the sonofabitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

Such barbs acknowledge the polymath intelligence of a man capable of writing about anything, even as they lampoon a certain immodesty in doing so. What Begley makes clear is that Updike couldn’t help himself: he simply couldn’t exist without turning his life into narrative, submitting all experiences to what he called, with a hint of exasperation, “my creativity, my relentless need to produce.” With Updike, the life truly was the fiction, and vice versa. An acute insight into this truth was provided by Updike himself. “Writers’ lives break into two halves,” he commented in a 1966 Paris Review interview. “At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey.” That there was a cost to this “hiding” Begley does not attempt to deny. In an interview for a 1982 PBS documentary, Updike’s college-age son, David, commented that his father “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people.” What father would not feel a chill in the bones, hearing that?

Though Updike protested against autobiographical readings of his fiction, Begley concedes that “the attempt was halfhearted and transparently disingenuous”; and Updike’s own behavior indicates that he knew it. Anxious over the ramifications, both personal and legal, of writing about adulterous affairs (the enraged husband of one of his lovers had threatened to sue), Updike periodically asked the New Yorker to delay publishing a story until he considered it safe to do so. At one point he had no less than six stories awaiting clearance at the magazine. And a novel detailing a lengthy affair, Marry Me, stayed locked in a safe-deposit box in an Ipswich bank for over a decade; written in 1962, but not published until 1976, after Updike had divorced his first wife and no longer cared.

Begley is an enterprising curator of Updikeana, and serves up choice tidbits about our man: that he was rejected by Princeton; that he showed up for his Lampoon interview proudly toting a satchel full of his cartoons—framed—drawn for his high-school newspaper; that he fell asleep during a reading at Harvard by T. S. Eliot; that his roommate, with whom he was intensely competitive, was Christopher “Kit” Lasch, the future historian (and Commonweal contributor) who wrote The Culture of Narcissism; that the office he rented above a restaurant in Ipswich in 1960 cost him $8 per week; that his IQ was 150; that he dressed up as a Puritan for “Seventeenth Century Day” in Ipswich the year Couples was published; that in 1982 he and the New Yorker were sued for libel, pursuant to his characterization, in a book review of Doris Day’s autobiography, of her lawyer as “a swindler” who had embezzled from her.

As for Updike personally, most who met him were struck by his sly, ironic humor, his love of pranks (into adulthood he maintained a fondness for physical pratfalls), his flashy verbal intelligence, and his eagerness to charm. Meeting him in 1959, Philip Roth finds him “lively, funny and mischievous, a kind of engaging elongated leprechaun.” Many noted his extraordinary articulateness; novelist Tim O’Brien, an occasional golf partner, remarked that “he spoke very much as he wrote, with grace and precision and irony and impish humor and striking miracles of expression,” adding that “I was never unaware that I was strolling down the fairway with John Updike.”

Yet while Updike made a good show of congeniality, at a deep level he preferred his own company to that of “real people.” The friendships he pursued in Ipswich ended when he divorced and moved on; one senses they were dropped once the Ipswich scene no longer served his writing interests. The truth Begley delivers is that Updike was supremely self-involved. He cherished his childhood, his perceptions, his abilities, his sense of destiny, even his looks; and the fact that he used this self-cherishing so productively as a writer complicates our task of assessing him as a person. Was his self-involvement unseemly? Certainly he reveled in himself in ways that can be off-putting, as when he confesses to feeling “exhilarated” at visiting his hometown, “as if my self is being given a bath in its own essence”—or when, in his memoir, he describes himself in Ipswich as “a stag of sorts, in our herd of housewife-does.” And his 1963 review of Denis de Rougement’s Love in the Western World asserts, somewhat incriminatingly, that “only in being loved do we find external corroboration of the supremely high valuation each ego secretly assigns itself.”

At times, in defense of Updike, Begley comes off as a tad euphemistic. Commenting on the avidity with which the novelist and his Ipswich circle pursued extramarital affairs, he asserts that “the possibility that serial adultery would gradually undermine most marriages and put the welfare of the progeny at risk seems to have been overlooked.” And here is how he assesses Updike’s success in navigating, with no interruption of his writing routine, the marital storm that followed his confessing a long-term affair to his first wife: “Once again, his remarkable ability to compartmentalize guaranteed a smoothly functioning professional life.” Well, that’s one way to put it. Another might be to say that nothing—not even family—would be allowed to get in the way of the Updike juggernaut.

 

FOR ALL THE ad hominem beating he took from some critics over the years, Updike subjected himself to withering self-criticism, especially in his stories, via the many alter-egos whose pretensions, abdications, and other failings came in for fictional upbraiding. The closing line of 1956’s “Sunday Teasing” administers a harsh corrective to a pompous husband in the form of “a perfect and luminous thought: you don’t know anything.” “Separating” (1978) discloses Richard Maple’s anguished admission, upon informing his young son that he is leaving the family, that “my father would have died before doing it to me”—the writing of which, Begley speculates, “must have felt like entering a guilty plea” to Updike. And consider the final paragraph of the 1982 story “Deaths of Distant Friends,” whose narrator, spurred to retrospection by the threefold deaths of a friend, a family dog, and an acquaintance, looks back with chagrin to infidelities he committed years ago:

In truth—how terrible to acknowledge—all three of these deaths make me happy, in a way. Witnesses to my disgrace are being removed. The world is growing lighter. Eventually there will be none to remember me as I was in those embarrassing, disarrayed years when I scuttled without a shell, between houses and wives, a snake between skins, a monster of selfishness, my grotesque needs naked and pink, my social presence beggarly and vulnerable. The deaths of others carry us off bit by bit, until there will be nothing left; and this too will be, in a way, a mercy.

Such finely articulated ironies remind us that what matters in the end is Updike’s performance not as husband or father, but as a writer of prose. Among the many commentators Begley lassos to help assess Updike’s accomplishment, I found myself zeroing in on novelist Lorrie Moore’s assertion, in a 2003 New York Review of Books essay, that Updike was “American literature’s greatest short-story writer, and arguably our greatest writer without a single great novel.” I’d go further and call him our greatest sentence and paragraph writer. His was the genius of “I wish I had said that”—a portable genius, incorrigibly metaphorical, that could touch down anywhere, on any subject, with sentences that surprise and delight. In a note to William Maxwell concerning one of those controversial Ipswich stories, he muses that “though the vessel of circumstantial facts is all invented, libel-proof, the liquid contained may, if spilled soon, scald somebody.” Elsewhere, asked to sum up the allure of the Harvard Lampoon, he observes that “the Lampoon is a club and, as do all clubs, feeds off the delicious immensity of the excluded.”

The hundreds of book reviews he wrote outline a reading of breathtaking scope (“monumental erudition” is Begley’s apt phrase) and an amount of reviewerly writing to boggle the mind, yet they sparkle everywhere with eloquent aperçus. As a critic, Updike unfailingly gets to the essence of what is sayable about the writer in question. On Muriel Spark: “Detachment is the genius of her fiction. We are lifted above her characters, and though they are reduced in size and cryptically foreshortened, they are seen all at once, and their busy interactions are as plain and pleasing as a solved puzzle.” On Céline: “His novels, like Beckett’s, are testaments of defiance, gratuitous breakings of silence, a numbed survivor’s snarled testimony to catastrophes that are scarcely distinguishable.” And, in valediction, this tribute to Nabokov:

Few minds so scientific have deigned to serve the gods of fancy; with his passion for precision and for the complex design, he mounted for display the crudest, most futile lurchings of the human heart—lust, terror, nostalgia. The violence and violent comedy of his novels strike us, in the main, as merely descriptive, the way the violences of geology are. He saw from a higher altitude, from the top of the continents he had had to put behind him.

As for Updike’s fiction, even a mediocre story—and there were many—offers up those miracles of expression Tim O’Brien cited. Describing Updike’s fiction, Begley refers to “passages where the writing seems a pure expression of joy, of intense pleasure taken in the act of composition.” This pleasure propels Updike’s lifelong project, as he described it, of “giving the mundane its beautiful due.” Writer, character, and reader join together in this project, experiencing enlargements of perception sufficient to what Updike called “creation’s giddy bliss.”

In his 1973 story “Daughter, Last Glimpses Of,” Updike depicts the day his narrator’s daughter turns eighteen and leaves home (typically, Updike wrote it mere weeks after his own daughter, Liz, did likewise). An aura of sadness surrounds the narrator’s recognition that, busy with work over the years, he has insufficiently appreciated the loveliness of his family’s life. The story ends with the family rooster—a hobby acquisition of his daughter’s—crowing in the yard at dawn, triggering a poignant metaphor:

He never moderates his joy, though I am gradually growing deafer to it. That must be the difference between soulless creatures and human beings: creatures find every dawn as remarkable as the ones previous, whereas the soul grows calluses.

 

RELIGIOUS THEMES IN Updike’s life and in his writing clustered around three recurring impulses: gratitude and praise for the created world; awe at the mystery of human consciousness; and dread and disbelief at the prospect of personal extinction. These impulses shaped his fiction from the start. His 1961 story “Pigeon Feathers” uses a small drama of violence and exhilaration to explore how our instinctive rejection of death entails faith in a created world, and vice versa. After reading an essay by H. G. Wells debunking Jesus’ divinity, the story’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, David Kern, experiences a crisis of faith, precipitated into “a jumble of horror” at the thought that the world is mere accident and there is no God, no soul, and no existence after death. Rejecting platitudes offered by his minister at church (“You might think of heaven as the way the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him”), David is driven to fearful despair—a despair Updike alleviates in the story’s bravura ending. Asked by his grandmother to kill pigeons in the barn, David shoots six of them with his .22 rifle. Burying the birds, he notes with awed admiration their finely wrought beauty, and finds himself reassured anew; the story ends with him “robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft on these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Raised Lutheran, Updike in adulthood was an intermittent churchgoer whose “peace of mind,” Begley tells us, “depended on conventional religious observance, regular doses of theology administered by those authors who helped him believe (especially Barth and Kierkegaard), and a dose of his own, internally generated faith.” That peace of mind could be elusive. Throughout his life Updike experienced intimations of an absence at the core of things, and deployed faith as a practical bulwark against it. “Religion enables us to ignore nothingness,” he wrote, “and get on with the jobs of life.” And: “The choice seemed to come down to: believe or be frightened and depressed all the time.” Such comments nourish a suspicion that Updike was what Begley calls “a closet nihilist”—and the novelist himself, in a New York Times interview, confessed to a recurring “sense of futility and of doom and of darkness...of death being behind everything in life, a sort of black backdrop.”

His engagement with these perspectives found its fullest treatment in the quartet of novels, written at ten-year intervals over three decades, chronicling the life and times—and in the end, the death—of Harry Angstrom of Pennsylvania, the ex-high-school-basketball-star known as “Rabbit.” The first installment, Rabbit Run (1960), portrayed Rabbit as a callow twenty-six-year-old, prone to spiritual epiphanies, who abandons his wife and young son out of an urgent sense that there must be more to existence than his small-town life of dull responsibility. Counseled by a psychologically minded minister who asks him to explain why he considers his personal destiny so important, Rabbit answers, “It’s just that, well, it’s all there is. Don’t you think?” Balancing this solipsism with a capricious reverential instinct, Updike steers Harry through basic theological dilemmas, letting him voice his intuition that the existence of something perfect—a perfect golf swing, in one memorable passage—necessarily implies the existence of a Creator.

Critics derided what they viewed as inconsistencies in Harry, an inarticulate and even boorish man who nevertheless experiences exquisite spiritual stirrings; Garry Wills called “the foisting onto this ‘middle American’ of Updike’s own preciosity” an “egregious flaw.” Yet the novel is not merely the depiction of a “middle American,” but of a spiritual crisis, and its portrayal of Harry reveals a combination of realistic and religious purposes fundamental to Updike’s fiction. In Updike’s construal of spiritual gifts, Rabbit’s eager susceptibility to bliss, his ability to be made “perfect in joy” by a perfect golf shot or the cidery smell of a field in autumn, fulfills the Barthian challenge—issued in the novel by a second, far sterner minister—to “burn...with the force of belief.” Author’s and hero’s preciosity converge in praise of the created world, with Rabbit’s inchoate intuitions of transcendence rendered in Updike’s lyrical prose.

This justification discloses a spiritual logic ubiquitous in Updike. His writing flickers with the hope that the world was created, and thus merits the devotion of attention (by fictional characters) and description (by Updike himself). “Imitation is praise,” he writes in his memoir Self-Consciousness; “description expresses love.” This love, in turn, is linked again and again to the fervent hope for immortality. “My mind when I was a boy,” he writes,

sent up its silent screams at the thought of future eons—at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me. The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.

The Rabbit novels are crammed with the trivia of American life down the decades, and their accumulating excess reminds us that far from being “untroubled,” Updike wrote from a condition of spiritual urgency. The critic James Wood, praising the Rabbit series, adroitly described Updike’s “plush attention to detail” as a form of “nostalgia for the present.” While Updike could write with incandescent lyricism about the world he had left behind in Pennsylvania, he knew that in a profound sense all life is being left behind; every minute of our lives is a leave-taking. “The self,” he wrote in Self-Consciousness, “is a window on the world we can’t bear to think of shutting.” The Rabbit novels bulge with the efforts of a man desperate to get as much in as he can before the window shuts.

As for Harry Angstrom, by the time Updike was done with him, that youthful capacity for bliss had ebbed; in Rabbit at Rest (1991), he faces mortality without benefit of faith. Beset in his fifties by congestive heart failure, Harry persists in helpless thrall to junk food, and the novel’s grim glee in toting up the orgy of toxins seems a rebuke to the very idea of a soul. Rabbit at Rest deals obdurately in the physical realities of the body. For Harry, realizing that the whole world, himself included, is mere “material” triggers a sense of “stifling uselessness” and snuffs out prayer. He dies without consolation, his death a slow dwindling, rendered over hundreds of pages, that ends suitably following a collapse on a basketball court—betrayed by a heart that turns out to be not the seat of love or desire, but merely the sputtering engine of a “soft machine.”

 

FOR UPDIKE HIMSELF, the end came with shocking speed. A smoker for the first half of adulthood, he’d been diagnosed with mild emphysema as a young man, and in Self-Consciousness recalled worrying that “young as I was, still in my twenties, I had death in my lungs.” The words proved prescient. In late September 2008, complaining of “a cold that won’t let go,” Updike went in for x-rays that revealed stage-four lung cancer. He declined treatment and spent his last three months bedridden at home, receiving a few family visitors—and writing poetry. By turns grim, rueful, and radiantly nostalgic, the poems he wrote during those months—describing symptoms and surges of dread; expressing gratitude to friends of long ago—are hard to read, evoking an almost unbearable poignancy. Updike died on January 27, 2009, having finished his last poem a month earlier, three days before Christmas. Titled “Fine Point,” it addressed questions that had preoccupied him all his life:

Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,

and not believe a bit of what was taught?

The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes

undoubtedly existed, and Israel’s defeats—

the Temple in its sacredness destroyed

by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith

and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,

from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise

gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.

The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,

saying, Surely—magnificent, that “surely”—

goodness and mercy shall follow me all

the days of my life, my life, forever.

Having read Begley’s book, I shouldn’t be surprised that Updike wrote to the very end; still, I find myself awed by the courage it must have taken to sit in the fearful presence of death and write... a sonnet? Moreover one that confidently assays the wordplay of “praise/please” and “surely/surlily” while assessing the syntactical magnificence of Scripture and snugly assimilating the psalm into its closing lines? Faith and art join hands, converting suffering into beauty, using poetry to draw a bead on the eternal. “With Updike,” writes Begley, “looking, seeing and noting on paper were acts of worship.” When all else failed, there remained the writing itself, like faith that renews itself in the act and moment of prayer.

 

UPDIKE’S 1962 STORY “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island” included a kind of writer’s prayer: “O Lord, bless these poor paragraphs, that would do in their vile ignorance your work of resurrection.” Resurrection encapsulates his mission, pursued from the beginning of his writing life to the very end, to rescue experience from the oblivion of time and of forgetting. Taking its power from time’s passage, his prose tilts toward what he once called the message of Proust—namely, that “the transformation of experience by memory into something ineffably precious is the one transcendent meaning each life wrests from death.” The mystery of Updike enfolds something uncanny; like Shakespeare, he seemed able to lavish godly care on every sentence. “The distinction between a thing well done and a thing done ill,” he said in an interview, “obtains everywhere—in all circles of Paradise and Inferno.”

The final story published in Updike’s lifetime appeared in the New Yorker eight months before his death. A memoir-essay disguised as fiction, “The Full Glass” portrays a near-octogenarian recalling his childhood in small-town Pennsylvania and later years in suburban New England. Spurring these recollections is the glass of water he drinks to wash down his old man’s pills, “tasting of bliss” and linking him to the child he was long ago, a boy who “had usually been running from somewhere or other and had a great innocent thirst”—and, less innocently, to his thirsty desire for another man’s wife years later. The motif cues up one of those Proustian transformations, evoking the memory of a drinking fountain at a gas station that had the coldest water in town, water that “made your teeth ache, it was so cold.” Never again in his life, Updike writes, would he taste water as good as that “which bubbled up in a corner of that small-town garage, the cement floor black with grease and the ceiling obscured by the sliding-door tracks and suspended wood frames holding rubber tires fresh from Akron.”

The rubber overhead had a smell that cleared your head the way a bite of licorice did, and the virgin treads had the sharp cut of metal type or newly ironed clothes. That icy water held an ingredient that made me, a boy of nine or ten, eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another.

The close of the story has the old man taking his “life-prolonging pills” and hoisting the glass: “drinking a toast to the visible world,” Updike writes, “his impending disappearance from it be damned.”

After someone we love dies, his or her voice stays with us, fresh and close, for years; we keep expecting the phone to ring with that voice on the other end; we experience frank disbelief, and renewed sorrow, at the idea that its owner truly is gone forever. It’s not much different with a writer one has loved. Keep company with a writer, in many books over decades of your life, and you grow accustomed to his presence; you hear his voice in much the same way you hear a friend’s or a sibling’s. Updike in his early years imitated other writers’ styles, channeling first Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and later Salinger and Nabokov—praising them by imitating their voices before eventually settling in to play his own exquisitely tuned instrument. Reading his prose in this life-and-art-affirming biography, I hear him vivid as ever, and miss him all over again.

Published in the January 9, 2015 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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