Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009

I was a little shocked to hear on the radio just now that John Updike has died. I had no idea he was ill. I should confess up front that I'm indulging in name-dropping by blogging about his passing, since I was never a fan of his until I got the opportunity to interview him a couple of years ago. The brush with celebrity was a lot more fun than I want to admit, and he was very gracious, the perfect interview subject. He had interesting things to say, not least about himself, and he is the only person I've ever encountered who actually spoke in complete, perfectly composed sentences. I was so charmed by him that my editor took to ribbing me by referring to him as "the charming Mr. Updike." But he was charming.**

In spite of my crush on him, I never have managed to develop a great love for his work. I admire some of the short stories, but most of his fiction is not for me, nor is his poetry. Maybe my opinion will change someday--it's happened before. I know I need to read In the Beauty of the Lilies, even if I never give anything else of his another shot. Right now, if you asked me to pick a favorite Updike book, I'd choose one of his collections of art criticism: Just Looking and Still Looking. He writes about art with an unpretentious enthusiasm that makes you wish you could wander through a gallery with him--and then go to lunch and listen to him talk about it in his ever-so-charming way.

**Oh, I should have said our interview was done by phone. His voice alone was enough to sway me--that's how damn charming he was.

7 comments:

Bozo said...

I'm a little surprised that someone might not always have been a fan of John Updike. I have always thought of him as America's pre-eminent public intellectual, with a range so broad and a touch so light that I practically revered him. He had a scalpel-like mind and a vast breadth of learning and curiousity, yet everything he wrote had such a generosity of spirit that I cannot think of him without a smile. Learning is joyful, he seemed to say, and reading him certainly has been for me.

BitterGrace said...

Oh, I'm sure I'm just missing the point with him, Bozo. I can be obtuse. I understand what you mean about the joyfulness, though--that's what I love in his art writing.

Margaret said...

I don't usually welcome any kind of bifurcation of humanity, but I had a teacher once who used to quote Philip Rahv's division of poets into two groups: the palefaces (like Dickinson) and the redskins (like Whitman). Perhaps merely because that divide was introduced to me when I was first thinking seriously about literature, I often do see writers slipping easily into one camp or the other. And Updike, despite all the sex and the messy relationships, has always struck me as ultimately a paleface.

As someone temperamentally more attracted to redskin writers, I tend to admire Updike's almost incomparable accomplishments without actually enjoying much of it.

BitterGrace said...

I'd agree completely about Updike being a paleface. The funny thing is that I like palefaces, in general. Who's paler than Edith Wharton? But I share your admiring alienation where Updike is concerned. I just always have the feeling that he's not writing for me.

Whodat said...

I never felt like he wasn't writing for me, either, but maybe I should try him again.

ScentScelf said...

I can always recall exactly the passage in The Witches of Eastwick when Updike lost my confidence. I finished the book, but have been haunted by that ever since. And have not changed my mind, despite a couple of decades of reflection...

BitterGrace said...

Notice how we're kind of dividing along gender lines here? I don't really share the widespread opinion that Updike was a misogynist, but there was an emotional detachment, a coldness, to the way he wrote about women that seems to turn most of us off.