I very much doubt that people turn to CM for links or quotes on the topic du jure.Â That is just not the kind of content I supply.Â But have a suspicion that readers of this blog probably don’t read National Review Online’s The Corner quite as much as I do.
So I thought it might be useful to capture some conservative commentary on the passing of John Updike as readers might not have caught these comments on a political blog.
I just learned that one of America’s greatest writersâ€”everâ€”died this morning at 76. He was a joy to read, and will be much missed. He integrated his religious faith into his work in such a way that he imbued even the most secular subjects with “the motions of grace.” He also loved this country, and found a way to say so that reached even many who were uncomfortable with more conventional displays of patriotism.Â R.I.P.
In his novels, he was a master of precision and the mot juste, descriptions of ordinary things so vivid that you seemed to see them for the first time. He understood how ordinary life could give way to moments of sudden violence and tragedy and his books often contained a climactic scene of horror that arose out of the quotidian with an inevitability you only understood in the aftermath. One of his latest novels, Terrorist, brought his understanding of American life and the human condition to bear on our current troubles and presented a rich vision of the complexities of both assimilation and redemption. For me personally, I’m sad to see one of the last of the Big Novelists go, aÂ breed that for now at least seems to be dying out forever. He was the lonely WASP among that generation of brilliant post-war Jews and semi-Jewsâ€”Mailer, Bellow, and Roth. The passing of their generation leaves us with too many movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos and not enough really good books. When images take precedence over words, I can’t help feeling that both thought and feeling ultimately become more shallow.
I wrote about John Updike in The Way of the WASP. I went through a phase of reading him wall-to-wall. It cooled off, but I still go back to his comedies of damnation (Roger’s Version and The Witches of Eastwick), and his book about his Jewish alter ego, Bech: A Book. (Don’t think there is such a thing as a hilarious bibliography? Bech: A Book has one). His first book on Harry Angstrom, Rabbit, Run, is also fine, and there are good things in the Rabbit series, though it runs thin as it goes. His African fantasia, The Coup, is also definitely worth it. His short story “Pigeon Feathers” is endlessly anthologized, deservedly so; some of the stories in Too Far to Go are also good.
But even in the failures there are good things. The Centaur is an early novel, crippled by a phony mythological structure; but the evocation of small-city Pennsylvania (Reading, I believe) is wonderful.
Fashion is cruel and time sorts, but I believe he has left us valuable things. R.I.P.
Perhaps the keenest compliment one can pay him as a man is to say that his life will make for a lousy biography: Just about no scandal; precious little feuding; almost no phony contretemps and posturing. He was deeply interested in sex and God, but more than anything he was interested in workingâ€”steadily and prodigiously. The Rabbit books, taken together, are the great American novel of the second half of the twentieth century. Even when he was through with them, he kept writing fiction as if, culturally, it still countedâ€”as if it could still land a writer on the cover of Time. He loved his country, avoided political faddishness, was a devoted Democrat and got both of his national medalsâ€”one in the arts and another in the humanitiesâ€”from Republican presidents. On a personal level, I’m forever grateful to him. Fifteen years ago he took a shine to one of my novels and wrote several pages about my work in The New Yorker; I had a different career the next day, thanks to him.
I’m sorry to hear of Updike’s death. I have mixed feelings about him as a writer who squandered his talents for finely observed and meticulously narrated detail with two great mistakes.
First, he wrote much too much, so that many of his novels are slapped-together pastiches, meandering aroundÂ plotlessly, of whatever was on Updike’s mind at any particular moment (cheating on his wife, his divorce, etc.).
Second, he stuffed the books with much too much purple-prose sex, the kind that’s gotten him at least one award in the “Bad Sex Writing” contest. His 1968 novel Couples, a ginormous best-seller for that reason, put him on a 40-year roll in both bad directions: no discernible plot but a ton of soft-core (or, actually, hard-core) porn. Furthermore, the protagonists in Updike’s fiction are always exactly the same age as he, so in the later works (such as Rabbit at Rest) where the protagonists are advanced in years, the extensively detailed sex is of the “Eeeew” variety (in The Widows of Eastwick, his last novel, which I haven’t read, all the sex takes place between decrepit 70-plus-year-olds)
So Updike wrote some good stuff and a lot of bad stuff. The Coup is probably his best novel because it’s not about weak, self-indulgent, sex-obsessed Americans exactly Updike’s age, but about Obama-pere-style African polygamists and the goofy American college girls who become Wife #2 or #3. Many of his stories are also good because the short form imposes discipline. The Rabbit series is pretty good overall as a chronicle of American softness and decline in a land of plenty. The rest? Not so much. I liked Roger’s Version until it struck me that Updike actually approved of the abortion arranged by his middle-aged hero having an adulterous affair with his own niece.
As for Updike’s Christian faith, it seemed to have been informed by an idiosyncratic reading of Martin Luther’s famous aphorism “simul justus et peccator” (man is both righteous, thanks to Christ’s atonement, and a miserable sinner, thanks to Adam’s fall). The protagonists of Updike’s novels tend to be simul justus et peccator to the nth degree. They can’t resist their impulses. The typical Updike hero is a married man, often with children, who has just got to, is compelled to, not only sleep with some alluring neighbor (or the church organist if he’s a minister), but to ditch his wife and abandon his children (Couples, Marry Me). Or sleep with his daughter-in-law (Rabbit at Rest). Or his niece (Roger’s Version). Or, often as not, do all of the above in some sequence or other. That’s the “peccator” aspect. The “justus” aspect is: I’m in love! In Updike’s best novels (The Coup, Bech, Witches of Eastwick), he declined to indulge in this sort of sentimental self-justification and took a more detached and sharper view of human failings and foibles.