Wednesday, January 28, 2009
John Updike dead at 76
John Updike, premier American novelist for the past fifty years is dead.
A star has fallen, and there is nothing we can do about it but cluck and somehow pray.
To my mind, he was the best of his generation, blowing most journeyman writers out of the water.
In 1969 it was all New York novels.
Jewish writers were so hot, they just wanted to jump up and grab their own tails.
Out came titles like "Good as Gold", about a writer named Gold, along with the durable Saul Bellow. If the Wasp writers weren't good enough, they would just have to move over.
But there was one Protestant they couldn't seem to leapfrog and that was John Updike, the last of the breed that sprang out of the New Yorker, on the heels of the Thurbers, Cheevers and even Salinger.
Blew them all out of the water with his Rabbit series and astounding works on Hollywood like In the Beauty of the Lilies.
The trouble, I suppose with the Jewish writers certainly like Roth and Heller, is that they assimilated, became almost carbon-copy Wasps and somehow lost power in that metamorphosis. Saul Bellow never assimilated, he was the modern urban Jew. I am a Jew, not a Montrealer, not a Wasp, he insisted, to the point of going back to his original name, from the assimilationist Bellows to pure Bellow. Roar!
And not much would affect the faith of Herman Wouk, who spelled out his God writ large.
But strangely, it was Updike with his Protestant theology, the theology of Carl Barth that won the day.
His characters, even though profligate and often profane, seemed nevertheless scrupulous as nuns when it came to the nature of God and man.
The culmination of Updike's theology seemed to be summed up in "Roger's Version" (1986), about a computer scientist's attempt to prove mathematically the existence of God,, and the dweeb fails miserably.
And the penalty of losing your faith "In the Beauty of the Lillies" (Knopf, 1996), about a Presbyterian minister's loss of faith and its aftermath, You lose grace, you lose creativity, Updike seems to say. Strange that a lothario and stick man in his novels should be so inclined,-- a penis with a catechism?-- but that is the way Updike's contrary heroes seem to see their cosmogony.. Mr. Updike was greatly influenced by Protestant theologian Karl Barth Because Updike accepted Barth's belief that God confers grace through the gift of creation.
Oh but what sinners Updike's characters-- "The man is immoral" --says my dentist and any Rabbi would insist that to go against God, to deliberately do wrong is stupid and self-destuctive, (viz. Adam and Eve and the obsessive, but damned Captain Ahab). God'll get you puny human, and who did you think your were?
Well Updike's puny humans (says Margaret Atwood, "a penis with a thesaurus"),seem to become the very models of you and me, so like the Hemingway characters whose upper heads are hungry for truth, and whose lower heads will go after anything that moves. (Certainly yours truly not so long ago!)
Somehow, Updike's characters either stay in their sin--and attain redemption all the same. That or they in themselves give us an object lesson. Sin will do you in.
Seems to lead us back to the garden, the attainment of wisdom, the nature of God.
I have read almost all of Updikes novels, but not all the short stories, which are gems, veritable jewels.
Oh to have been like Updike.
Characters morally obtuse.
Yet somehow abtstruse.
I think I would sin for that...Oops!
"WHERE ARE YOU IVAN?"