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!



Anonymous said...

truly,the rabbits have passed on... said...

Oh, one has so been Rabbit Angstrom...But I fear, all angst and small talent.

Donnetta Lee said...

At least you still have the short stories-gems-to look forward to. Part of his legacy. Very nice tribute to the man. D said...

Yep. Borzoi books. With the best short stories.

Mona said...

He surely did write a lot of novels and short stories. The Rabbit series is great and portrays the life of American citizen who shares the national passion for youth freedom and sex. Also about the national habit of openness & 'improvisation'.

Great tribute Ivan! said...



the walking man said...

What they said old man says it all about what you said; which says it all about another wonderful writer gone to the Styx. said...

I'm still over here in exurbia.


coffee said...

John Updike's passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. "Immortality is nontransferrable" he said appropriately.

ivan@Lcreativewriting.a said...

Thanks "Coffee".

Maybe I should have had a cup.

benjibopper said...

a beautiful ode, this.

proving god mathematically. they don't write like that anymore. said...

Thanks, Benji.

Seems that when the writers switched to computers, they lost something.
So much volume, so little quality.

benjibopper said...

that's why i first-draft by hand. slows me down, gets me into the story, the characters, and out of my own head. said...


When I write first drafts by hand, they tend to get published...All my computer-produced stuff seems to lack the magic....Dunno.

Jo said...

I loved the Rabbit series, but I loved his short stories even more. He will be missed. said...


I especially enjoyed The Afterlife book of short stories.
It's about us old farts, but elegantly written (of course!)

Charles said...

I must admit, I've never read the first piece of his work, but I'll endeavor to do so. Still, its sad to see someone who is obviously so talented and creative pass. I wish that the secrets to that could be passed along to others, that they could "get" it. I wish I could.

Apparently, you've lost a kindred soul. I'm sorry for the loss for all of us. said...

I wish that the secrets to that could be passed along to others, that they could "get" it.

I have read so much Updike, hoping to "glean" his secret.
I couldn't.
There is such a richness in human content.
...It's probably because as a young man he started out as a visual artist...London School of Fine Arts, I think.
Aye, theres the lack. I am not visually oriented....Updike was. And he had the marvellous aural gift as well.
Triple threat.
I guess that makes what they used to call genius.
The genlus is undecipherable, and I guess the rest of us will just have to plod on in our own way.