Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"What art offers is space"

"Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we have only to be still to experience."

John Updike died. He was - until a few minutes ago when I read of his passing and my jaw literally dropped - quite possibly my favourite living author. There is a poster for the 1970 adaptation of "Rabbit, run" on the wall beside my computer. There are more of his books on my shelves than there are by any other writer.

He died without having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, something the Nobel Committee should feel great shame about. For he was one of the great writers of the Twentieth Century, both popular and prolific but never less than challenging and often profound. What he accomplished better than any other writer I can think of, put simply, was to capture what it feels like to be alive. The sensory experience of living from moment to moment, with all the flavours and sights and scents and aches and confusions and joys that entails. How it feels to drive with the radio on, the peculiar ecstasy of that, for instance. What sex is really like, in all its messy and complicated intimacy. And he did it poetically, in prose which always read like it was written by a poet, in prose that was often musical and always precise. He also managed to address wider concerns, political and sociological and cultural issues. But his better books hum with beauty, both in the style of the writing, from lovely sentence to lovely sentence, and in his appreciation for what makes life so wonderful and thrilling and sometimes terrible.

He was perhaps the greatest stylist of his generation. This was one of the great criticisms of Updike - that his writing was too beautiful. The Rabbit Tetralogy, in particular, is repeatedly accused of this. Since it chronicles the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, an American Everyman figure, from his 20s until his death in his 60s/70s, and is mostly told from his perspective, some critics feel the writing should reflect how such a man would interpret the world. Meaning without Updike's own marvelous eye and ear. But Updike shows that Rabbit is not stupid, that he has his sensitivities and obvious flaws, and his prose never gets between the reader and the character. Rather it reveals him in greater depth, I think. The criticism basically boils down to an accusation of style but not always substance. Which, in some of his work, is inescapably true. But Updike wrote so much his ouevre was always bound to be a mixed bag. There are a few duds among his more than twenty novels, the odd pedestrian short story. Style does occasionally triumph over substance. But so what? When it is such grand style, when reading it is such an intense and dependable pleasure, who cares?

Thankfully, Updike was insanely prolific. Novels, short stories, criticism - he wrote plenty of each form. I have still got quite a lot of Updike reading ahead of me. If you haven't read him and are wondering where to start, some suggestions:

- Couples (1968) Novel about a circle of adulterous middle class couples in a Boston dormitory town in the 1960s. The first Updike I read, it bowled me over with its concise vision of how people lie to themselves and each other and its frank view of sexual politics. And of course its beauty. It was quite controversial at the time of its release for its sexual explicitness.

- The Early Stories: 1953 - 1975 (2003) The depth and breadth of his control and ambition is best seen in his short stories, often perfectly formed little jewels of wisdom and compressed narrative. This collection is a brilliant primer.

- Too Far to Go/ Your Lover Just Called (1979) The Maples stories focus on a married couple through their life together, children and ultimately, divorce; and combine Updike's brilliance with longer, serial narrative, with the elegance and perfection of his short stories.

- Marry Me (1977) His rawest, most emotional work is the story of adultery and the destruction of a marriage, territory he visited again and again in his work. But never with quite this depth of feeling or despair.

- Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989)

- The Rabbit Tetralogy (1960-2001) Made up of five books written over forty years, the Rabbit series (Rabbit, run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest and Rabbit Remembered) is the greatest achievement of postwar American fiction, in my opinion. Funny, moving, filled with brilliant, acute characters, the books are also tightly plotted, densely imagined works about America itself and its changing culture and society. Taken together they also offer a subtle and haunting portrayal of aging and ultimately, mortality. I read Rabbit, Run in my mid-twenties, when I was more or less the same age Rabbit is as the novel begins. The perfect time to read the book, and it had a massive effect upon me.

But really, any Updike is good. even the lesser books contain their pleasures. He was incapable of writing badly. His criticism is also worth a look - he was a warm and wise and voracious reader and his insights are always useful and constructive. If you read and you haven't read any of his work, then you owe it to yourself to change that. To read him was, strangely, to be made feel more alive, such was his appreciation of the joy of living, and that is a rare gift for any writer.
He will be missed.



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