I don't usually feel awestruck when I hear a famous writer speak. But I'll make an exception for John Updike, who faced a packed house at the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library on Thursday night, because I have enjoyed so many of his books for so long, and because I've never had the chance to see this author in person before.
He saunters onstage to mild applause, slender and now thoroughly white-haired, but thankfully not wearing the bright white shirt he was recently seen with in San Francisco. He's here to talk about Terrorist, a new novel that examines the inner world of a teenage Islamic terrorist-in-training in a depressed New Jersey city. The evening's moderator is Jeffrey Goldberg, a political correspondent for the New Yorker, who begins by pointing out that Terrorist is one of the most political novels of Updike's career. He asks the author to tell us about his experience on the morning of September 11, 2001, which he spent on the roof of his son's Brooklyn Heights apartment watching the twin towers burn and fall.
Updike has a mild manner and a great smile, a smile so big that at times there seem to be three people on stage: Jeffrey Goldberg, John Updike and John Updike's smile. He speaks with quiet confidence and little vanity, allowing Goldberg to throw one controversial question at him after another. Goldberg points out that John Updike had been one of the few literary figures of the 1960's to express support for the Vietnam War, and asks him to talk about George Bush and the war in Iraq. Updike accepts the comparison and acknowledges that, as in the 1960's, his current feelings are mixed: the war is going badly, but the Bush administration faced hard choices and deserves some sympathy for the frustrating position it's in.
Updike is clearly a principled moderate, and it's brave of him to insist on ignoring the popular delineations between red-state and blue-state dogmatism (his new book's sympathetic portrayal of a young terrorist seems designed to anger the right wing, while his refusal to loudly condemn the American war in Iraq will equally alienate the left). At Goldberg's prompting, Updike talks about the strong role of religious faith in his own life (he has always gone to church and believes this has helped him at various times in his life). He exudes a healthy open-mindedness towards all ways of life, and insists on avoiding abstractions and prejudices. "There are no sub-humans in the human race", John Updike says, and this is probably the one thing he says that most people in the crowd agree with.
At Goldberg's invitation, Updike riffs on New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who unkindly ripped apart his newest novel, and Philip Roth, who Updike believes has improved with his recent books. The topic turns to the internet, which Updike has been uncharacteristically mouthing off about in quite derogatory terms lately. He scoffs at the idea of Google as the 21st century equivalent of the great lost Library of Alexandria, and at this point I'm burning for the question/answer phase of the evening to begin, because I think his scornful comments about internet culture are beneath his usual high intellectual standard, and I'd like to say so.
I step on some toes in my race to the microphone, where I am in second position, but I make a last minute decision to challenge him about his statements on the Iraq war instead. I appreciate Updike's generous sympathy for our current American President (though sympathy is hardly what I feel for George Bush), but I wonder where Updike draws the line between sympathy and complacency, and I also wonder how Updike thinks the violent deadlock that currently grips our planet might possibly be resolved. Just as I decide to ask him about this, I discover that the person ahead of me in line has just asked a similar question. Which means, ironically, that I can barely listen to the answer, because I'm now standing next in line and I don't know what I'm going to ask.
I'd like to challenge him on his hostility towards the internet, but it occurs to me that he's already said what he has to say about this matter, and the fact that I heartily disagree doesn't mean that there is anything to be gained by asking him to state his opinion a second time. So I pull a last-minute switch and come up with another question I've been wanting to ask, which comes out something like this:
"I've recently been hearing the four Rabbit novels described as your best work. Since I've read many of your novels, I find this surprising. I'd like to know which of your novels you'd most like to be represented by."
John Updike looks directly at me with his blazingly smart eyes, says "Thank you" (I'm not sure if he is thanking me for my brilliant phrasing or because I've just tossed him a big fat softball) and proceeds to agree that, while the Rabbit novels are significant to him because they take place in a Pennsylvania small town like the one he grew up in, he is sorry to hear of his other novels becoming "passe". He then lists a few other books he considers his best, and I am very happy and satisfied that he names my personal favorite, Couples, as well as his Scarlet Letter trilogy (Month of Sundays, Roger's Version, S), which I haven't read yet but will now check out.
I've got much more to say about John Updike's work (and about why I feel so strongly that the Rabbit novels are not the best starting point for a reader who'd like to know what all the fuss is about). For now, I am just happy to report that the author is as sharp and impressive in person as he is on the printed page. I expect that future generations will admire his work the way we admire the work of Henry James today, and the fact that the great author is dead wrong about the Iraq war and the literary value of the internet will be quickly forgotten. Hey, Henry James probably got a few things wrong too ...