John Updike at the New York Public Library

John Updike at NY Public Library

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 …

9 Responses

  1. Down with the Internet!Up
    Down with the Internet!

    Up with Updike! Long Live Updike!

    I think I like this guy more already… Good synopsis, although I’m still sad you didn’t ask him about his feelings on Mandissa.

  2. Nasdijj on UpdikeNasdijj
    Nasdijj on Updike

    Nasdijj posted this to LitKicks following Updike’s appearance on the Charlie Rose show Wednesday night … thought I’d place the comments here:

    “I have to say that tonight John Updike totally took me by storm. Wow. With a roll to the sky of his patrician’s eyes, he took on publishing’s paradigm of marketing as the high road in one fell swoop on Charlie Rose. Updike even objects to the term: literary fiction. “Because it hems me in.”

    Usually, the princes of the trade NO NOT have anything negative whatsoever to reflect when speaking about the hand that feeds them.

    But Updike did and I have to give credit where credit is due.

    The guy makes a pretty good living at this so he has to have some balls to observe that the paradigm that drives the great machine — marketing — might not be the paradigm we want setting cultural and literary standards in any culture’s intellectual life.

    Where Gay Talese cannot stop talking about everyone he knows in the good old boy network, and most of these conversations with the aristocrats flounder in a sea of dropping names, Updike actually had the nerve to suggest that the way things are done in this business actually defeats us versus making us either more informed or in any way transcendent.

    Knocked me right off my feet. There’s a word I’m looking for. I think it’s called integrity.”

    — Nasdijj

  3. The world will never know if
    The world will never know if John Updike watches American Idol or not. But here’s an idea for a new reality show: John Updike’s Apprentice. I would apply.

  4. Updike from Shickshinny,
    Updike from Shickshinny, Pa.

    Thanks for a good article. i’ve always had a disjointed view of Updike – i enjoyed the Rabbit books immensely, especially the first three; love the Bech books (which you didn’t mention – your opinion?), but otherwise i stopped reading him after Couples as i thought he was a pretentious little schmuck from rural Pennsylvania who was trying desperately to be a literary writer.

    with the above-cited exceptions, his books seem to me to be fatally marred by The Writing: pretentious, self-consciously literary sentences designed to impress the right people rather than to accomplish what Nabokov enjoins writers to do: be an enchanter, cause a tingling in the spine.

    With the Rabbit and Bech books, it is almost as though Updike was relaxing a bit, having some fun, and not needing to be ‘literary.’ As a result, a very good writer emerges.

    Other opinions?

  5. Interesting, Bill … I
    Interesting, Bill … I suppose I am a sucker for highly stylized literary sentences, when a writer has the skill to pull them off well. I do think Updike’s books have a lot of heart as well … pretentious? Maybe so, maybe so. I just know I enjoy his books very much.

    About the Bech books, well, I read and liked “Bech: A Book”, and I’ve been meaning to read the others. As he mentioned last night at the reading, he’s published around sixty books … I guess I’ve read about one quarter of them by now, and I’m not sure if I’m gaining on him or not, since he keeps extending the lead. His thick books of literary criticism, like “Picked Up Pieces” and “Hugging the Short”, are among my favorites — I can’t think of a literary critic whose opinions I trust more. On the fiction front, I’m planning to read “The Terrorist” next — haven’t even opened it yet.

  6. actions vs. wordsOne cannot
    actions vs. words

    One cannot verbally support ambiguous wars. It is cowardly insincerity. The stakes are too high. It is not a nebulous theoretical we speak of here; but the real lives and deaths of real people (like my daughter’s 19 year old friend Andy Kokesh). It would be like saying to your neighbor: “I hear your son got his legs blown off in Iraq; that’s okay, he defended our homeland against imminent invasion.” While at the same time your neighbor sees your own twenty year old son, jauntily stepping out the house, golf bag over his shoulder and wearing that NYCC tee shirt. And yeah, she thinks, your verbal support of this war is very meaningful and profound.

    In a similar way, no one can verbally support this war. If it is really to prevent imminent invasion of our homeland, as Bush/Cheney have suggested, then they and their children would have volunteered to fight, die, or be permanently crippled; for the sake of saving America. Either you believe that, and you go there; or you have reason to doubt, and you stay home. Just like Vietnam – a half-million Americans and two or three million Vietnamese were permanently wounded or killed in that error in judgment. It is not something you can verbally approve of, while allowing others to go in your place.

  7. What color’s bright write?I’m
    What color’s bright write?

    I’m sad that I can’t get excited about Updike. The last thing I looked at his, I stopped after the third paragraph which makes me feel like I’m some kind of Philistine.

    As for the red & blue state, the USA was never as liberal a place it deemed itself to be. It is always sad that it never became that mythical city-on-the-hill bed of liberalism but at least there used to be a lot of good stuff out there to read.

    Blame the public not publishers, but we may have ventured into the chicken-egg paradigm, ie, nothing to read so why read?

  8. Thanks for not reduxingLevi,
    Thanks for not reduxing

    Levi, when I first realized that you were not going to question Updike’s stance on the internet, I was disappointed. I guess I think of you as one of the “champions of the web” as it relates to literature. But I’ve got to say, the question you did ask was much better – it showed knowledge of the man’s work, coupled with your personal opinion, and opened the door for him to add something to the mix.

    I also like the way you describe your experiences at various events, from a somewhat personal viewpoint. It allows me to imagine being there.

  9. Following Updike From
    Following Updike From 1959

    John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy chronicles reflectively the decades since I first had contact with the Baha’i Faith back in 1953. With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship Updike was working on the first of these four books, Rabbit, Run, when I became a Baha’i in October 1959. The book was published a few months later in 1960 and is the story of a young man, one Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, from a small town in the USA. The book concerns Harry’s attempts to escape the constraints of life. In my teens I, too, lived in a small town and, although I could see the attractiveness of escaping from social constraints, I also left the need for a set of limits. I was only too well aware of just how easily I could go beyond the appropriate limits. By the late fifties I could see what happened to those who did escape from life’s, from society’s, constraints. I knew from personal experience by my early teens, by 1957, what it was like to be caught stealing, breaking and entering, going too far sexually, misbehaving around the family home, at school or with my play-mates and pushing the envelope of life. Had I read Updike’s book, Rabbit, Run I think I would have had my need, my desire, for limits reinforced. The Baha’i Faith provided that framework, those limits, at a critical stage in my life, my mid-teens. This Faith also provided that sense of the sacredness of life which is at the centre of Updike’s work.

    When I was preparing to leave North America for Australia in 1970/1 people were watching the movie Rabbit, Run. It had opened just as I began planning to leave Canada in 1970. Rabbit Redux, Updike’s sequel to Rabbit, Run came out four months after I arrived in Sydney for what became my life in Australia. Harry Angstrom took to the road in 1971 in Rabbit Redux as I took to a different road in the southern hemisphere. Updike’s final two Rabbit books took Harry Angstrom into the 1990s and his rather bleak retirement and old age. The following prose-poem compares and contrasts my life with Harry’s. -Ron Price with thanks to “Articles on John Updike’s Works,” in The New York Times on the Web.

    You didn’t think much about politics
    back then in the ’50s, did you John?
    Private destiny was your concern,
    then and now–not that partisan game.
    And your then theories about how
    to write are now forgotten, eh John?

    When Rabbit is Rich was set in ’79,
    I was living in Tasmania fighting
    another bi-polar episode; Harry was
    fighting his many losses in life
    or was it life’s pleasures–sex, booze,
    marital infidelity and having fun?

    Then Harry got old–at just 55–
    in 1990 in Rabbit At Rest, a decade
    before I headed into quieter pastures
    where death and age awaited—
    inevitably long down life’s road,
    but not with fear, emptiness
    and Harry’s downward slide
    with its world inhabited by
    ghosts and demons of his past.

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