Jun. 4, 2009

I Miss U: Updike Is Gone

I miss John Updike. Not his work. I loved his stories and some of his novels, but lately I admired his books more than I enjoyed them, and sometimes not even that. Anyway, he left more books than I will ever be able or inclined to read.

It is not Updike’s writing that I miss, it is Updike. I miss knowing he was out there, always working, writing, producing. To legions of younger writers, he was the model. He showed us how a professional writer ought to conduct his life, how to comport himself in public and discipline himself at work.

Julian Barnes wrote an appreciative review of Updike’s last books in which he struck on the perfect word for Updike: courteous.

Updike’s fertility was matched by his courtesy — both as a man and as an authorial presence. His fiction never set out to baffle or intimidate. … Updike always treated the reader as a joint partner in the artistic process, an adult equal with whom curiosity and delight in the world were to be shared.

And, Barnes might have added, he always treated his characters with the same decency and sympathy, even when they were behaving badly. It was not in his nature to judge them. (He was an equally gentle book reviewer, a rarity now.)

No particular insight here. It is just sad to see a great man pass.

Updike lives on in cyberspace, at least, as perhaps we all will. For star power, the best clip to emerge since his death was this 1981 interview with John Cheever on the Dick Cavett Show. But I prefer the old, avuncular Updike. (He never seemed elderly — not frail, merely old.) Here he is in 2004, explaining the ability of the novel to “extend the reader’s sympathy,” which is the secret power of fiction.

The rest of the interview is here.

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