Peter C. Herman, Professor of English Literature at San Diego State University, recently published “Terrorism and the Critique of American Culture: John Updike’s Terrorist” in Modern Philology 112: 4 (May 2015), 691-712.
In “Object Lesson,” a consideration of “Why we need physical books published in the New Republic, William Giraldi inevitably turns to Updike:
“There was little that escaped the Updikian caress, and he wrote more than once about the pleasures and peculiarities of book collecting. In an essay called “The Unread Book Route,” about A History of Japan to 1334, Updike wrote: ‘The physical presence of this book, so substantial, so fresh, the edges so trim, the type so tasty, reawakens in me, like a Proustian talisman, the emotions I experienced when, in my youth, I ordered it.’ Leave it to the unerringly sensual and curious Updike to a) refer to book type as ‘tasty,’ and b) think as a youth that he needed to know something about Japan prior to 1334.
“Updike’s point about the Proustian talisman is a crucial one for bibliophiles: Their collections are not only proof of their evolution but monuments to their past, fragrant and visual stimulators of recall.”
In a story written for The Sacramento Bee books section, writer Sam McManis considers “Sex on the page: Often cringe-worthy, occasionally uplifting.” The pun was most certainly intended, considering some of the examples McManis cites as less than effective—among them this passage from Updike’s Brazil: “…he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam.”
Updike’s contemporary and rival Philip Roth also gets “ribbed” for a passage from “The Humbling,” in which he attempts to describe a threesome: “It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote…”
“‘Good sex is impossible to write about,’ [Martin] Amis once told the Washington Post. ‘[D.H.] Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do—like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.”
“Yet the late Updike, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, once told NPR’s Fresh Air that writing about ‘sexual transactions’ is realism at its core and a window into the human condition.
“‘For many people it’s the height of, what they see, of ecstasy and poetry is in their sexual encounters, who, for the record, had the Bad Sex ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ bestowed upon him in 2008, a year before his death. ‘And furthermore … human personality does not end in the bedroom, but persists. Not all lovemaking is alike. Anyway, it seemed a writer should clearly be free to describe it.'”
Katie Roiphe is more complimentary of Updike’s attempts in a 2010 New York Times Book Review essay, especially the passages from the Rabbit novels. A “top-form” passage is cited: “…a little gauge inside his ribs doubles and redoubles his need for pressure…there is no love in it, love that glances and glides along the skin, he is unconscious of their skins, it is her heart he wants to grind into his own, to comfort her completely.’
“Roiphe credits Updike’s ‘unnerving gift: to be frank and anesthetizing all at once, to do poetry and whorehouse,” and gently scolds a newer generation of great American writers…for being passive and sexually ambivalent.”
Tags: Updike and sex
Alvernia University just posted an online version of an earlier published memoir by David Updike, “Growing up Updike.” Here’s an excerpt:
“As children, we grew up with the click-and-clackety sound of his typewriter — a battleship gray, Olympia manual — in our ears, and a gathering sense of his success, then growing fame. By the time I was seven he had published Rabbit, Run, then won the national book award from The Centaur, and moved his office from our house to a larger space in a modest, somewhat run-down office building downtown that he shared with a dentist, accountants and other such small businesses,” David writes.
“There, on a side table, lay The Centaur, with a picture of a half horse, half man. At night, he sat in a chair, reading proofs — long, scroll-like pieces of paper, on which he made small adjustments with a pencil. One fall, my grandparents arrived from Pennsylvania, with a basketful of fruit and a skittish dog, to look after us while my parents went to Russia for a month on a state department tour. His picture began to appear in magazines, and he was even sometimes on TV. A year or two later, Russians visited us, bearing gifts, and we took them for a lively walk on the beach, dogs and children included. Perhaps only with the publication of Couples in 1968, and the news from my friends that my father wrote a ‘dirty book,’ did I feel a twinge of unease, tempered by the knowledge he would be paid $400,000 for the movie rights! For soon we were on a boat, crossing the ocean in my new gray flannel pants, to spend the year in England attending a fancy American school and making side trips to Amsterdam, Austria for skiing, and then Morocco in April, to get some warmth and sun. Then by June, we flew back to America.
“My parents were still very young, in their thirties, and by my estimation the best-looking couple in their groups of friends — my father certainly the cleverest and most famous, my mother surely the most beautiful. But as a child my father had psoriasis, and asthma, and so shied away from organized sports, and even, I believe, felt inferior to the sports stars at Shillington High — the Harry Angstroms of his class.
“My mother had played field hockey in high school, and was an excellent ice skater, and they took us for long skating expeditions up the Ipswich River, back when it still froze solid. They played volleyball on Sunday afternoons, and then all migrated to someone else’s house, for ‘cocktails.’ They learned to play tennis, and ski, and we all went on Pleasant Mountain in February, where they had renamed the beginners slope Rabbit, Run, after his best-known novel.
“In tennis and skiing, they both became what I might call elegant intermediates. My father played kickball with us in the backyard, wheeling around the bases on long, loose legs while we frantically tried to retrieve the ball in some distant bushes. In the fall, there was touch football with the men, and in spring, before volleyball, half-court basketball, where he played shirtless and had a reliable, baby sky hook.”
Random House announced that John Updike: Selected Poems will go on sale October 13, 2015 in a 320-page hardcover edition edited by Christopher Carduff. The volume features five decades of Updike’s witty, intimate, and moving poems “with the cumulative force of an autobiography in verse,” according to the publisher’s webpage.
“Though John Updike is widely known as one of America’s greatest writers of prose, he began and ended his career with books of poems, and between them published six other accomplished collections. Now, six years after Updike’s death, Christopher Carduff has selected the best of his life’s work in poetry: 132 of his most significant and accomplished poems, from precocious undergraduate efforts to well-known anthology classics to the late-life mastery of the blank-verse sonnet sequence “Endpoint.” Art, nature, popular culture, foreign travel, erotic love, and personal history—these recurring topics provided the poet ever-surprising occasions for metaphysical wonder and matchless verbal invention. His Selected Poems is, as fellow-poet Brad Leithauser writes in his introduction, a celebration of American life in the second half of the twentieth century, and no one but Updike ‘captured upon the page, in prose and in poetry, so much of this passing pageant. That he did so with brio and delight and nimbleness is yet another reason to celebrate our noble celebrant.'”
“The poem gains new life of its own every year around this time. It inevitably flits across social media as Holy Week draws to a close, a very quotable addition to the Facebook feeds of America’s more literary Christians. Updike’s words circulate in more traditional ways, too, giving pastors and priests just the rhetorical flourish they need for their Easter nominees. This Sunday, many churchgoers who’ve never read a page of Rabbit, Run will nod along at Updike’s verse.
“The force of ‘Seven Stanzas,’ however, goes beyond its seasonal affiliation. After all, there are other poems about Easter. Perhaps Updike’s resonates because it seems attuned to the nature of belief in the modern world—or rather, it asks the modern believer what she is willing to believe. The poem forces the reader to answer for herself what really happened in that backwater of the Roman Empire in the days after Jesus was executed as a criminal. There can be, to use Updike’s word, no ‘sidestepping’ this issue. Are you ‘embarrassed’ by this ‘miracle’ or not?
“This is a perennial question, the place where all quests for the historical Jesus give way to faith—or not—and Updike is wrong not to remind us of its stakes. But for all his theological sophistication, and despite my admiration for his literary gifts, Updike’s poem leaves me unsatisfied. It achieves its existential urgency by skirting the complexity and strangeness of what the Gospels actually tell us about the resurrection. The poem is a blunt instrument, jarring and powerful, but it obscures as much as it reveals.
“Updike asks us to leave aside figurative language and interrogate the Gospel accounts of the resurrection for their literal truth, if it really happened or not. When we read these passages, however, they also should interrogate us, unsettling our judgments about what we think we know and how we understand what it meant for Jesus to rise from the dead. They defy all our inevitable attempts to escape the uncertainty of real faith and reduce the resurrection to a pat story that does little more than comfort those who encounter it.”
Sitman thinks it is a “sense of wonder at the sheer perplexity of what Jesus was like after his resurrection that seems to be missing from Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter.’ The problem is not that Updike challenges us to consider the strange idea that a man rose from the dead; it’s that what he holds before us isn’t strange enough. Whatever is going on in the Gospels, it seems to resist the efforts of those who want to assimilate the Easter story either through a literalism uncomfortable with paradox or by turning it into a somewhat embarrassing myth meant to inspire hope.”
Read the full article.
See also: “A few minutes with Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter,'” by Tom Grosh IV and a 2009 post recommended by Grosh, “On Easter and Updike” by David E. Anderson.
Tags: John Updike and Easter
Member John McTavish recently published a review-essay of Adam Begley’s biography that also considers Updike’s spirituality.
In “The Spirit of Updike,” which appeared in the Culture section in the online version of The United Church Observer—which, according to its masthead, is “the oldest continuously published magazine in North America and the second oldest in the English speaking world”—McTavish notes that “faith was more than a pleasurable habit for Updike. It was an antidote to ‘existential terror,’ as Begley puts it. Updike himself admitted as much in his memoir Self-Consciousness: ‘Perhaps there are two kinds of people: those for whom nothingness is no problem, and those for whom it is an insuperable problem, an outrageous cancellation rendering every other concern, from mismatching socks to nuclear holocaust, negligible.'”
“Religion is virtually omnipresent in Updike’s work,” McTavish writes. “But this doesn’t mean that Updike’s fiction forces a Christian message on the reader. On the contrary, he always believed that his basic duty to God was to write the most truthful and fullest books he could. ‘I don’t want to write tracts, to be more narrow in my fiction than the world itself is; I try not to subject the world to a kind of cartoon theology which gives predictable answers,’ he once reflected. Fallen clergy, self-centered philanderers: no one escaped Updike’s penetrating eye.
“Perhaps Updike’s finest religious story is ‘Pigeon Feathers,’ about a teenage boy’s quest for faith amid panic over mortality,” McTavish concludes. “The awesome complexity of the humble pigeon’s feathers distills Updike’s own philosophy of writing: ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due,’ as he phrased it; to celebrate reality, both human and divine.'”
Gordon Harris has posted another Updike-related story on his blog, Stories From Ipswich and the North Shore, subtitled “An antiquarian almanac from historic Ipswich, Massachusetts–In the news since 1633.”
In “John Updike is elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters, April 1, 1964″ Harris embraces Updike’s honor as the community’s in a brief commemoration.