What’s singer Tom Odell reading? Updike!

Vogue magazine interviewed British singer-songwriter Tom Odell before he embarked on a two-month European tour, and one of the questions was What book are you currently reading?

Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I read it once before when I was a lot younger; it’s about a very brilliant sports star who just sort of gets up and leaves his family. It’s very gritty, it’s somewhere between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski,” the 26 year old said. That, by the way, was Rabbit’s age in the first book.

Odell’s debut studio album, Long Way Downwas released in June 2013 and his second album, Wrong Crowd, was released in December 2016, along with the Christmas EP Spending All My Christmas with You.

“Five Minutes With . . . Tom Odell”

What’s Keillor reading? Updike, of course

The John Updike Society invited Garrison Keillor to be the keynote speaker at the Fourth Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Columbia, South Carolina last October because of his love of John Updike. So there won’t be much suspense for Updike fans when Martha’s Vineyard Times interviewer Connie Berry asks Keillor, “Whom do you like to read these days?”

“I am still reading John Updike,” says Keillor. “It will take me about five more years to finish with him. And then I’ll turn to Faulkner and Turgenev and go back and reread War and Peace, and then if I’m still alive I’ll take another run at Moby-Dick.”

Read the full interview:  “Minnesota invades Martha’s Vineyard”

Updike and others on symbolism

In 1963, a 16 year old was tired of hearing about symbolism from his English teacher, wondering, as many students still do, if teachers read too much into a literary work. So he mailed a four-question survey to 150 novelists asking them about symbolism in their work. Exactly half of them responded, among them John Updike. Had young Bruce McAllister sent that survey just three years earlier, he could have included Ernest Hemingway, who famously once remarked, “All symbolism is shit.”

Specifically, McAllister wanted their opinion of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, which his class was reading, but some of the responses were more general . . . and eye-opening.

MacKinlay Kantor (Andersonville, Gettysburg) was the most blunt:  “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.

Jack Kerouac offered the briefest response to the question of placing symbolism in his work. “No,” Kerouac wrote back.

“Consciously?” Isaac Asimov responded. “Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Normal Mailer defined the best symbols as “those you become aware of only after you finish the work,” while Ralph Ellison seemed more reflective and representative of the writer’s method:  “Symbolism arises out of action. . . . Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art.”

John Updike, meanwhile, spoke along the lines of writer-as-mystic, answering “Yes” to the question of whether he consciously, intentionally places symbolism in his writing, adding, “I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

To the question of whether readers ever infer what is not intended, Updike responded, “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

Asked if he feels the great writers of classics consciously put symbols in their works, Updike wrote, “Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”

As for the last question, whether he has anything to add that’s pertinent to a study of symbols, Updike sounded like Kantor:  “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Read the full Mental Floss article.

Novelist’s best kiss: John Updike

Rosanna Greenstreet of The Guardian recently played 23 questions with novelist Ann Patchett, whose novels The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, and State of Wonder were shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and this interesting exchange popped up:

What was the best kiss of your life?
I kissed John Updike as he presented me with an award. It wasn’t the best kiss as far as kisses go, but I hold the fact that I kissed John Updike, that he kissed me, very close to my heart.

Well, there’s a new spin on the old phrase kiss-and-tell. . . .

The rest of her responses are below:

“Ann Patchett: My best kiss? I kissed John Updike as he presented me with an award.” 

Ian McEwan talks about the Updike influence

In a Culture segment for Five Books, novelist Ian McEwan “talks about the books that have helped shape his own—from the biography of a scientific genius to a treatise on the end of time—and the importance of finding ‘mental freedom.'”

Here are the exchanges having to do with the Updike influence:

Would you go to Updike for sex, if not Larkin?
I think some of the descriptions of sex in Updike are extraordinary. I could never follow him down his route because his gift is one I’ve never hoped to emulate, which is the visual. In a sense he almost debunks or destroys the thing he’s describing, because of his clinical eye, but it does take my breath away. In this realm he’s a master of the hyper-real.

Talk a little about John Updike if you will, who died not long ago, in 2009. Your third book is Rabbit at Rest, the fourth of his ‘Rabbit’ novels.
Updike has been a very important writer for me, the one I’ve admired most, read most, and returned to most often. I was deeply touched by his death. I felt that we had conversations unfulfilled – we got to know each other a little in the last six or seven years of his life, and we had a correspondence.

What was he like, his character?
He was impenetrably courteous. At first, quite difficult to get beyond his very gentlemanly, polite and considerate shell. He protected himself. Behind this shell was all of his work. It was easier to get a more intimate Updike by writing letters. If I wrote, I’d get a response by return of post, apologising for being so quick, just as I would be apologising for my delayed replies. He said it was the only way he could keep his desk clear. But of course it was not that at all. This was a highly organised mind with boundless creative energy. He could turn in 1200 words of fiction in a day, write a review or an essay, and still address his correspondence.

You’ve called him ‘the greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death’. What is it about Updike that deserves that praise?
Great sentence-maker; extraordinary noticer; wonderful eye for detail; great fondler of details, to use Nabokov’s phrase. Huge comic gift, finding its supreme expression in the Bech trilogy. A great chronicler, in the Rabbit tetralogy, of American social change in the 40 years spanned by those books. Ruthless about women, ruthless about men. (Feminists are wrong to complain. There’s a hilarious streak of misanthropy in Updike). He reminds us that all good writing, good observation contains a seed of comedy. A wonderful maker of similes. His gift was to render for us the fine print, the minute detail of consciousness, of what it’s like in a certain moment to be another person, to inhabit another mind. In that respect, Angstrom will be his monument.

You say feminists are wrong to criticise him, but there is that criticism – that he has a ‘male gaze’. Do you face the same challenges when you write female characters?
I have done occasionally. It means nothing to me. This is a visual form. Remember Conrad’s exhortations in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus: ‘I am trying…by the power of the written word…to make you see.’

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom was, I gather, an inspiration for Michael Beard, the protagonist of Solar?
I crouched in Updike’s shadow. I set myself the problem of having an unsympathetic hero, and enticing a reader to stay in his company for the length of a novel. With Rabbit, Updike showed us how this is achieved. Rabbit is not the nicest of men, his is a narrow consciousness, he’s of limited education, deeply ungenerous in the private life – remember how he makes love to his son’s wife? Grumpy, irritable, bigoted in some respects, and yet somehow Updike succeeds in making him the prism through which 40 years of American social change is observed, and 40 years of close shifts within family relations, adulterous affairs and the tragedy of a lost child.
How does he do this? Well, he invents an altered or heightened realism. He gives Rabbit his own – Updike’s – thoughts, and yet somehow he makes them plausibly Rabbit’s. Rabbit has reflections on mortality that could only be, in any realistic frame, Updike’s. But he makes them Rabbit’s; he shoehorns them into this limited mental space. It’s a rhetorical trick. In short, what Updike succeeds in doing is to make Rabbit interesting. He might not be good, but he’s interesting, and we travel with him for that reason alone. I can’t claim for a moment to have come anywhere near this with Michael Beard, but that was the example at my side.

When I feel my faith flagging in the whole enterprise of fiction – and all writers experience this – a few pages of Updike will restore my energies and optimism.

“Ian McEwan recommends Books That Have Helped Shape His Novels”

De Bellis featured in WDIY interview

jackdebellis-webJohn Updike Society cofounder and former director Jack De Bellis, whose John Updike Encyclopedia and John Updike’s Early Years have been indispensable for Updike scholars, was featured in an interview on WDIY, Lehigh Valley’s Community NPR Station, on Dec. 6, 2016.

Asking the questions was Lehigh Valley Discourse host John Pearce.

Here’s the audio link.

Ozick on Updike: steadily remarkable

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.34.09 AMIn a summer New York Times Book Review interview, “Cynthia Ozick: By the Book,” Ozick mentions Updike in her very first response. Asked what books are currently on her night stand, she replies,

“Nowadays my night stand is a roughly cubical archaeological mount (33 by 25 inches), long awaiting shelf space. From a middle stratum I’ve excavated the regenerative pleasures of rediscovery—all old books: John Updike’s Villages (an aching reminder of the absence of that steadily remarkable literary voice); a Library of America collection of four novels by William Dean Howells (who ought to be venerated at least as much as Willa Cather, if not more); Frank Kermode’s Pieces of My Mind (consummate reflections on subjects ranging from Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver to ‘Secrets and Narrative Sequence’). And from a lower lode, a pair of memoirs by two boyhood escapees from Nazified Vienna, marking Austria’s loss of a stellar composer and a questioning poet: Robert Starer’s Continuo: A Life in Music and Arthur Gregor’s A Longing in the Land. Finally, on the mound always accreting surface, a weighty volume turned upside down to conceal the face on its cover: a new biography of Adolph Hitler by Volker Ullrich, translated from the German, not yet opened. Will I read it? Will I? Sometimes repugnance overrides psychological curiosity, and sometimes psychological curiosity is no more illuminating than pornography.”

The illustration is by Jillian Tamaki.


Tanenhaus on Bill Buckley . . . and John Updike

96iiRXJ1_400x400The Daily Beast today published an interview Scott Porch did with biographer Sam Tanenhaus, “Bill Buckley Gets Bigger Over Time.” In it, Tanenhaus talks about his work-in-progress but also shares a few thoughts about Updike:

“For me, Updike and Bellow and Roth are giants now; they were writing when I was young. My copy of Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich is the copy I got when I was 15 or 16 through the Book of the Month Club. It’s the only book I ever had signed by an author in all of my years at the book review. We did a long video interview with him for the website. Those figures to me are very large and important. I think of them almost like family, and some of them are still working. Bob Caro is still working. Gay Talese is still working. I saw Garry Wills at the Aspen Ideas Festival a couple of weeks ago, brilliant as ever. Those figures are really important to me.”

Allegra Goodman reads and discusses A&P on a New Yorker podcast

AllegraGoodmanAllegra Goodman, author of such novels as The Cookbook Collector, The Other Side of the Island, and Intuition, is featured in a New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Each month a fiction writer whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker selects a story to read and discuss, and Goodman picked Updike’s “A&P,” which she said had special meaning for her because she grew up in Hawaii and had her share of experiences with people in bathing suits in supermarkets, and she said she and her sister had names that began with “A” and “P” and began calling themselves that.

Here’s the link to the podcast.

Russian lit expert shares Updike’s response to this and that

photoU.R. Bowie, who taught Russian literature for 30 years at Miami University and now writes a blog, recently shared a response from Updike to his questions about Charles D’Ambrosio (Up North), Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts (Closer), Woody Allen (Match Point), literary fiction, fluency in Russian, Philip Roth, Zuckerman, Zuckerman’s prostate gland, “etc.”

Here is Updike’s response to his 2006 letter: