Biography offers an enlightening view of John Updike’s work

04/11/2014 12:00 AM

04/12/2014 5:14 PM

In 1958, William Maxwell said about 26-year-old John Updike: “If he doesn’t get the Nobel Prize, it will be the Swedes’ fault, not his.” Maxwell was the fiction editor of The New Yorker, a magazine with notoriously exacting standards that had fallen in love with young Updike’s versatile and prolific prose. Hundreds of his stories, essays and poems appeared in its glossy pages over the next half-century.

Although the call from Stockholm never came, riches and honors accrued to Updike. But in Adam Begley’s deeply researched biography, we are introduced to the less endearing aspects of this almost divinely gifted writer’s personality.

Begley’s father, Louis, a distinguished novelist in his own right, was Updike’s classmate at Harvard. When Begley was an infant, Updike juggled oranges for his amusement. This doesn’t affect his objectivity. He admires Updike’s relentless devotion to his craft but acknowledges the toll it took on his family, especially his children, whom he kept at arm’s length.

As a biographer, Begley faced two problems. First, what could be said about his subject that he hadn’t said himself? Every experience and observation the man had ever had seemed to be committed to paper. And second, Updike never had to struggle with failure or self-destructiveness. From college onward he was a well-adjusted star. “He cultivated none of the professional deformations that habitually plague American writers,” Begley writes. “Even his neuroses were tame.”

Sex may have been his only weakness. A serial adulterer, he was popular with his friends’ wives, who considered it “a matter of pride” to sleep with him. His first wife retaliated with her own lovers. This game of musical beds inspired Couples, a gynecologically precise bestseller that cemented his reputation as an obsessive chronicler of middle-class lust.

At heart, however, Begley is a literary critic, and his reading of Updike’s work is enlightening and devoid of academic jargon. He shows the extent to which Updike drew from his life for his fiction, which was attacked as misogynistic and precious. There is some truth to Harold Bloom’s dismissal of Updike as “a minor novelist with a major style.” Beautiful sentences are not enough; the story must also engage.

But Begley sides with conventional wisdom on the enduring value of the Rabbit tetralogy, the four novels that follow Updike’s Everyman, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, from Kennedy to Reagan. Forget newspapers and documentaries. If you want to understand what this nation was going through during that period, carve out time this summer for this 1,500-page masterpiece.

But let’s be honest; you probably won’t. Not many people read Updike anymore. He has fallen out of fashion. If Begley’s biography generates renewed interest, it will have done yeoman’s service.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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