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Updike on writing

John Updike, Wilfred Owen and George Plimpton were all born on March 18, reminds the Writer’s Almanac. My favourite writer, the most celebrated First World War poet, and Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, which he helmed from 1953 till his death in 2003. I remember reading excerpts from Paper Lion, his book about his pre-season training with the Detroit Lions, an American football team, in the 60s.

But most of all I miss Updike.

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Shakespeare’s bawdy

William Shakespeare was baptized on this day in 1564 and what a life he led before he died at the age of 52 on April 23, 1616. He explored love and sex in his plays with a detailed vividness that leaves Masters and Johnson looking pretty skimpy, writes Simon Callow in the Guardian.

The Elizabethans were as prurient as the stereotypical Victorians were prudish. They loved bawdy and double entendre — and Shakespeare had to entertain his audience.

Sexual desire is rampant in the opening lines of A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Theseus tells Hippolyta he is impatient about having to wait four more days for their wedding. She says the days will pass quickly. Look at the imagery they use.

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The Widows of Eastwick

The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.

Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.

Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.

The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.

Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.

A gay actor and his black magic

Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.

Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.

She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved. 

Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.

The seduction

Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.

It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.

It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.

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Updike, the most sensuous writer in English

The most sensuous writer in the English language is dead. No one wrote more sensuous prose than John Updike. He carried his lyricism into his 70s. He was 76 when he died yesterday. The cause was lung cancer, according to his publisher, Alfred A Knopf.

John_updike_telegraph

He was – for his style and views perhaps – overlooked for the Nobel Prize. But he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999, recalls the Associated Press. It adds:

His literary home was the American suburb. Born in 1932, Updike spoke for millions of Depression-era readers raised by "penny-pinching parents," united by "the patriotic cohesion of World War II" and blessed by a "disproportionate share of the world's resources," the postwar, suburban boom of "idealistic careers and early marriages."

He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.

But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style.

Updike is as famous for his graphic approach to sex as his elegantly crafted dissections of the human condition, says The Telegraph.

The Wall Street Journal writes:

Mr. Updike, who lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts., chronicled all of America's many anxieties about sex, work, and death. Perhaps his best-known works are the four "Rabbit" novels that feature Harry "Rabbit Angstrom," a middle-class American who struggled to find his place in society.

The author was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for the third novel in the series, "Rabbit is Rich," and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for the fourth, "Rabbit at Rest."

Less flashy than Tom Wolfe, Mr. Updike's nuanced, supple prose caused many to regard him as the most talented wordsmith of his generation.

Obama supporter

Whatever his earlier views, he died an admirer of President Barack Obama. 

His most celebrated character, Rabbit Angstrom, was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Democrat. What would Rabbit make of the present election, he was asked in a New York Times video interview in October 2008. Updike replied:

“I am so much for Obama it would be hard for me to cook up a character who was for McCain. Rabbit would see, I think, the good of McCain… But luckily I am not writing about Rabbit any more.”

His last novel was The Widows of Eastwick, published late last year as a sequel to the successful The Witches of Eastwick.

He was quite perplexed to learn that both Obama and McCain included his books among their favourites, says the Guardian.

The New Yorker website features his last story to appear in the magazine, The Full Glass, published in May 2008.

The Atlantic magazine also showcases his stories, poems and essays which appeared in it.

Master of sentence, professor of desire

Troy Patterson writes in Slate:

Updike's most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence. Updike is, line for line, without peer, the finest American prose stylist of the postwar era. The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it's cinematic. Martin Amis, Updike's only rival as a post-Nabokov virtuoso, wrote that "having read him once, you admit to yourself, almost with a sigh, that you will have to read everything he writes."

It also must be said that, on the subject of sex, Updike could be the worst writer his publisher Knopf has ever known. Last month, Updike justly earned a lifetime-achievement prize in the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. He clinched it with a passage in the new Widows of Eastwick that includes — avert your eyes, children — the following sentence: "Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea."

This is a very rare kind of dreck, the sort that can be secreted only by a brilliant professor of desire.

Updike's burden

The Guardian writes:

Undeniably white, heterosexual and a Protestant, during his lifetime Updike carried the burden of being a writer who was not black, not female, not gay, not Jewish – decidedly not multicultural. He had a gift for being on the "wrong" side of issues about which there was a liberal consensus. Updike supported the American intervention in Vietnam, and doubted the wisdom of government support for the arts. He wrote with passionate grace about the love of women, but found even elegant depictions of homosexuality not to his taste. Gay writers queued up to express their annoyance. With so much about him of the upper class Wasp, the reality of Updike's modest origins was forgotten.

He was born in Shillington, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania near the larger city of Reading. Updike's father Wesley, after periods of unemployment in the 1930s, found work as a poorly paid maths teacher in the local junior high school. Updike's mother, Linda Hoyer, worked as a saleswoman in a local store. Linda had a masters' degree in English from Cornell, and wanted to be a writer. (She later published two collections of stories, Enchantment, 1971, and The Predator, 1990.) When asked in later years about her son's great fame, she coolly remarked: "I'd rather it had been me."

'I'm a vanished man'

Updike achieved fame and celebrity when writers were idolized but now they play a less conspicuous role in our culture, writes Joel Achenbach  in the Washington Post:

Updike knew better than anyone that things had changed. Or at least, it had changed for him, as he told The Post's David Streitfeld back in 1998:

"I go to a college to speak and am treated like a little king, get applauded at the end — you'd be applauded no matter what you did up there. You get a lot o
f love that way, people line up with the used paperbacks to be signed. But you go into an airport bookstore on the way back and there's no Updike there. There's no Updike at all. I'm a vanished man, a nonentity as far as mass readership goes. I didn't used to always be."

Swinging Couples, Rabbit and Bech

The Telegraph says:

Updike became famous – and infamous – with his fourth novel, Couples, a sexually-explicit tale of New England suburbia in which jaded thirtysomethings stave off marital boredom by drinking, "frugging", coupling and uncoupling in an account which captured the mood of souring Sixties optimism. Published in 1968, it was to the ageing trendies of the era what Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to its teenagers.

In his two series of novels – the "Bech" and the "Rabbit" books – he created two engagingly flawed heroes, versions of himself which somehow seemed to symbolise the American everyman: Bech, a hairy, self-scrutinising American-Jewish writer, and Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former basketball champion turned second-hand car dealer trapped in a tedious marriage from which he seeks refuge in extra-marital affairs.

Updike gave his own opinion of Rabbit in an interview with the Telegraph last year:

In Rabbit, Run Harry is not somebody to emulate, although in later novels I think he becomes more middle-class and loveable. My idea in Rabbit, Run is that if everybody follows their dream there'd be a lot of damage – damaged children and spouses, wrecked cars, who knows what else.

'But you have these inner imperatives and the sense of yourself as the centre of the universe; after all, you are you, and you don't want to botch the assignment. So there is inevitably a conflict between selfishness and niceness. Philip Roth was always writing about people who want to be nice, but then they can't quite be nice because they have these terrible sexual urges.'

"Wasted" beauty?

The New York Times considers his place in the literary pantheon:

The kaleidoscopically gifted writer whose quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels highlighted so vast and protean a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism as to earn him comparisons with Henry James and Edmund Wilson among American men of letters.

Where James and Wilson focused largely on elite Americans in a European context, Mr. Updike wrote of ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce. The only wealth he bestowed on his subjects lay in the richness of his descriptive language, the detailed fineness of which won him comparisons with painters like Vermeer and Andrew Wyeth.

This detail was often so rich that it inspired two schools of thought on Mr. Updike’s fiction — those who responded to his descriptive prose as to a kind of poetry, a sensuous engagement with the world, and those who argued that he wasted beautiful language on nothing.

The Times possibly sums him up best:

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Writing on sex and death at 91

Diana Athill is 91 years old and won the 2008 Costa prize for biography for her memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, where she talks about her love affairs, her work as a book editor, and what it means to be growing old. She helped Andre Deutsch – who was briefly her lover — establish his publishing house and edited writers such as VS Naipaul, John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys.

It was she who said when Naipaul left Andre Deutsch after she criticised his novel, Guerrillas: "It was as though the sun came out. I didn't have to like Vidia any more."

Click on this link for a YouTube video of an extraordinary interview she gave to the BBC on sex, old age and death. There she says:

When I was young, no one wanted to talk about death at all. Everyone was in full reaction against Victorian morbidity. And no one went to funerals… I hadn’t seen a dead body until I was 17… But it has completely changed now. It is as though a taboo has been removed. I suppose it’s because, with all getting old, everyone is suddenly thinking,‘It could be me next.’ I have found that, once this book was written, it became to my astonishment one book I have written that has really sold like hotcakes.

Is there a secret to successful ageing?

I would say it is a matter of pure luck. If your health holds out, there is no reason why it should be horrid…

I had a better time since I was 80.

Why?

Because in a way things matter much less. You don’t mind what people think about you. You are not embarrassed so easily… And when anything particularly good happens, it comes like a super treat because you weren’t expecting it. This book doing well has been for me an enormous treat from beginning to end. Still is. Look at me here (smiling)…

People ask quite a lot about when did sex stop being interesting. That rather obsesses people. Because when you are still a sexual being, the thought of stopping being a sexual being is quite painful. But of course, when it happens, if you stop wanting something, you don’t want it any more, so if it’s not there, you don’t mind.

Sex, Andre Deutsch and Philip Roth

She had sex in her 60s but “it was done with” by the way she was 70, she says in another BBC interview, available on audio.

There she talks about her relationship with Andre Deutsch.  She found it annoying that he used to stay up at night reading The Times newspaper. He was extremely self-centred, she says. But they continued working together.

She also talks about how Philip Roth was dropped by Andre Deutsch for poor sales. Roth went on to write his biggest bestseller, Portnoy’s Complaint.