The John Updike Radio Files

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We’ve discovered some old gems in our radio archives and sprinkled them through a conversation with John Updike’s biographer, Adam Begley, for our show this week.

Begley talks about Updike’s Pennsylvania boyhood, his wives and lovers north of Boston, his children, his spiritual life, his voracious reading, his travels  — and how he created the most graceful prose of our time by cannibalizing all of it for his art. Between lived experience and the pages of the New Yorker magazine, John Updike had the shortest digestive tract in the modern practice of serious literature, Begley says. How we miss him and wonder: what’s Updike thinking — as we did back in the day about the expanding universe, or Barack Obama on the rise, or the Red Sox in a pennant race? What would he say today about our obsession with our phones, or about the the jobless generation, or Google Glass?

Watch one of our favorite interviews with Updike, on the occasion of his second Pulitzer win in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest, from The Ten O’Clock News. What do you hear in that voice, and who has filled Updike’s shoes today?

Adam Begley sent us a Guardian list of his ten favorite Updike short stories. What are yours?

Five years ago, when HarperCollins approached me about writing a biography of John Updike, I would have classified myself as a moderate fan, thrilled by his supple, precise prose and respectful of his wide-ranging talent and effortless industry: every year a new Updike book! I admired many of his novels and most of his criticism; though aware of his poetry, I hadn’t read very much of it. It was apparent to me even then that Updike had earned himself an exalted place in the pantheon of 20th-century short story writers.

Now, after a thorough immersion in all things Updike, my admiration has spread and deepened. I’ve come to cherish many of his poems, and the large majority of his 23 novels. After countless hours in the archives, I’ve discovered Updike the helplessly prolific letter-writer, scattering literary jewels throughout a vast correspondence. But Updike’s stories – there are 186 of them in the two-volume Library of America edition – remain for me the chief glory of his collected works. His stated aim in his short fiction was “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and it’s an aim he achieved beautifully.

1. The Happiest I’ve Been (1958)

An Updike alter ego, John Nordholm, looks back in tender reminiscence to a time when he was a second-year student at university. He has been home for Christmas at his parents’ farm, and is leaving again. He’s eager to put his childhood behind him and at the same time desperate to preserve the past intact, to protect and cherish it. The tension between these two impulses supplies the emotional power here, as it does in many of the stories Updike wrote about Olinger, a lightly fictionalised version of his Pennsylvania hometown, Shillington. While writing this story, Updike later explained, he had “a sensation of breaking through, as if through a thin sheet of restraining glass, to material, to truth, previously locked up”.

2. Separating (1974)

A devastating story about the break-up of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, stand-ins for Updike and his first wife. It features a tragicomic last supper at which Richard, an unfaithful husband and flawed father, is supposed to inform his children that he and their mother are splitting up. At the end of the story, his eldest son asks him “why?” – which prompts an indelible final paragraph: “Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness … Richard had forgotten why.” Minutely autobiographical and gorgeously shaped, Separating is perhaps the world’s best (and worst) argument for writing about what you know.

3. A&P (1960)

Updike’s most widely anthologised story, about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. As Updike’s first wife pointed out, the teenage narrator’s voice (“In walks these three girls … “) is very Salinger – but the dazzlingly vivid detail and the quixotic romanticism are pure Updike.

4. A Sandstone Farmhouse (1990)

A sequel of sorts to his brilliant early novel Of the Farm (1965), as well as a memorial to his widowed mother who died in 1989 and is here is resurrected with unsentimental candour and evident affection. Updike filled the story with incidents snatched directly from her last six months, quoting her verbatim and giving the precise circumstances of her death by heart attack. An attempt to immortalise the most important person in his life, it was also, for him, a kind of therapy.

5. The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island (1960)

As the story’s comically long-winded title suggests, Updike here stitches together disparate elements, a daring collage construction. Among the many marvels, this striking description of how fiction writers condense and transform experience: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.”

6. The Bulgarian Poetess (1964)

The first (and sweetest) of 20 stories featuring Henry Bech, another – this time rather unlikely – Updike alter ego. A New York Jewish writer, Bech is in some ways everything Updike was not: an anguished urban bachelor beset by writer’s block. But thanks to Bech, Updike was able to record in fiction an important part of his experience: the life of a professional author. In this story, Bech is travelling behind the Iron Curtain, as an ambassador of the arts, sponsored by the US government. (Updike did the same, the same year.)

7. Bech in Czech (1986)

Returning to eastern Europe decades later, our hero visits Kafka’s grave, meets a handful of dissidents, broods about the Holocaust, and suffers an attack of anxiety that is at once existential and postmodern: “More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt a cause for unease. He was a creature of the third person, a character. A character suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop.”

8. Problems (1975)

The problems in this very short and ostentatiously clever story are presented as questions on a maths test: “During the night, A, though sleeping with B, dreams of C … Problem: Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?” The story, from a collection of the same title, is emblematic of the brief moment of guilty limbo between Updike’s first and second marriages, a period during which divorce and its discontents replaced adultery as his simplex theme.

9. Here Come the Maples (1976)

A bittersweet record of the court hearing that put an end to the Maples’ marriage. The 17th of 18 stories chronicling more than two decades of the couple’s quarrels and reconciliations, it’s a barely fictionalised yet artful retelling of Updike’s own experience in the divorce court. The concluding kiss is priceless.

10. My Father’s Tears (2005)

Like The Happiest I’ve Been, this is a story about a university student who’s come home for the holiday and is now leaving again. Updike was 26 when he wrote the first story, 73 when he wrote the second. There are fewer bravura moments in My Father’s Tears, less writerly zeal, and yet it achieves a quiet, sober intensity. The reason for the father’s tears? “I was going somewhere,” the son tells us, “and he was seeing me go.” Updike’s talent had mellowed and deepened; it certainly hadn’t diminished.

Also explore a little-read essay from last week’s subject David Foster Wallace on the late writings of the ‘phallocrat’ novelists (or Great Male Narcissists), with John Updike ranking first among them. Quoting feminist friends who read “a penis with a thesaurus,” Wallace wrote for a generation that received Updike more skeptically, and with less rapture. Which is the Updike you know? Where’s his place in 21st-century literature?


  • Kunal

    Harold Bloom famously called Updike “a minor novelist with a major style.” Do you agree?

  • Potter

    (Bloom is always right- but let him write a poem. Here’s one from Updike that shows how well he looked and reflected.)

    “Granite”

    New England doesn’t kid around;
    it wears it’s bones outside.
    Quartz-freckles, time-rumpled granite-
    your tombstone everywhere.

    At night I wake and warily gaze
    at outcroppings on my lawn.
    These moonlit humpbacks, do they sleep
    or do their blanched surfaces sense my eyes?

    By day you can see how earth
    engenders itself over aeons;
    pine needles silt in, and tender weeds
    take hold in the cracks, then wild roses

    and hairy-stemmed sumacs find enough
    for a footing, and oak rootlets,
    and out of mesh comes a mulch, a soil-
    trapped particles breed trapped life

    There is no way not to die
    can it be? What do these stones
    coldly know? Or is moonlight warm
    and the granite a pledge

    to which consciousness clings?
    Better rock than mud
    of a meaningless mercy, such as men
    would devise. This outcrop

    is a wide gray glow the night has grown.
    I think with awe of the man
    who will gaze down upon it, awake
    when I’m blinder than stone

    John Updike (from the “New Yorker”October 1990)

  • Vandermeer

    Thanks for posting all of this… looking forward to reading some of these Updike short stories … the first, “The Happiest I’ve Been” is available to subscribers to the New Yorker.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Illness and Selfhood in Updike

    It’s inspired on the part of Updike to realize that self-consciousness (as in the title of his 1989 memoir) covers both meanings of this namely, self-awareness and self-uneasiness as in the word dis-ease.

    We say that a person “sits comfortably in his own skin “but psoriasis as in Updike’s life means one’s skin is disallowing such comfort literally. It’s also true that asthma means the world somehow one let you breathe Updike’s various aliments are like uninvited guests who won’t leave. One lives in a body.

    Oddly enough, it’s not easy to think of literary classics that have this Updikean fusion of these two modes of self-sonsciousness. If you leave out defining calamaties Helen Keller’s blindness or the Daniel Day-Lewis depiction of crippling in “My Left Foot” or “The Diving Bell…”analogue for the young stroke victim, these three come to mind off the top of my head:
    1. Montaigne’s sixteenth century essays on combining philosophy and kidney stones and endless physical complaints dogging the author of the “Essays.”

    2. Benito Perez Galdos, the nineteenth century Spanish Balzac and Dickens, in his masterpiece “Fortunata and Jacinta” has long descriptions of insomnia with the sections called “Insomnia” and not buried or hidden away.

    3. In the 1995 movie “Carrington” Jonathan Pryce plays Lytton Strachey who literally can’t sit comfortably in his own skin due to hemorrhoids or piles.

    Another aspect of illness is the evolution of the vocabulary to describe it. Certain designations are now arcane such as croup, dropsy, phtyisis , chronic catarrh, consumptive.

    I like Updike’s “attunement” to this medical self-consciousness when the body betrays the person or rebels or makes him “ill at ease”, all puns intended.
    See:
    “From the Journal of a Leper” is a fiction piece written by John Updike which
    appeared in the October 19, 1976 New Yorker magazine. It is difficult to
    find so we have placed it here in two parts:
    Download Updike Pso 1 and Download Updike Pso 2

    Updike’s second essay on psoriasis appeared in the New Yorker in 1985 and in the book”Self-Consciousness,” Chapter 2. Here it is as PDF in four
    parts:

    Download Updike War Skin 1

    Download Updike War 2

    Download Updike War Skin 3

    Download Updike War Skin 4

    http://dermatologycentral.typepad.com/resource/2009/02/updike-on-psoriasis.html

    For more on Updike and psoriasis see the Pathography Blog. The Pathography posting has the information about Updike’s other essay on psoriasis, a memoir called “At War With My Skin.”

    http://dermatologycentral.typepad.com/resource/2009/02/updike-on-psoriasis.html

    Lastly: Montaigne Sounding Updike-ish:

    “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

    ― Michel de Montaigne, The
    Complete Essays

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30735.The_Complete_Essays

    Richard Melson

  • Harvey Cox

    May I add an observation about Updike? Of course I devoured Roger’s Version, and when it first came out many people thought it was based in part on me, which I doubt. True, it’s about a theologian at Harvard Divinity School, a disciple of Karl Barth (which I was once) and how his professional and personal life were disrupted by a computer nerd who thought he could prove the existence of God, a scandal for a Barthian! Of course, since this an Updike book, the guy also seduces the theologian’s wife.

    Updike had prowled the corridors of HDS for weeks before he wrote the book. He got every detail right: the architecture, what’s on the bulletin boards, etc. I did talk with him,. And I wish I could claim I inspired the character (if not the plot), but I did not.

    The next year I was in Rome at a conference and a group of us decided to pull a practical joke on a young Italian reporter who was trying to cover it. We told him, with straight faces, we were there at a meeting dedicated to proving the existence of God. Poor soul believed us and wrote a story that appeared on the first page of a Rome daily. I sent John U. the clipping and he loved it, wrote back to me by hand on one of those postcards he used. But again, being Updike, he mentioned that he especially like what was printed on the other side of the clipping, an ad for women’s undergarments with scantily clothed models!

    The guy was a genuine Christian, AND a real caution.

    Be well,

    Harvey Cox

  • Maura Gallagher

    Updike’s way of seeing was the antithesis of narcissism: it contained a selfless tenderness that sprung from his mad love of place and his characters, the ultimate in seeing, the essence of artistic vision, revelry and celebration. To suggest otherwise is to have tragically not understood his work. Roth could be considered a Great Male Narcissist, not Updike. I agree with you Chris: I plan to urge my daughter (and son) to read him. With Updike I never felt the kind of prickly irritation that I got from the Roths and Mailers and others belonging to that category. I never wrote to Mr. Updike myself to say so, but I hope others did, and that he might have received those wrong-headed criticisms with a laugh and his characteristic twinkling smile. Thanks – great show !!