July 3, 2014

Updike in the Archives

  By Max Larkin As a companion to our show on John Updike — now gone five years and at the same time back with us thanks to our guest Adam Begley’s brilliant biography — we’re ...



By Max Larkin

As a companion to our show on John Updike — now gone five years and at the same time back with us thanks to our guest Adam Begley’s brilliant biography — we’re seeking the writer in the trail he left behind: the postcards he sent and his TV interviews, in the fan letters and the criticism.

He was a writer above all things, determined to generate three pages per workday. That adds up, over a fifty-year career, to a huge bibliography (see below).

Updike By the Numbers

67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography: 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction;

186 stories across 1,949 pages in the new Library of America edition;

2 Pulitzer Prizes, among many others;

an archive purchased for $3 million by Harvard University after his death;

and an 18 handicap at golf (his second-favorite pastime).

Updike was a writer and reader more prolific, maybe, than any ‘literary’ author now working — though we’re interested to hear where you see Updike’s habit, or his tone, today. But he was also a father and two times a husband. Adam Begley points out a moving moment from the 1982 documentary, What Makes Rabbit Run?, in which David Updike wrestles with being a writer’s son:

There are also the dozens of postcards and letters that Updike sent our host, Chris Lydon, as a longtime guest and friend of The Ten O’Clock News and The Connection. Best among the available meetings is a seven-minute interview Chris did with Updike on the beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, after Rabbit At Rest had won Updike his second Pulitzer in early 1991. Enjoy the hair, the feeling of the wind, and the good serious talk of death and what’s important:


The interview was seen from another angle, and recorded forever, in a watercolor painting done by a friend that hangs in our Beacon Hill office.

Updike watercolor

I didn’t know Updike, but I know that it was a term of art on The Connection to “pull an Uppy” — that is, to decline participation in a radio conversation more kindly and thoughtfully than most people accept. And the postcards testify to that genteelness in Updike, the kind of thing that made Nicholson Baker, himself a great New England transplant and the avidest fan, sent his hero a quote regarding Balzac from John Jay Chapman:

Your complete literary man writes all the time. It wakes him in the morning to write, it exercises him to write, it rests him to write. Writing is to him a visit from a friend, a cup of tea, a game of cards, a walk in the country, a warm bath, an after-dinner nap, a hot Scotch before bed, and the sleep that follows it. Your complete literary chap is a writing animal; and when he dies he leaves a cocoon as large as a haystack, in which every breath he has drawn is recorded in writing.


Podcast • July 3, 2014

The John Updike Radio Files

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.
Updike in the Archives

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?

Podcast • November 1, 2013

Nicholson Baker Writes a Protest Song

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies. Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in ...

Songs are no joke. I’m not being ironic with these songs. I’ve never done anything in which I feel more vulnerable to my own failings and inadequacies.

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

Nicholson Baker‘s voice has a blushing transparency that will make you lean in here. He’s made a brilliant career out of a writer’s stray wit and the sparkling streams of one man’s mind. “His sentences have more pixel density than those of any living novelist,” Dwight Garner beams in the Times. Like his model John Updike, Baker is a champion noticer. In our conversations, and in his porniad House of Holes, he’s also magnetized by sex and very funny, too. But he’s political, as Updike declined to be. Baker gave us a brave and studious case for pacifism in Human Smoke, his pointillistic history of World War 2. And now in Traveling Sprinkler he emerges, through his fictional hero Paul Chowder, as a song-writer and (about time!) a fantasy radio guy and a podcaster.

Nick Baker introduced Paul Chowder four years ago in The Anthologist as a “confessional poet of a sort,” an often blocked writer of an introduction to a compiliation called Only Rhyme. In Traveling Sprinkler — lawn hardware making its circuitous path around the green landscape of his obsessions — Paul Chowder turns out to be less melodic than Cole Porter, less memorable than Tracy Chapman or Leonard Cohen. But the disarmed and endearing voice of Nicholson Baker is giving us the sense of a necessary human experiment (for all of us) and an homage to the triumphs of the masters:

It’s hard to sing, because when you sing as a writer you have lots of little squirrely black shapes on the page to hide behind. It’s of course very open and confessional but you have that nice scrim; you’re behind this shield of the 26 letters. But when you sing the words with your own voice with all of its own imprecisions and its desire to lose the pitch and all that stuff, it is so naked and so frightening… Music is so instantly graspable, and yet so mysterious. It’s so subtle and complicated; a slight change in harmony, a choice of doubling up a particular instrument, of adding a little reverb — all these things can change the texture of a moment so much. Yet all of them are entirely beyond speech. There’s no way you can codify or even talk about them verbally. So they’re in that way puzzling but also entertaining. All you’re trying to do if you’re writing a song is make something beautiful in some way — at least something that some one can tap his or her foot to — maybe dance around the room or sing along with, that someone will respond in a positive way…

Nicholson Baker in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October, 2013

You can try this out and home. And you can look for inspiration to Nicholson Baker’s Protest Songs on YouTube.

Podcast • February 17, 2011

Jaimy Gordon’s Racetrack Revelation in Lord of Misrule

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The ...

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The 40-to-1 payoff is for readers who, but for the big prize, might never hear of non-commercial fiction or savor it’s very distinctive pleasures.

Lord of Misrule was reviewed in the Daily Racing Form before it was noticed by the New York Times. It may never get noted in the Times Sunday Book Review. But anyone who opens it will recognize instantly the real old American thing: horses, jockeys, trainers and touts with Damon Runyon names like Medicine Ed and Suitcase and Two-Tie, loners and outcasts on their own crummy racetrackers’ planet in far West Virginia. Just as quickly we meet characters, both equine and human, whose lives, language and trials feel entirely new.

I wanted to write a social novel of a kind, I wanted to represent, in one way or another, all the orders of humanity of this world. I think my previous books were usually dominated by one reckless human being, usually a young woman, whose fortunes would horrify and interest the reader.

In the case of Lord of Misrule, I think I was getting to be of an age where I could identify as much with the family-less loan shark, Two-Tie, and Medicine Ed, who’s looking for a home at the age of 72, not sure that he’s made the right career choice in being a groom for 60-some years … I think that since, as a writer, I felt that my career had never broken big and I was getting into my sixties myself, [I wondered] had I made the right career choice here? I think that, like Medicine Ed, I didn’t feel competent to do anything else and I couldn’t have pictured myself anywhere else than on my racetrack, which is the world of American fiction, but I couldn’t see exactly where I was heading.

I think that the charm of the book, if it has any, is that the writer is fully as much inhabiting Medicine Ed and Two-Tie as the young woman. I used to be the young woman in my books, but now I am just as much the old guys, looking into a kind of bitter and insecure unknown.

Jaimy Gordon with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athanaeum, 2. 11. 2011.

One of the great epiphanies of her life, Jaimy Gordon remarks, came at 17, working illegally in a bar on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was the first time she was surrounded by people who “didn’t speak proper English,” and she was amazed at the poetry in their conversation.

I venture that Jaimy Gordon’s work is marked by a kind of comic maximalism in the manner of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, every type of literary effect exploding on every page. Indeed, she’s telling me, she claimed maximalism as her métier when she studied writing at Brown — with John Hawkes and Keith Waldrop, among others — and minimalism was all the literary rage. She points to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which also won a National Book Award, as her inspiration for transferring the kind of far-fetched, daring metaphors common in poetry into plot-driven prose.

Jaimy Gordon assures us that despite the echoing laments for the death of literature, we are in a sort of “Golden Age of American letters,” fueled by more than 350 college-level creating writing programs. In this conversation she gives us some of her favorite practitioners, well-known and unsung: Katherine Davis for Hell, Labrador, The Girl who Trod on a Loaf; Kellie Wells for Skin, Compression Scars; Joanna Scott, Russell Banks, Peter Carey and Paul Harding for his out-of-nowhere small-press Pulitzer Prize Tinkers. We are blessed.

Podcast • January 28, 2009

John Updike: Ted Williams of Our Prose

John Updike had every kind of grace about him, including for me an aura of divine blessing. I liked his religious inquiries better than the Rabbit books — novels like A Month of Sundays, Roger’s ...

updike lateJohn Updike had every kind of grace about him, including for me an aura of divine blessing. I liked his religious inquiries better than the Rabbit books — novels like A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and The Beauty of the Lilies, and of course stories like “Pigeon Feathers” about a boy’s crisis of faith, which ends in his famous meditation on the pigeons he’s shot, on orders, in his mother’s barn, and the irresistible beauty of the blue and gray patterns in their dull coloring. “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Updike had a good priest’s devotion to his writing vocation. And for all the sex, laughter and inspired mischief we remember him for (“The Disposable Rocket,” for example), he had also an air almost of sanctity.

ted for lifeI loved him in something like the way he loved Ted Williams. We were looking once together at Arthur Griffin’s rediscovered color plates of the formally flawless boy-wonder Ted Williams when he first wore a Red Sox uniform in 1939 — photographs like the one on Ben Bradlee’s book cover that had languished in a file drawer for 50 years. “More god than man!” I gasped, and Updike laughed in assent. Of course, my exclamation was about Updike, too. People have quoted an Updike interview in the Guardian in which he explained that he moved to the North Shore of Boston in the 1950s to get closer to the New England vibrations of Melville and Hawthorne. He told me something else: that after a young life of listening to Red Sox night games on the radio, he wanted to get closer to where Ted Williams played ball. I have another strange memory in the Updike-Williams connection — strange because it was something John told me and later said he forgot. What I remember clearly is asking him if he ever heard from Williams about the great ““Hub Fans…” piece. Updike said he met Ted Williams in person a few years later and that Williams admired him profusely. “Real talent,” Ted said in effect. “With that sort of gift you could actually be doing something useful…”

“Like what?” Updike asked the Splinter.

“Like save the Atlantic salmon!” Ted roared, again like a god, but angry this time.

Updike was generous with his postcards and ever game for conversation — as in the Open Source file on his Terrorist and his second volume of art criticism, Still Looking. Maybe the best fun I had in many TV and radio conversations with our prince of letters was spotting, in the last posthumous novella on Rabbit Angstrom (“Rabbit Remembered” in Licks of Love) an uncanny pattern in the talk between Rabbit’s son Nelson and the out-of-wedlock daughter, Annabelle, who pops up, unheralded, at age 39. Searching her memories of the late Rabbit, Annabelle refers with Nelson to “our father” — not once, I noticed, but four times in the short book.

CL: You can’t say “our father” — certainly John Updike can’t — without conjuring “Our father who are in heaven…”

JU: That’s very ingenious and good of you, and I think it takes the book in the correct spirit. I don’t know as I was aware of the Lord’s Prayer as I was writing it, but it’s hard not to be. The whole concept of fatherhood is all tied in with the Christian god, who is “Our father who art in heaven.” And Harry Angstrom would seem to be in heaven — he’s not on earth, quite, in much of this book. There isn’t too much religion in this book, certainly compared to the first one, where Harry is haunted by God, haunted by the church fronts and the morality of Diamond County back in the Eisenhower era. But I guess insofar as I remain a Christian and haunted by those images, this book too has “our father” in it. I saw it as an attempt of Nelson and Annabelle, who are new to eachother — he’s in his early 40s, she’s about to turn 40 — to [see] that the one link they have is “our father.” And in some sense Harry is meant to be felt in the book, as having brought them together — as having himself in his lifetime, failed to discover Annabelle or to get Ruth to admit that Annabelle existed. But now he wants to get them together and wants it to work out, you know, well!

CL: I just beg to differ, in the sense that I think there’s a lot of religion in this book — not a lot of churchgoing. Annabelle, though, says explicitly — she’s a licensed practical nurse in the care mostly of Alzheimer’s patients; Nelson also is in mental health care — at one point she says: “You can’t feel casually about these people. I go on these teams Hospice sends around. Even at the very end there’s something in there. A soul, or whatever, you have to love.” The immortality of the soul, it seems to me, runs through the whole book, as people talk about death, as they worry about death. Nelson has a funny line. He says: “it’s like a nap, except you don’t have to get up and put your shoes back on.” They’re thinking about the other side all the time.

John Updike in conversation with Chris Lydon on NPR’s “The Connection,” December 4, 2000.

I took John Updike’s free, odd, stuttering, then neighing laughter in that interview as his affirmation in the moment — a token of his blessed assurance of his own immortality and ours, too.

Afterthought on Saturday, January 31: It’s striking that some of the best of the Updike appreciations are from abroad — like these on the Guardian page:

Updike on himself

John Banville, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwen et al on Updike

Updike remembered by Xan Brooks

From Lorrie Moore