Saturday, January 31, 2009

Another lion felled

It is not my intention to make this blog some kind of collection of obituaries, but so soon after the death of Harold Pinter it makes me terribly sad to acknowledge the passing this past week of John Updike, an American writer of such voraciousness that the sheer volume of his output would qualify him as a writer of note, never mind the fact that he constructed some of the most elegant, deliciously observant sentences of the past 50 years. Along the way he collected a couple of Pulitzers and many other awards, honorary degrees and acknowledgments of his artistry with words.

I had the good fortune of hearing Mr. Updike speak in person only a couple of months ago, in November 2008, shortly after the presidential election. He was appearing in conversation at UCLA with David Ulin, book editor at the Los Angeles Times, in promotion of his latest [and, sadly, last] novel, The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to his popular Witches of Eastwick of several decades earlier. At that time, I detected no hint of the lurking lung cancer that apparently stole his restless creativity from us. He seemed energetic, upbeat and determined to continue to write.

In fact, one of the things I took from the event was an appreciation for Mr. Updike's almost Victorian dedication to working. He seemed driven simultaneously by a Protestant work ethic and an admitted delight in seeing his name in print. He also seemed slightly haunted by a concomitant fear in letting too much time pass between bylines, as if the ever-shortening attention span of contemporary society would quickly forget him if he didn't accept that next commission. This is partly what drew him to accept the latest in a string of some 825 assignments for the New Yorker, for example [the last of which was a typically honest but generous review of Toni Morrison's latest novel published in early November].

Another interesting point from that November event is that, when asked about the recent election, Mr. Updike expressed excitement at the prospect of "having a writer in the White House." It was such an interesting perspective to me, as I had not, in all the wild media coverage of the election process, identified Barack Obama with the simple label of "writer." But there was Updike, reminding us that the man had written not one, but two books on his own. And he believed that the qualities it takes to see a book through publication would hold him in good stead in the impossibly complex position of president. Let us hope he was on to something there.

Unlike his peers -- Philip Roth, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer -- Updike set himself a strict schedule of production and pretty much published a book a year, be it a novel or a collection of essays or short stories. His output was staggering, as if he was attempting to capture all of our existence in the fleeting beauty of the perfect sentence. Like Meryl Streep as an actor, he was criticized for having too much technique, for being too skilled, for allowing us to see that he was a unique talent. That seems faint criticism to me.

I have read much of his work and, for my taste, it is fine to get lost in the beauty of a dazzling sentence. That's partly why I bother to read other people's writing. Yes, his Rabbit novels are his best known, but for my money there is no topping his inexplicably underestimated masterpiece, In the Beauty of the Lilies. This epic work spans four generations of an American family in the 20th century. All I can tell you is that as I finished it, on the sand on a Long Island beach in the late '90s, I nearly wept at the final images and mourned the turning of the last page. It was a perfectly constructed work of fiction, in my opinion, and like a gigantic spider web, created in such modest silence that I didn't even notice its grandeur until I got to the end and could step back and admire the whole.

In an era of such superficiality, Mr. Updike was also an unabashed man of letters. He wrote novels, poetry, short stories, essays and criticism of books and art. He did it all. And, it seems, he loved every minute of it. He leaves us with many heart-stopping sentences to read, many observations to contemplate. It was a life well spent, and I am richer for having encountered him.

Nothing would please him more than if you used your library card to sample some of his prose.