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.


At 3:24 PM, Blogger VallyP said...

What a terrific tribute, Chris. I feel ashamed that I don't know John Updike's work now, and want to rush out and buy some of his books. The magic of a beautiful sentence will get me every time! I know his name, but not his writing, and that I intend to remedy.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger ahva-rahn said...

Updike’s passing is yet another memento mori; it evokes reflections that ultimately no one gets special treatment --the famous, the unknown, the butcher, baker, the candlestick maker-- and we all, in our own way, write our legacies. Recently I read about the Brazilian model who died aged 20 after contracting some kind of aggressive disease in hospital. There was some debate about what could have been, but the reflection should have been about what she did, and the reasons she was loved and admired.

Your post gives us many of Updike’s legacies, not least his determination to continue in the face of illness. People, like Updike, who can show us intricacies of the human condition, make us all the wiser, and at the same time, remind us we are not alone when we feel bewildered by the absurdity of life itself.

Be well, be lucky,

At 9:54 AM, Blogger VallyP said...

Hi Chris, just popping by. I still haven't had time to investigate more about this legend, but April's nearing and with it a few months 'sabbatical', which I am taking to work on my boat principally, so I'm amused by my friends' reference to it as such. It should rather be a 'nautical leave' ;-). Anyway, I can then do a number of other things, so reading will be one of htem.

Hoping you are well.

At 7:36 PM, Blogger Cathy with a C said...

Hi, Chris

I haven't read the book, In the Beauty of the Lilies, but I will have to read it now. When I was much younger, I read one of the Rabbit novels.

Hey, I am going to be back in LA the last week of February. I was there for two weeks in January but didn't have much spare time. I am coming out Friday the 20th and going back Friday the 27th. I'll be at my sister's in Los Alamitos the weekend and then going to the hotel on Sunday. I'll be staying right by LAX - I'm working with Neutrogena. If you are able to get together, let me know.


At 4:53 AM, Blogger ahva-rahn said...

Sean Penn (though the we’ll-give-it-to-mickey-for-he’ll-never-be-here-gain factor might threaten)
Meryl Streep (sold by your suspicions)
Heath Ledger ( already given)
Penelope Cruz (I'd prefer to see Viola Davis get it)
Danny Boyle (don't see a challenger given the momentum)
Slumdog Millionaire (although while I think it’s a good film, I don’t think it’s really best movie material. Only other contender in my book is Milk)
Milk (Original Screenplay)
The Reader(Adapted Screenplay: Tough category to pick)

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Chris Capp said...

Well done, Ahva -- nearly perfect, with my bum steer on best actress one of the things ruining it! I appreciated Hugh Jackman's energy, although that musical number in the middle was puzzling. Loved Lance Black's speech, Sean's speech and all the Indian flavors throughout the night. Hated the reality-show-mentor setups for the acting prizes, although I expect it seemed much better on paper and in the planning stages.


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