Author of opulent prose John Updike dies at 76

Literary Correspondent EILEEN BATTERSBY  reflects on one of America’s most gifted writers

Literary Correspondent EILEEN BATTERSBY reflects on one of America's most gifted writers

IT IS the cruellest of ironies, just as the US basks in the new hope dawning, John Updike, an observer who not only loved his country, he liked it, has died.

The most elegant of the patrician generation of great American writers, Updike's love of language shimmered through his fiction and also graced his essays and journalism. Stylistically he was as close to Nabokov and Calvino as he was to his fellow writer on the New Yorkermagazine, John Cheever.

Updike was as astute as he was whimsical. While Bellow chronicled the cultural confusions of the eastern European Jew transplanted to Chicago and New York, Updike, ever urbane and somewhat playful, looked to the suburban lives of materialistic, middle-class, middle-aged Americans preoccupied with sex.

No great American writer, in fact few great writers anywhere, have ever as openly demonstrated as obvious a love of reading and writing as Updike. Probably few major literary writers have given their readers as much Dickensian pleasure.

Updike was a humanitarian lurking behind an interestingly wicked schoolboy grin. He remained the cleverest kid in the class, and freely admitted that he enjoyed attending church every Sunday. His abiding themes were God and sex and death – as he often said, “after all, what else is there?”

He writes about sex in its most desperate, sweaty, furtive and least romantic aspects, not because he was cynical but because he was a realist. There is another vital dimension to Updike’s writing, his powerful historical awareness. His fiction engages through the disarming beauty of his opulent prose. You follow the escapades, invariably sexual of his characters, and then grasp that Updike has not only told their respective stories, he has written America’s story as well.

Anyone interested in life as lived in the US during the past 50 years should consult Updike’s work, while readers of international fiction should look to his reviews. “The world craves book reviews,” he said, “more heartily than it craves books.”

Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania in 1932 he was the sort of child who may have viciously tortured his toys but never bullied animals or people.

Harvard educated he revealed an early talent for drawing and was good at cartoons. He spent a year in England at art school. Although often linked with the New Yorkerhe actually only spent two years on the staff before setting off in 1957 to become a full-time writer.

Working from home suited him as he was a lifelong sufferer of psoriasis, a condition which may explain his intense obsession with skin. No one writes as well about skin, its textures, its vulnerability, as vividly as Updike.

He was wonderful company; bizarrely engaging with his long nose, long hands. He had floppy, dusty hair and seemed all joints and angles and he was so funny, courtly and politely outrageous, rather like a vicar with a store of dirty jokes.

A father of four including a writer son, John Updike had a time-defying quality; in person as much as in his writing he could seem to have come from any age thanks to his formal, old world politeness juxtaposed with his knowing intelligence. As readily as he would refer to the Renaissance or a Bach cantata, he would mention a pop song as a cultural statement.

In "Death of Distant Friends", a story in Trust Me(1987) the narrator remarks of an old lady, Miss Amy Merrymount: "She had always seemed ancient, she was one of those New Englanders, one of the last, who spoke of Henry James as if he had just left the room." It is so typical of Updike's flair.

One of his finest novels, Roger's Version(1986) features Roger Lambert, a professor of divinity, who, already battling with an unhappy wife, becomes involved with a computer hacker. Adding to Lambert's chaos is his interest in his half sister's troubled daughter.

Funnily, although Updike's work is instantly recognisable, it is also diverse and inventive. For all the gags, there are moments of sublime profundity such as in a quietly remarkable novel, Toward the End of Time(1997) in which Ben Turnbull a 66-year-old retired financial consultant considers an America on its knees. Set in 2020 it is a daring, prophetic book of unnerving beauty. It is also a meditation on life and death. In Gertrude and Claudius(2000) he told the story of what happens before Shakespeare's Hamletbegins.

Most readers hearing of Updike's death will no doubt recall Couples(1968) or the larger than life anti-hero, Rabbit. Rabbit is special and the four novels span four decades in the life of Harry Angstrom and his feisty wife Janice, through Rabbit, Run(1962), Rabbit Redux(1972), Rabbit is Rich(1982), to Rabbit at Rest(1990). That final volume has moments of comic magic. Only Updike can describe the shock of a parent confronted with the ageing face of a middle-aged child with such pathos that is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. Yet Rabbit at Restis shaped by mortality, a sense of time running out seeps through its pages.

While Philip Roth, the sole survivor of the silver age of postwar US fiction, spent so much of his early and mid career writing about himself, his sexuality, his Jewishness, Updike always retained a distance. He bridged this somewhat with the unsettling candour of Self-Consciousness(1989), a sequence of autobiographical essays. While some critics resented Updike daring to take on the theme of post 9/11 which he did in Terrorist(2006), many more applauded it as a brave and timely book.

But where can you begin? He was a great writer, a career writer, he would write about art, politics, fast food, golf or Mickey Mouse with insight. Last year he returned to the witches of Eastwick, now widows, and each facing death.

This is a sad day, America will mourn him; so will readers everywhere. It is a day to read one of his finest stories, "A Sandstone Farmhouse" ( From The Afterlife, 1994) in which a middle-aged narrator remembers his mother. It is a tender, subtle masterpiece and a fitting tribute to a writer who had curiosity, passion, humanity and a lively, sensuous genius.