John Updike has become unfashionable, but few writers have better captured the American characterby Sam Tanenhaus / April 24, 2014 / Leave a comment
Updike receives the Medal of Arts in 1989
More than once, Begley reports, Updike instructed New Yorker editors to put a short story in “the bank” (telling phrase), rather than publish it immediately, to avert legal action from the actual people, often his neighbours, conscripted in the service of what Updike cheerfully called his “relentless domestic realism.” His book editor, Judith Jones, doubled as his censor. Reading the manuscript of Couples (1968), his fable of exurban wife-swapping, she “immediately assumed that it was based on the author’s exploits among his friends and neighbours” and insisted Updike scrub out the incriminating details. He did and the result was a Time magazine cover and a bestseller. The critic Diana Trilling, one of many detractors in the tiny fierce world then known as “the family” of New York intellectuals, could sniff, and did, that it was “fancied-up pornography,” but what did Updike care? Pornography too was hallowed remembrance, complete with sound effects. (“How lovely. Oh. Fuck. How lovely. Fuck. Fuck,” murmurs one character in Couples.) At least some of the partners in Updike’s many real-life couplings apparently looked forward to seeing themselves ravished anew in print, if not necessarily to Updike’s microscopic inventories of their bodies.
That was in the orgiastic 1960s. In the raised-consciousness 1970s “family values” dampened the communal fun. In “Separating,” the best of his divorce stories—not a single false note or untapped emotion—Updike’s four children could relive, a year later, the shock of hearing their father say he was leaving them, and be freshly sprayed with his dinner-table tears even as he luxuriated in the memory (“The raw clench at the back of his throat was delicious,” Updike writes of his not quite fictionalised self. “He could not help himself.”).
Begley is very good on this side of Updike, the plunderer hiding behind one of the most insolent façades in modern American letters—smiling, genial, unfailingly courteous, neatly dressed and groomed in the manner of a liberal-arts college president. At intervals, Updike presented his “public marketable self” to the world, giving interviews and boosting sales, only to retreat once again to the fortress of his tireless industry.
If Begley dwells on Updike’s material success—his earnings and trophies—well, Updike did too. He talked often of being “lucky,” of having made good on the worldly terms artists usually pretend to abjure. Updike’s…