Tuesday, 18 August 2009

As I Live, I Loved that Man

On the afternoon of 27th January 2009, my birthday, John Updike, celebrated American writer of novels and short stories, died aged seventy-six.

It had already been a momentous day, even without this lightning bolt. The previous night was spent, after close of business, knocking out the wall which separated our coffee house from its expansion into next door, and lifting and fixing in its place a panelled and carved wood arch. This was the climax of a project begun four years earlier - exactly, to the day - to dig out a new cellar for a new restaurant kitchen, to underpin all round, and to fit out new dining areas across the ground and first floors. It was the culmination of all our hopes and dreams for I don’t know how long. It was a great occasion, and I felt ecstatic. I was walking on air, kind of like after the birth of my first child. That all this should be happening on my birthday was a mixture of sly contrivance and pure serendipity.

Pilasters, cornicing and boxing-in came next. Rubbish was hauled out to the pavement, then slung in the back of the car. We sat at one of the tables to eat a feast of my wife’s curry half way through. Dark oak stain was applied to match up colours. Skirting boards were fashioned from old church prayer book racks and fixed to the walls. At three a.m., all work done, with the trusty family estate weighed down almost to the floor, I found myself cautiously driving my two Slovakians back home through empty streets to rented accommodation in Golders Green.

In the morning, opening as usual, I watched staff and regular customers alike do theatrical double-takes at the dramatically enlarged space, as they entered by the twin doors. I felt blissfully happy. For me, in my head, though much work remained in kitchen-fitting and upstairs dining areas, this thing which had come to seem my lifework was basically done, my restaurant finished. The rest was mere detail. (I might even earn some proper money with it someday.)

It was early that evening I heard from my sister-in-law of Updike’s passing. This was hard news, and unexpected (all alike were surprised at the rapid onset of this savage illness). It caught me in a reflective frame of mind. I had been reading this man for slightly more than thirty years, and felt I knew him as a friend. I had spent most of my adult life in his literary company, snapping up each new autumn offering and greedily devouring its aesthetic pleasures, watching the surprising twists and turns of his creative intelligence. He never disappointed. There was always something fresh, vivid, abruptly true from this restlessly inventive source. Selfishly I mourned a future with no new Updike novels. I was devastated. I had grown with him, and now a chunk of me was gone.

It was a certain Associate Professor of English, University of Sydney, pedagogue of my Victorian Novel Option (final year English Lit, summer of ’78), who got me into Updike. This was in the cool, shadowy corner of our Anglo-Australian stone quad which abutted Traditional and Modern Philosophy on one side, Modern History on the other, above the solitary jacaranda craning over our sun-bathed, cropped lawn. She had a fat hardback edition of Rabbit Redux on her shelves, and recommended I read it. I had been scouring the shelves of “Stack,” our copper-coated concrete reference library and study digs, for an armful of longed-for demob holiday reading: Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy, William Styron, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov... I was very American centric at that time. But it was only John Updike who properly did it for me.

I had been reading Ulysses you see, Joyce’s modern epic of an ordinary man’s journey through everyday Dublin. The Rabbit novel sequence seemed to be doing the same for that poor sop Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom: picking out in detail his motivation and plentiful urges; making urgently real in all his descriptions the bright surface texture of our world; injecting celestial poetry into the dull life of a middle American. I liked how these books tracked contemporary America, “ensnaring time” in Updike’s own phrase (too American, of course, for many tastes). It began to take the form of epic, with updates every decade I would eagerly await. I read all the novels, short stories, even collections of criticism: such was my enthusiasm for this writer. His style was elegant, easy, almost offhand, in that wonderfully self-confident American manner. To love Updike was to love America, and I never had a problem with this.

To further his range and skill he assayed new settings, periods, voices. He seemed at times a writer almost drunk with ambition and his own skilfulness. One novel-sequence soliloquized a much-garlanded, famously-blocked Jewish American author (Bech). It was hilarious. We were taken inside the head of a terrorist, never before so convincingly. We journeyed to an imaginary African state in the midst of a coup, to the sultry sex-soaked hinterland of Brazil, to the ancient Danish kingdom of Hamlet’s forbears, to a future cauterized by nuclear war and, most effectively, again and again, drawing deep from the wellsprings of his own origins, to rural and small-town America, which came to life with such sureness and tender feeling at his touch.

About sex he wrote plainly and clearly, and with customary precision. He didn’t hold back: and why should he? He treated us readers as the responsible grown-ups we clearly would wish to be.

I once saw him, in early 1980 at the ICA in The Mall. I had only lately arrived in England was busy supping on its many cultural riches. He gave a talk on the subject of his new novel, and afterward took questions. I was enraptured, in that embarrassing literary groupie way. One young fellow spoke for me when he said he’d probably read his every published word.

I have been reading his last book of poems, Endpoint, with its mournful, valedictory tone, and many presentiments of death. If a writer’s purpose is intimacy with his reader, then this gets very close indeed. Some lines just leap out at you, and take your breath:

I drank up women’s tears and spat them out
as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital.

Every artist refashions the raw material of his own life, however obscurely, to make his art; none more so than Updike in our time. I wonder if other readers, like me, sometimes find his work almost too unbearably, painfully true. A last, posthumous collection begins with a story, "Morocco," describing a family holiday taken in 1969 and written from the perspective of a decade later. It is clearly autobiographical, notwithstanding the publisher’s disclaimer on the rights page. The holiday is a kind of prolonged nightmare, as only family holidays can sometimes be. The young American parents and four small children are beset by a bewildering series of misadventures, yet at the end are bound, or “molded,” more close than ever before. This is all the more poignant for the subsequent betrayal and divorce which the author himself has made a matter of record.

My bookshelves hold pretty much all the published works of James Joyce, Patrick White, Charles Dickens and certain favoured others. I recently noticed that my Updike collection lacked only, with perhaps one or two others, his first book of poems: The Carpentered Hen or, as it was renamed for the UK, Hoping for a Hoopoe, first published 1959. This book promised a contrasting lightness of tone, and sense of unfolding promise. I went on the internet and found a copy: first edition ex-reference library in hardcover and in good condition, three or four pounds. It duly arrived in the post neatly parcelled in bubble wrap. Enclosed was the Newcastle bookseller’s elegant, tasteful comp slip. The dust jacket bore a restrained fifties design. Inside the front cover was glued the librarian’s cornflower-blue lending grid showing just three neatly-stamped borrowings, all shortly after the book’s release in 1959.

Who were these three inquisitive readers of this unknown, youthful new writer’s book of light verse? Neighbours of mine, as it would seem, for the black-ink library stamp declared: Central Library, Bancroft Road, Stepney E1. This book, in the half-century span of its author’s great and eventful writing life, had come home.