Updike Upclose, Ctd

In a review of Adam Begley’s new biography Updike, Hermione Lee describes the essence of the late author’s fiction:

In one of his last stories, “My Father’s Tears,” he quotes from Emerson: “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Emerson is there too at the front of Self-Consciousness: “We are persuaded that a thread runs through all things….” And it is the ordinary, banal things that Updike tenderly cherished and made fresh on the page. As he said of himself, and as Begley rightly emphasizes, he is the artist of middleness, ordinariness, in-betweenness, who famously wanted “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” For over half a century—even though his own life moved far away from “middleness”—he transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This—even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe—is his great signature tune. No wonder that some of the narrators in his stories are archaeologists, or that he’s so interested in vanished cities, ancient civilizations, and extinct species.

In another review of Begley’s book, Louis Menand defends Updike from his critics:

The most persistent and mindlessly recycled criticism of Updike’s work is that he was infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose—that, as several critics put it, he had “nothing to say.” But Updike wasn’t merely showing off with his style. He wasn’t, as all those critics were essentially implying, masturbating. He was transubstantiating.

There was nothing secret about this. He explained what he was up to many times. “The Old Testament God repeatedly says he wants praise, and I translate that to mean that the world wants describing,” he once explained to an interviewer. In the preface to the collected Rabbit novels, “Rabbit Angstrom,” he talks about “the religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission.” “The world is the host,” he has a character say in one of his short stories; “it must be chewed.” Writing for Updike was chewing. You can dismiss this conception of the literary vocation as pious or old-fashioned, but, if you do, you are dismissing Joyce and much of literary modernism.

Elon Green asked Begley for his thoughts on Updike since completing the biography:

Did he ever suffer for his art? Was the process really as frictionless as it appeared?

I don’t think he suffered for his art. I think he worked for his art. It depends on how meta you want to get. There was a tragedy about Updike, in some ways, that was also the engine that fueled his work, which is that he lived his life behind a scrim of observation. He was a writer, observing, so whenever he was living he was also observing. And that’s great for the work and not so great for the life. So there are times when he suffers, if you will, from the consciousness that he will never be able to suffer without it being grist for his writerly mill.

Was there anything in Updike’s life that allowed him to turn off the detachment that was necessary for him to live and observe at the same time?

Volleyball, Sunday sports and maybe fucking. Obviously, on some level he observed the carnal act, because he spent a lot of time writing about it, but maybe what he liked so much about the carnal act to begin with was that it was a moment or two of switching off the old impression-gathering device.

Previous Dish on Updike here. The Dish has also featured poetry by Updike here, here, and here.

(Video: Updike offers advice to writers in a 2004 interview)