The death of John Updike is an instant literary disaster: with immediate effect we are deprived of the three daily pages that, Sundays aside, were his to write, pages that operated as perfect verbal rovers upon even the most inhospitable critical and imaginative terrain. There will be printed posthumous delights, of course; but we can no longer find security in the knowledge that John Updike is at his desk, producing Updike. It is not an overstatement to say that this bereavement is, for writers and countless readers, of a paternal magnitude. Updike, the author, has been with us for a fatherly half-century, taking an interest in our affairs with a fatherly steadfastedness and love. Even octogenarians will barely remember what it was like to live maturely in a world unrefreshed by Updikean scrutiny. Now who will bear witness to us? Who will provide relief from the solitude of our innermost, most fastened selves? As is written in Self-Consciousness:
Being human cannot be borne alone. We need other presences. We need soft night noises – a mother speaking downstairs, a grandfather rumbling in response, cars swishing past on Philadelphia Avenue and their headlights wheeling about the room. We need the little clicks and signs of a sustaining otherness. We need the gods.
This quote unavoidably reinforces my gloom about my own words about Updike, and how clumsy and feeble they are, in their approximation of what needs to be said, by comparison with words Updike himself might have written. (For a definitive, book-long elaboration of this feeling of inferiority, see Nicholson Baker’s masterpiece U and I.) The example of Updike is intimidating to the writer in the matter of sentences, in the matter of output, in the matter of aptitude – until, that is, one remembers that Updike himself was a stranger to intimidation, and that the Updike precedent ultimately authorizes, indeed obligates, the writer to give the task at hand his or her best shot. Like every novelist, I’ve been asked to comment on my ‘influences’, and invariably I have given a suitably wary, watery response. Nobody likes to talk about personal plumbing. But, in the interests of clarifying what it can mean to owe a literary debt, and in order to make plain the nature of the credit Updike in particular offers his fellow, lesser practitioners, here’s a confession.
Five years ago, I was in a house in Pennsylvania – Updike’s home state – and very stuck in a novel. There are many such ways of getting stuck – novels are mostly one damn trap after another – and this was a dark, fundamental hole (though by no means the last I would find myself in). The house belonged to friends of friends. It was winter, and I spent days uselessly staring at a log fire. For want of anything to write, I started browsing the bookshelves, and I found the aforementioned memoir, Self-Consciousness. Now, I had of course taken in a lot of Updike – notably the Rabbits, and the stories, and Of the Farm and Golf Dreams. So I knew all about Updike and had absorbed everything I needed from him – the little tricks – and in this instance was turning to him purely in search of joy. So I began reading and, sure enough, gratefully found myself in a familiar literary limousine of unsurpassed comfort and power and sensitivity. Then something else happened – a kind of crash. It came to me that beneath the plush was an absolute conscientiousness that itself rested on a humble, stubborn refusal to accept the inadequacy of a human’s powers of apprehension and actualization. Seeing was possible, writing was doable, the literary life was worthwhile. Updike had shown it was so.
There is a further debt owed to Updike by writers – and indeed by golfers and artists and curators and anyone else on whom he chose, in his copious and judicious essays on culture, to bestow his attention. You write – or make art, or splash out of a bunker – in the knowledge that he’s out there, reading and looking: out there, in the mediocre and careless world, there’s an unresting receptive intelligence you can count on. It keeps you going. That is to say, it did until Tuesday morning.
Photograph by English Book in Georgia