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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Updike / A. Begley

A not worthless piece of secondary material written by the standard hunter-gatherer biographer, filling his wicker basket with inside stories and gossip gathered over many years, not to mention the fruits of any number of discussions with solemn librarians, and plot summaries right, left and center. And I've got to say at the outset, the asterisks scattered about the text are the smallest one has ever seen; over and over one would come to a note at the bottom of a page and have to go back and scour the text for the missed star (though I remember Vonnegut somewhere using a * as a simplified drawing of a particular part of the human anatomy one would rather not mention in a family-entertainment blog) and each time it was hard to find, annoyingly.

Begley's writing is lucid and graceful. But there are armies of people who can do that.

As to the thrillingly gifted sex-addict novelist under discussion, what was he really? He was a male homewrecker, with a massive disregard for his children's feelings. I'll never forget a sentence from Rabbit Redux I read in the early '70s; the pathologically self-centered Rabbit looks at his offspring sitting at a table in a restaurant and thinks:

"I had squandered my identity in the faces of my children."

One hadn't known how massively autobiographical his output is and this was interesting to learn. His openness about his parasitism on the lives of family members, lovers and friends was freakish; I remember reading a comment somewhere, no doubt expressed with his ready signature smile, relating to a reading he had given or was going to give, the Plowville escapee telling the audience not to hesitate to invade his privacy during the Q&A "because that's what I've been doing myself for the past thirty years," ho, ho, ho, no harm, no foul. This is funny?

And somewhere else I remember reading him commenting about himself and a roommate in college taking pains to keep their self-gratification quiet at night to conceal it. I mean who talks about things like that in a public setting? Makes you squirm. He'd of course respond, "Americans don't know how to talk about sex," to which one responds, "I should hope so." That he was forthcoming, somewhat appallingly, about what a feminist in the Begley calls his "priapic narcissism," doesn't make his revelations rewarding to encounter. And violating people's privacy, that is simply low. His first wife Mary [Pennington '52]'s comment after reading Couples was that she felt "smothered in pubic hair."

His prose style is poetic and unforgettable, his fluency mind-boggling, his intellect (hadn't known his I.Q. was genius level) penetrating, seemingly omnipotent. But so what? No matter how gracious and cultivated he comes across on camera, he was a low person, in my venomous opinion, of today, based on what Begley reveals. Tomorrow? Who knows, dithyrambs. One grew up reading the guy, after a recommendation from Ross Lyle in '65.


"[T]he literary scene is a kind of Medusa's raft, small and sinking, and one's instinct when a newcomer tries to clamber aboard is to stamp on his fingers."

"Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that Mankind has ever invented."

"I disavow any essential connection between my life and whatever I write." [Blatant lie.]

"What is important, if not the human individual? And where can individuality be better confronted, appraised, and enjoyed than in fiction's shapely lies?"

"We all want to avoid painful experience, and yet painful experience is your chief resource as a writer."

On evolving as a writer: "You have to be in some way excited, and in a way frightened." [Correct. Cf. M. LeClerc: "The new is the forbidden."]

* * * * * *

In discussing a review by Berkeley academic Frederick Crews of the novel Roger's Version, which pegged the novelist as "morbid and curmudgeonly," accusing him of "class-based misanthropy," "belligerent, almost hysterical callousness," and "outbursts of misogyny," a critique which, in Begley's words, hinted darkly Updike was a "closet nihilist," Begley writes: "What turned Updike into such a miserable, twisted soul? According to Crews, the damage came from Updike's having 'radically divorced his notion of Christian theology from Christian ethics.' " Begley ends the discussion of the Crews' review by saying it reeks of "willfully punitive misreading," allowing our faithful biographer to have it both ways with respect to an accurate assessment of J.U.'s character.

Begley notes Updike pointed out in the introduction to The Early Stories that the ending of  "Friends from Philadelphia" "owes something" to the dead Easter chick in the bottom of the wastebasket at the end of "Just Before the War with the Eskimos." Updike published more than one hundred stories in the New Yorker, Salinger the classic nine.


Interesting thing about Updike is that seemingly every sentence he wrote was in some way distinctive. His fluency, on subjects from A to Z, is almost miraculous, and he comes across as somehow authoritative on every subject he discusses.

Was John Hoyer Updike '54--poet, Talk of the Town reporter, best-selling novelist, literary jurist, globetrotter, indefatigable book reviewer, owner of a mansion on the North Shore's Gold Coast--an admissible human being?  Each reader must decide for herself, but two quotes from the author, as reported by Begley, are instructive in this connection:

"There's something irredeemably perverse and self-destructive about us [i.e., the average person]," and:

"The heart prefers to move against the grain of circumstance; perversity is the soul's very life."

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