Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike -- 1932-2007 -- In Memoriam

John Updike died yesterday at the age of 76.

In 1964, when I was an aspiring writer, a high school English teacher told me about a short story in that week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine. The story was by Updike, and that recommendation led to two passions I have carried with me over the following 45 years. I have nearly every issue of the magazine since about 1970 – when I could, at last, afford a subscription.

More importantly, it instilled in me a reverential admiration for John Updike.

The story, entitled “The Leaves,” gave me a glimpse of what great writing could do. Here is an example from that story:

"…it comes upon me as strange, after the long darkness of self-absorption and fear and shame in which I have been living, that things are beautiful, that independent of our catastrophes, they continue to maintain the casual precision, the effortless abundance of inventive 'effect,' which is the hallmark and specialty of Nature,…which exists without guilt. Our bodies are in Nature; our shoes, their laces, the little plastic tips of the laces – everything around us and about us , and yet something holds us away from it, like the upward push of water which keeps us from touching the sandy bottom, ribbed and glimmering with crescental fragments of oyster shell so clear to our eyes.
A blue jay lights on a twig outside my window." The New Yorker, 11/14/64, pp 52-53.

These days, as I struggle with a short story or a poem, I look out my window and I see a blue jay on my bird feeder, and I remember this passage. I see what is possible with language, and I see the impossibility of my emulating John Updike.

I had the good fortune to meet him on several occasions. Perhaps the most memorable was at The New England Writers Conference held at Simmons College in Boston in 1985. He delivered a lecture on writing, and I was able to ask about his influences. The answer to that question led me to Henry Green, the pen name of the British novelist, Henry Yorke. I have read all of Green's novels, and I understand the effect he had on Updike. I learned from John the importance of reading to a writer.

Updike’s prose remains the best written in the 20th century. He wrote over 800 short stories. He also authored 22 novels, 15 collections of short stories, a play, 7 books of poetry, 9 volumes of essays and criticism, a memoir, and 5 children’s books.

Yet in all that work, he never flagged, he never failed to deliver the best writing anywhere.

Updike was a regal figure – tall, handsome, and distinguished, and he spoke softly and as well as he wrote. With a gracious manner, he always agreed to inscribe a book. On one occasion, he even allowed me to mail him two of my favorites, which he returned with a warm and personal greeting.

My favorite novel by him remains The Centaur. I have a copy on my nightstand, and frequently, when I can’t sleep, I open to a random page and read for a few minutes. The words flow over me like a warm bath. The words relax me, and after a page or two, I can close the book, reflect on what I read, and close my eyes for a restful night.

He recently published his last book – The Widows of Eastwick – a sequel to the 1984 bestseller, The Witches of Eastwick. According to an interview I heard on NPR, he was writing up to his last hour.

Rest in Peace, John, you have given me and countless other millions around the world many hours of pleasure and numerous motes of inspiration. I can only hope that someday, someone may write, he reminds me – just a little – of John Updike.

--Chiron, 1/28/09

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