A writer's writer: John Updike
Elsewhere on this site three names have been suggested for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced on 9 October: John Updike, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. I hope it goes to Updike. I think it will go to Roth, but I hope it goes to Updike. As for Pynchon, I think his output is too small.
Last night I read for the umpteenth time Updike’s short story The Happiest I’ve Been – a beautiful piece of writing recalling a tender moment from youth. His New Yorker stories, of which this is one, are masterpieces of the form. For me, it is the quality of Updike’s writing that sets him apart. Give me too many glasses of wine and I’ll say something pretentious like “God so loved the world that he gave us John Updike to describe it.” But since I’m sober(one has to re-charge the batteries before Frankfurt after all) I’ll just say that he writes with a poet’s eye and is a master of description and observation. He is a writer's writer.
I remember a line in Rabbit Run in which the hero passes a church at night. Updike talks about the stained glass window being ‘like a hole punctured in reality to show the brilliant incandescence beneath’. He describes walking down a suburban street at twilight and noticing people in living-rooms watching the television, ‘their faces turned towards the screen like flowers towards the sun’. This is gorgeous writing. As one observer put it, ‘John Updike makes you quiver to be alive.’
Updike often chooses fallen heroes, people who often aren’t particularly pleasant, and writes about them with compassion and forgiveness. Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of the Rabbit quartet is a good example. It is for this sequence of novels, and its telling portrait of America in the second half of the 20th century, that he deserves the Nobel Prize. His work, as in these novels, often has a small town, suburban setting from which he draws universal lessons about the human condition.
The question for the Nobel judges is really whose work – Updike’s or Roth’s – speaks universally? It’s an interesting debate, and there is so much for the commentators to discuss. Updike is 76, Roth is 75. One is Protestant, the other Jewish. Both are vying for that title of ‘grand old man of American letters’. Both have huge respect.
Let’s hope that whoever is the recipient, the other will only be a year or two behind.