As I’ve noted in a couple of places, I’ve been reading John Updike‘s Couples, so hearing the news of his death yesterday has been doubly disorienting to me. I’ve always had an affection for his work (I seem to be unusual among many commentators in preferring his fiction to his criticism), so I feel just as sad about his death as anyone, but there’s something strange to go from hearing the news to reading the closing pages of that 1968 novel; it only emphasizes the fact that few writers were so good at writing about our foibles, about how we struggle with sex and religion and family, but the elegance of his writing never meant he went easy on his characters.
I saw Updike speak for the first time last May—he was giving a speech about American art at the Warner Theatre. (A blog post I wrote about the event for the Washington City Paper has a link to the text of the speech.) The event was put together by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which meant that it had a sort of affair-of-state import to it—a color guard and everything. It was reassuring to me to see a novelist get treated with that kind of gravitas. Who gets to be the recipient of that kind of treatment now? Ten years from now?
A lot of links and appreciations are making the rounds. I don’t want to add much more to the noise, but a few links of note:
Christianity Today points to some of its theologically driven features and interviews with Updike.
Erica Wagner‘s fine appreciation in the London Times: “Whether the reader thinks his frank style is tongue-in-cheek, rococo or simply always in contention for a Bad Sex Award depends on your perspective but Updike was in the vanguard of writers who kicked down the door of American bedrooms everywhere.”
The Harvard Crimson reports out Updike’s college days.
Karen Vanuska digs up Updike’s first published piece in the New Yorker.
A contemporary review of Couples in the Nation, which if nothing else speaks to the backlash the success of the novel engendered. (Yes, it’s long, with a lot of characters to keep track of, but to say that there’s “no tension between him and his subject, no stylistic consistency, and no interest for the reader” is overstating things badly.)
Thomas Mallon: “Perhaps the keenest compliment one can pay him as a man is to say that his life will make for a lousy biography.” (That said, Self-Consciousness is a very compelling memoir.)
Joel Achenbach writes an appreciation of Updike that expresses his disappointment in last year’s The Widows of Eastwick, but: “it had its rewards, not least of which was seeing Updike channel the diminished dreams and chronic pains of his aging characters. The reader thinks: So that’s what it’s like, getting old.”