Updike’s work outsmarts his critics
30 January 2009
John Updike once wrote that a person’s collection of books comes to symbolise the contents of his mind. “Books preserve, daintily, the redolence of their first reading – this beach, that apartment, that attack of croup. This flight to Indonesia.”
By an unhappy coincidence, I heard the news of Updike’s death while I was re-arranging the contents of my mind contained on my bookshelves, culling those books which once wasted my time and putting favourites on shelves which are near-to-hand. Some of those books which will shortly be leaving the building I actually loathe. A few of those which remain have influenced my life, and remind me now of how I once was. A good proportion were written by John Updike.
The death of a favourite author brings a peculiar kind of loneliness. Updike has been a good companion over the past 40 years – wise, daring, humane and with a capacity for producing breathtaking, clear-eyed, poetic, witty prose. Through love, parenthood, divorce, juddering professional or personal setbacks, Updike was there, a wondering, celebratory presence in a sour and angry world. “I want to be like Nature, tasteless, abundant, reckless, cheerful,” as one of his poems put it. That abundance was a source of idiotic criticism. Indeed, throughout his life, Updike was a sort of lightening conductor for half-baked denigration of one kind or another.
During the late 1960s, he was seen as both unacceptably right-wing (he supported America’s presence in Vietnam) and, after Couples was published, dangerously libertarian. In the 1990s, it became fashionable to view him as a misogynist, a phallocrat, “a penis with a thesaurus” as one reader described him to the writer David Foster Wallace.
Perhaps it was this kind of description, from Rabbit is Rich, to which some feminists objected: “The girls Buddy brings around are a good lesson to Harry in the limits of being single – hard little secretaries and restaurant hostesses, witchy-looking former flower-children with grizzled ponytails and flat chests full of Navajo jewelry, overweight assistant heads of personnel in one of those grim new windowless office buildings a block back from Weiser, where they spend all day putting computer print-outs in the wastebasket. Women pickled in limbo, their legs chalky and their faces slightly twisted, as if they had been knocked into their thirties by a sideways blow.”
It is tough to think that there will be no more writing like that. Updike’s generosity with his own talent, his endless curiosity about the modern world, meant that there was always something new, and invariably something surprising, on its way. It is true that some of the novels failed – sometimes spectacularly – to live up the high-wire brilliance of the Rabbit tetralogy and the short stories but here, as in so many other ways, Updike set a standard for any professional writer. He never played safe; he had the courage to fail.
Foster Wallace sneeringly described Updike as “both chronicler and voice of probably the most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” It seems peculiarly silly to blame the failings of a generation on one man and anyway, in the end, reading matters more than any amount of smart-arse criticism.
A bird-brained view of nature conservation in East Anglia
There is something distinctly suspect about the craze for introducing species of large and spectacular birds into the landscape. A recent plan to bring white-tailed sea eagles to Norfolk has been welcomed as a tourist draw by Natural England. The RSPB has said the sight of birds of prey in the sky is a “sign of a strong and healthy environment”.
This woolly thinking has rightly come under attack both from local farmers, particularly of free-range poultry, and from environmentalists. Once established, sea eagles could cause havoc among rare species now nesting in East Anglia. A white-tailed sea eagle carrying off a bittern may thrill a few of Natural England’s tourists, but it would make a nonsense of the area’s long-term conservation plans.
Friendship comes cheap in cyber-land
In the mysterious world of Facebook, the online social networking site which has 150 million members, it is easy to gain friends, to poke friends, to write messages on a friend’s “wall”.
Losing a friend is a more secretive business. There is no message to the person who has been defriended. They simply find themselves barred from their former friend’s site, like an uncool person being turned away from a nightclub.
The firm Burger King has exploited this grey area of cybernetiquette with a clever US ad campaign. “Friendship is strong,” the ads read. “But the Whopper is stronger.” To prove its point, the company offered a free hamburger to anyone willing to ditch 10 of their Facebook friends.
Rather unsportingly, it then informed those who had been defriended that their online relationship had been sacrificed for a sandwich. Some 234,000 friendships had been terminated before Facebook objected.
Social networking is a game for bored people, a form of voyeurism. The idea that online friendship has anything to do with the real article is simply a whopper.