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Wednesday, 28 January 2009

John Updike : Painter of Domestic Interiors

Not too long ago, though perhaps longer than it seems, I was rearranging my bookshelves when I came across my half-forgotten copy of Memories of the Ford Administration. Ever since that time I have been intending to read the book again, but, inevitably, have not got around to it. Now I will, of course, for there is nothing as motivating to readers as the death of an author. John Updike, as most will know by now, has died of cancer of the lung. He was 76. Memories of the Ford Administration was my introduction to John Updike, the man I once heard or read described as a painter of Dutch domestic interiors. The description fitted him well. You will know the sort of picture to which it refers: exact and clinically clean and detailed, yet warm and with a light that bathes everything and makes it seem luminous. It is the world of the common man, Middle America, I suppose, seen as a basically sad world, yet one that is beautiful in its sadness. And no matter what the source of this sad beauty (be it politics or patterns of domesticity) it suffuses everything, spreads everywhere. For me it is all there in Memories of the Ford Administration. Indeed, it is all there in the first paragraph of Memories of the Ford Administration:

"I remember I was sitting among my abandoned children watching television when Nixon resigned. My wife was out on a date, and had asked me to babysit. We had been separated since June. This was, of course, August. Nixon, with his bulgy face and his menacing, slipped-cog manner, seemed about to cry. The children and I had never seen a president resign before; nobody in the history of the United States had ever seen that."

He will no doubt be best remembered for The Rabbit Tetralogy, four great novels published at intervals of ten years, give or take a year, from 1960, which follow the life and times of Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom from youth to decline. These are the stories which won him the reputation of the man who kicked open the American bedroom door, and indeed, marriage, sex, divorce and adultery were high on his list of concerns, but so were feminism, the Vietnam war and much else. He painted his interiors, though, on a small canvas as the writing had that quality of beauty which made plot slightly peripheral. It is the writing you remember when you read him. But small canvas or not, as they used to say of The News of the World newspaper, "the whole of human life" was there.

His oeuvre was large, though; a dozen or so collections of poetry, plays, works of non-fiction and short stories. He was awarded almost every literary prize (some more than once) except the Nobel. Will his tetralogy prove to be the Great American Novel? Not for anyone on this side of the pond to say, but to finish with a cliche (which he would never have done), he will be sorely missed.


Rachel Fox said...

But isn't that the point of leaving so much work behind? He won't be missed because (in the books) he'll still be here!

Louise said...

I agree with Rachel. He's right here on my bookshelf, alongside The Widows of Eastwick, newly arrived in the mail and to be begun with great relish shortly.

Meri Arnett-Kremian said...

Lovely tribute. What a memory - Nixon in a memorable performance, resigning after deeply wounding his country, set against the background of your own marital chaos. No wonder it imprinted.

Shadow said...

rachel said it all... he's alive in his books and words.

Dave King said...

In that sense, yes, absolutely. His take on the present will be missed, though.

As in my rereading of Memories of the Ford Administration.

Slight confusion here: maybe the passage in block quotes should have been in quotes also! Alf Clayton's (History professor and Updike's protagonist)- his marital chaos.

No arguments there.

willow said...

I was sad to hear of his passing. He will be sorely missed, but left us with a wealth of treasure. Nice tribute, Dave.

Dave King said...

Thanks. We seem to be losing a lot of poets and artists just now, but he was one of the greats.

Fiendish said...

I read my first Updike novel, "Marry Me," a week ago. It was my introduction to his work, and I had no idea he was ill. Sad coincidence.

His writing - the little of it I've read - has a beautiful lightness, a precision of its own, and an exquisitely human understanding of relationships. Like all the late great writers: still with us, but missed.

The Weaver of Grass said...

One of my all time favourite novelists - especially the Rabbit books. His passing is to be mourned.

Fantastic Forrest said...

David, I have to confess I haven't read any of Updike's work. But you've piqued my interest. Think I'll be checking out Memories of the Ford Administration later today.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share an Updike quote I found. I think all bloggers can agree with this:

"The essential support and encouragement comes from within, arising out of the mad notion that your society needs to know what only you can tell it."

Jeanne said...

"A painter of Dutch domestic interiors." The phrase recalls for me Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, which revolved around a tiny slice of the life of Vermeer. I wonder if Chevalier considers Updike one of her influences?

Lucas said...

A very good tribute to an author who manages to depict a grand canvas in the lives of the unremarkable. The quotation about Nixon is curious for its bringing together of hum drum domesticity (made more brittle by divorce) with a national event of historical preportions.

Madam Z said...

Darn! Lucas said what I wanted to say.

I am especially intrigued by the line, "My wife was out on a date..."

Even though separation and divorce are commonplace today, that line, so matter-of-fact, brought me up short. As one who longed, for many years, to be "out on a date" while I was a prisoner of a loveless marriage, I felt a twinge of envy.

McGuire said...

Heard of Updike's death, tragic and unnecessary as any death seems. I never read him. I like the section of his work you quote. A sombre kind of tainted beauty.

I might well take at look at his books one day.

Thanks for the brief introduction.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Dave, excellent obit post on Updike. I always believe, especially of those artists whom I adore, that they will go on indefinitely--and alas they, too, are mortal.

Janette Kearns Wilson said...

Thank you for the post on Updike.I was sad in that way that we all mourne the death of a person who creates, one always wonder what he "didn"t" say
I am afraid my reading of his work was in my youth and you have made me want to revisit

Dave King said...

Indeed. I think your last sentence says it perfecty.

Weaver of Grass
It took me ages to get round to the Rabbit books. I've no idea why. We could do with more writers of his calibre, there are so few.

Fantastic Forrest
Welcome and thanks for stopping to comment.
That is a fantastic quote. I shall try to remember that. Thanks for sharing it.

Yes, it does indeed recall Girl with a Pearl Earring, though I must confess that it had not occurred to me until you mentioned it.

Yes, the bringing together of hum drum domesticity with a national event of historical preportions is xactly what he was very good at.

Madam Z
It still surprises that people can be that mature, although I have known a couple who could behave that way.

A sombre kind of tainted beauty puts it exactly - sad, but sadly beautiful, as I have heard it described.

Yes, I do know what you mean - and there have been several of late.

Yes, wouldn't it be wonderful to have the books he didn't write! (Cue for a story there?)

Barry said...

He will be missed because no matter how much he wrote, I'm always left wanting just one more.

The Solitary Walker said...

'Sad beauty' is a good description of his work, though partial, as it doesn't capture the clinically dissecting nature of his style. I should have read a lot more of his books. But you know how it is. There's so much to read and only one lifetime. A short story of his appeared in the Guardian Review not long ago.

A novel of Updike's I have read - and remember quite vividly - is 'Couples', about the sexual merry-go-round of marriage, affairs, divorce, unfulfilment - all the usual Updike stuff. I read it a long time ago, and found it quite shocking at the time. In it he combined a kind of Flaubertian objectivity and detail with occasional moments of an almost mystical insight.

Jenn said...

I know I will sound terribly uneducated by admitting this but I had no clue who John Updike was until reading this. His work sounds intriguing however so he will likely go on the list of 'authors to spend time reading this summer'. Thanks for sharing a little bit about him & his work! Especially for those of us not in the know.

acornmoon said...

I love the description of Nixon "with his bulgy face and menacing, slipped cog manner", how perfectly that summed him up.

Artist Unplugged said...

I read in the paper late last night about his death, didn't realize the scope of books he had written. He had a way with words. The Ford Administration book sounds very interesting, may check it out. Thanks for stopping by my site, always a pleasant surprise to see someone new! If you are a dog lover, I post for Dogs on Thursday, soulbrush got me started on that. I will be back....have a great day.

It's Just Me said...

thanks for stopping by my blog. I always love seeing who is popping in. I can't wait to have a look around your little place in blogatopia!

Art Durkee said...

In the long run, I suspect he will be best remembered for his short fiction and his non-fiction. I didn't always like his novels—they were not of my world, to be honest, and thus often quite alien to the experience of the people I know. BUt I remember several short stories. And he had a knack for the social-critical literary review. That dissecting eye, as you put it.

All This Trouble... said...

Thanks so much for visiting my blog and leaving a comment! I'm enjoying your blog very much.

Karen said...

I thought I'd read most of his work (exclusion: Widows of Eastwick), but I missed Memories of the Ford Administration. Since I came of age in the 70's, I'll have to read that one!

I hate it when an artist dies - the world is a little less for it. Wyeth last week; Updike this. Sad.

Kelly said...

Lovely tribute, Dave. I just pulled "In the Beauty of Lilies" off my bookshelf to reread. :-)

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Such a nice tribute to Mr. Updike. He truly was a rennaissance man. Novels, short stories, poetry, and wonderful non-fiction as well.

I was in a tiny used book store on Tuesday and overheard the owner talking to his co-worker ..."that's the fifth phone order I've had this afternoon for In The Beauty of the Lilies". I thought that was a bit odd, but then when I returned home, I discovered that he had passed away.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hello Dave,

I wanted to say thank you for your e-additions to the e-world...


I have given you an award here:


No need, though, to do anything at all. I just wanted to thank you publicly.

(Sepiru) Chris

coffee said...

John Updike's passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. "Immortality is nontransferrable" he said appropriately.

A Cuban In London said...

It's funny that I got 'The Terrorist' over Christmas. I bought it from amazon.co.uk. It's true what you wrote, there's nothing like an author's death to send us scampering to either bookshelf or (in my case) amazon.co.uk. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

CLAY said...

"I remember I was sitting among my abandoned children watching television when Nixon resigned. My wife was out on a date, and had asked me to babysit. We had been separated since June."--how painfully awkward. I will try to pick up a copy of this text; it sounds very interesting Mr. King.

Claryn Darrow

Sarah Laurence said...

I read the first Rabbit book and found it historically interesting as to the changing mores concerning sex and women. Updike wrote very well, but his words never sang to me. It feels a bit like when Andy Warhol died - love him or hate him - he made a mark on the landscape. His legacy is huge.

Adrian LaRoque said...

Yeap...It can't be a better paint job than this one!

Dave King said...

Fair comment!

Solitary Walker
Welcome and my thanks for your comment. Couples is one I have not read, but have read a fair bit about since his death. It looks as though I shall have to find time to slip that one in!

Welcome, and thanks for stopping by. I'm sure you will not regret adding him to your list.

Didn't it just!

Artist Unplugged
Welcome and thanks for the feedback. I had a very enjoyable visit to your site. I can't claim to be a dog lover, but I'm not a dog hater either. Will check out the blog. Thanks.

It's Just Me
Welcome and thanks for coming. Be my guest!

Art Durkee
I don't think I've read any of his non-fiction. Might check it out. Thanks.

All This Trouble
Welcome, and thanks for visiting. I, too, enjoyed my visit.

I, too, have not read Widows of Eastwick - or Witches, though I saw the film . I agree the world is a little less.

Thanks for that.

Pamela Terry and Edward
Multiply that around the English-speaking world... Thanks for the anecdote.

Welcome and thanks, both for the award and your kind words.

welcome and thanks for stopping by. Love the quote.

A Cuban in London
Welcome. I find it a bit strange, but a nice tribute, the way we behave.

It is, or at least. I found it so.

I can understand that. There's greatness and there's lovability.

So many helped with the preparation! Thanks

David C. said...

The cover of your copy of Memories of the Ford Administration is much more interesting than my copy (pictured in my post "Franklin Pierce the Obscure"). The death of Updike was a huge loss. I first encountered his writing in The Centaur, and later read the Rabbit books, as well as many others. Along with his extraordinary talent for describing the human condition, I was impressed with the painstaking research evident in his work--from the details of commercial truck driving in The Terrorist to the intricacies of antebellum American history in Memories of the Ford Administration.

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