More on Updike: His Own Elegies

Updike_John It's hard to imagine that John Updike is dead: he was so patiently prolific, right up to his latest book, The Widows of Eastwick, and in his regular reviews and stories in the New Yorker, and had made no public mention of his illness. But people have been imagining the event for some time: the New Yorker posted today a famous passage from John Cheever's Journals, in which he gets a false-alarm phone call in the middle of the night that Updike has died. He makes the kind of sweepingly elegiac statements about the supposed deceased that one makes at a time like that, but is more memorable for the bitter and generous asides about his own family life that make those journals so incredible:

The telephone rings at four. “This is C.B.C. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment?” I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed, but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. “I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning,” she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning, and that in any case it is I who feed them. This restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee, she empties the pot into my cup and says, “I was just about to have some myself.” When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffeepot with a peevish woman. This, again, costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee, is the gratification of a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst. As for John, he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him, although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed....

0679735755.01._MZZZZZZZ_ And one of my favorite one-of-a-kind books, Nicholson Baker's U and I, is constructed entirely around the conceit, inspired by the death of one of Baker's literary heroes, Donald Barthelme, of writing an obituary for another hero, Updike, while he is still alive. (In fact, in a perfect Bakerian moment, I had conflated the two--I had remembered U and I as beginning with that false alarm about Updike's death when it in fact begins with Barthelme's. Incredibly to me, since it fits so well into his subject and theme, Baker doesn't mention the Cheever anecdote, or even Cheever's name, as far as I can tell, anywhere in his book.) Here's a bit of his charge to himself:

I knew now that I had a real deadline: I had to write about Updike while people could still conceivably sneer at him simply for being at the top of the heap, before any false valedictory grand-old-man reverence crept in, as it inevitably would. The literary world demanded some sort of foreignness as the price of its attention: failing geographical distance, senile remoteness would do. But what it lost in this demand was the possibility for real self-knowledge; for you can never come up with truths of an acceptable resolution if what you select for study is estranged by time or language or background or by a physiognomy in its authoritative, slow-talking decline. I would study my feelings for Updike while he was still in that phase of intellectual neglect that omnipresence and best-selling popularity inspire.

And he does. It's the best thing I've ever read on the actual relationship a writer (or a reader) has to the books he reads and authors he admires, including his refreshingly honest list of all the Updike books he has hardly begun or never finished, despite being "obsessed" with him. My own relationship with Updike is a few steps removed from obsessed. My strongest association with him is that he was one of the writers my dad, who reads a lot but not a whole lot of contemporary fiction, was interested in, I think mostly because they both grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, not too far from each other. My dad's favorite of his books, I think, was The Centaur, that early autobiographical novel.

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Comments (3)

Interestingly, i just recently discovered John Updike... I haven't fallen in love with all of his work yet, but i'm warming up to his candid writing style;

his passing is a sad loss indeed

Posted by: coffee | Friday January 30, 2009 at 11:39 AM

I think I like your essay better than anything you, Tom, have written. Thanks.

Posted by: antonio gonzalez | Sunday February 1, 2009 at 7:08 PM

Perhaps surprisingly i just lately found Bob Updike.I haven't diminished in really like with all of his execute yet but i'm heating up to his genuine way of composing.

Posted by: Sweet holi Status | Wednesday February 22, 2012 at 2:28 AM

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