Friday 13 December 2019

Book Review: A family fractured by habitual adultery

Updike, Adam Begley, Harper, €24.99

American author John Updike
American author John Updike

Ronan Farren

JOHN UPDIKE, who died in 2009 at the age of 76, was not one of America’s wild men of literature, a colourful band that included Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Norman Mailer and John Cheever; where they lurched frenetically between the typewriter and the bottle, and attracted trouble and publicity with unflagging zeal, Updike kept it simple. He just worked.

Starting with his New Yorker stories in his early twenties — he was paid over $800 for these already accomplished pieces while his small town school-teacher father made $1,200 a year — he went on to produce 23 novels, 13 collections of short stories, eight books of poetry, a memoir and a play. Added to those were children’s books and an avalanche of stout tomes collecting his essays, book reviews and miscellaneous journalism. There were, in all, 62 books, two of which were published posthumously. He was writing poetry up to a month or two before his death, of metastatic lung cancer. This, from a man staring at the abyss, is not bad:

It came to me the other day: Were I to die, no one would say, “Oh, what a shame! So young, so full Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes Will greet my overdue demise; The wide response will be, I know, “I thought he died a while ago.”

Updike was born in Pennsylvania and lived until he was 13 in the small town of Shillington. Then his mother decided to buy back her father’s old farm and move her family out to the country — a decision made unilaterally and hated by her aging father, who lived with them, her husband and her son. None of them had any say in the matter; she was indubitably the boss. And, though the young John admired and respected his formidable mother, he was capable in his later fiction of presenting her as a controller with a ruthless streak. For example, she determinedly broke up his relationship with his first girlfriend, who was “unsuitable” for her young genius.

She too wrote, leaving behind three novels in manuscript form as well as dozens of unpublished short stories. She did, though, have 10 stories in the New Yorker, though it’s possible Updike’s close links to the magazine helped. Some of Updike’s stories in Pigeon Feathers (1962) throw light on the early family tensions.

The aspiring writer escaped from his mother and the overcrowded farmhouse for the freedom of Harvard, where his boundless energy was apparent. In that blithe American way, Updike married while still a student and he and his bride, Mary Pennington, after graduation, went to Oxford where Updike studied for 10 months in the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. His aspiration to be an artist faded quite rapidly and already, in 1954, aged 22, he had a contract with the New Yorker, where he was later to work for a while as a staffer.

Adam Begley, in this admirable and intelligent biography, refers early on to “the unrelieved smoothness of his [Updike’s] professional path.” He goes on to mention a number of American writers who made a splash before they were 30 — including Mailer, Gore Vidal, John O’Hara and Philip Roth — and writes that Updike “wasn’t despairing or thwarted or resentful; he wasn’t alienated or conflicted or drunk… In short, he cultivated none of the professional deformations that habitually plague American writers.”

The first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, came in 1958 and was followed two years later by Rabbit, Run, the first book of what was to become a tetralogy celebrating the ordinary, small-town life of his ramshackle Everyman, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom.

Two more novels and two story collections followed: so far there was little that could be called controversial. Updike and Mary hadn’t enjoyed life in New York during the young writer’s time on the magazine and they moved, with their two children, to the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where over the next decade two things happened to Updike: he became notorious and he became rich.

In 1967, Philip Roth, a year younger than Updike and later an on/off friend, published Portnoy’s Complaint, a flamboyantly erotic novel that caused outrage, especially among Roth’s fellow Jews. Updike in ’68 came up with Couples, a largely autobiographical work that told of a maelstrom of adultery and spouse-swapping in the town of Tarbox.

“Welcome to the post-pill paradise,” is a famous line from the novel, and Updike was working his way vigorously through the wives of his friends, in a round of cocktail parties and Sunday games of volleyball, with a little chamber music thrown in. His friends were similarly engaged: one woman recalled looking around a room at a party wondering if there was even one woman there who hadn’t been to bed with John.

Mary was not impressed when her husband dedicated Couples to her; she told him she felt “smothered in pubic hair.”

The excesses took a toll and Updike later expressed his guilt: “All these goings on would be purely lyrical, like nymphs and satyrs in a grove, except for the group of distressed and neglected children.” Updike’s relations with his children, two boys, two girls, was often shaky or distant and one son said emphatically that for his father, the books came first, the family second.

Divorce from Mary was inevitable and Updike’s second wife, Martha, discouraged visits to their palatial house by her husband’s children; indeed, as he lay close to death in early 2009, the children were not able to visit their father.

Roth had expressed shock at Updike’s support of the Vietnam war and the friendship was tetchy, ending when Updike wrote about a rather trashy book by actress Claire Bloom, Roth’s ex-wife. She showed Roth to have been “neurasthenic … adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive,” wrote Updike. Begley, however, doesn’t mention that Roth protested to Updike and, not unreasonably, suggested it might be amended, with the word “alleged” preceding the sentence. Updike treated this with levity and ignored the request.

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