Saturday, September 4, 2010
John Updike is one of the smartest persons I have ever read. His collection of essays cover a wide range of subjects from literary authors like Marcel Proust, Sinclair Lewis, Orhan Pamuk, Harayuki Murakami and old world artists like Durer and Brueghel. His criticism opened a whole different perspective in understanding writers like Salman Rushdie, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez and the authors mentioned earlier. His breadth of experience and knowledge is like Zeus proclaiming his knowledge from Mount Olympus when compared to writers like Zadie Smith. She is like a young smart boxer similar perhaps to Mike Tyson during his formidable early years but John Updike is like Muhammad Ali confident in his established legend.
John Updike is a smart writer and an earlier essay labeled him a White Anglo Saxon Protestant, New England Brahmin who worked hard in his writing craft and delivering like a thoroughbred. The article compared him with other American writers of his generation who had Jewish roots and sensibilities; writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. John Updike did not have their underlying angst derived from their heritage but wrote more from a perspective that was more John Kennedy – like in its Boston bred voice. I had read only a few of his books such as the ‘Widows of Eastwick’ and ‘Roger’s Version’ which provide an erudite but overflowing avalanche of words. His photograph in the article showed him relaxing near a beach (Martha’s Vineyard?) wearing a striped t-shirt, white pants and blue canvas sneakers. He looked like an investment banker rather than a striving writer.
John Updike is also one of the most erotic writers one has read with his sparse but explicit passages. His romantic scenes read like one of those lurid Penthouse letters but combined with a touch of Shakespeare. It’s probably the product of the 60’s liberal attitudes carried down into the present age. His work seems to embody the Kennedy contradiction – souring, noble rhetoric and actions but combined with garish sexual escapades. Come to think of it, it now seems more like Bill Clinton and his milieu, too. Some of his passages are quite good but there is an overindulgence of prose that one is often tempted to skip these parts and move to the juicy bits. Most of his works seem to focus on life in suburbia and the decline of family life by excessive overindulgence.
But his essays are a different matter. His criticism is precise, insightful and erudite that reveals deep reading and understanding. His pieces on his visit to China for example is one of the most penetrating ever but delivered in an off hand casual American manner. His essays betray a worldliness and thoughtfulness that is far from his usual oeuvre. His literary work reeks of middle-class suburban comfort, easy living, intellectual aristocracy and discretion and without the hint of Mailer like life of hard drinking, womanizing and political posturing. It’s more like a retiring academic’s life, in college teaching class, clam bakes in the beach, sailing and a few sexual indiscretions along the way; covered in a tint of elegant artistry.
These are a few sentences of his that bring an insight in the American mind that few writers can deliver. For example, in his piece on John Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote that he was angry at his country upon hearing the news; that his countrymen could kill their president in this manner; like shooting a rat in a bin. Brutal, effective and better in conveying the exact feeling of shock and outrage than anything I have ever read. I have seen a lot about the killing in both books and films and documentaries, both elegant and poetic but these works never expressed the plain brutality and feeling of helpless anger. I guess this is the charm of John Updike who is like Sinclair Lewis in his workman like devotion to writing but did not have the usual writer’s demons that may have produced great world wide masterpieces but instead churned out an elegant output of prose that effectively serve to entertain and educate. Perhaps his works is not for the multitudes but for elite pondering their decline.