If you read Begley’s powerful biography of John Updike, Updike, the answer remains elusive. The search for the soul of the master novelist never reaches a neat end. The parts can be identified. A supportive mother. An endless interest and curiosity. A thirst for language. A work ethic like few others. An ability to process your life and feelings.
But, what about the whole? “Why was this person able to make art that everyone else was trying to make and could not?” Begley asks.
Earlier this month, one day after giving a sold-out talk about John Updike at The Boston Athaneum Library, Begley was generous and insightful during a telephone call from New York City. Begley, who for 13 years was the books editor at The New York Observer, spent years with Updike’s published works (fiction. non-fiction, poetry) and letters. He also interviewed Updike’s friends, family, critics, and cohorts.
During the interview, Begley let slip one tidbit about Updike that wasn’t included in the text of the biography itself: John Updike scribbled notes for Couples, a novel about adultery, while sitting in church. John Updike was fascinating in every way—as the biography makes clear on every page.
(Note: a review of Updike will be posted soon on the website Telluride Inside and Out and on these pages, too.)
Question: Do you think Updike wished that somehow, someway he could have erased that criticism that he enjoyed “frictionless success”?
Adam Begley: He did have the whole “un-Dove” business. He had the rap of being somehow conservative, which is a in a lot of ways mythic because Updike always voted Democrat. If you really took a look at his politics, he was really left of center. But because he didn’t actively protest the Vietnam War and because he criticized those who did protest the Vietnam War, he was lumped with the establishment and with conservatives. He boxed himself into that position in a kind of silly way. But my feeling is that Updike, as far as making it look too easy, was secretly proud of the way he worked. I know people did think he made it look easy but what was it that James Wood said, that it would more difficult for Updike to suppress a yawn than to refrain from writing a novel? He knew that that there was that kind of comment out there about him and he was, in fact, similarly critical—well, not critical but he poked fun at Joyce Carol Oates for being as prolific as he was. Though he knew of this criticism, I think he enjoyed the fact that he could do the business of turning out books in such a professional manner. There was a lot of feminist criticism of his work, some of it was certainly in the early years, justified. I had a lot of sympathy for women who read the Updike of the early 60’s and who thought, here’s a guy who doesn’t think much of women. But he was very responsive to that criticism and mended his ways.
Question: You write that “Religion eased his existential terror, allowing him to do his work, and to engage in the various kinds of play that best amused him—among them the hazardous sport of falling for his friends’ wives.” Do you think Updike ever really resolved for himself this fundamental tension? Or did he simply enjoy, for lack of a better word, the fact that Sunday services could co-exist with how he behaved the rest of the week?
Adam Begley: I think his misbehavior was very fruitful for him: he made hay out of his peccadillos—or his sins, really, if you want to talk about it that way. The key passage for is in Roger’s Version, when Roger finally allows Verna—his half-niece, his half-sister’s daughter—to seduce him and they are lying on the soiled futon in a run-down housing estate and they have just committed quasi-incest and adultery, because he’s married, and at that moment he, this character Roger, has this great religious epiphany, which is that even in abasement you are subject to God. I think that is a crystallization of his attitude, if you will, of his attitude toward his own transgressions and his religious faith. Both were equally important to him. I don’t think John Updike could have been the artist he was without his philandering and I don’t think he could have been the artist he was without his faith.
Question: So those co-existed?
Adam Begley: As far as I know, after Updike married his second wife, he gave up the business of casual, adulterous sex. Certainly no one came forward came forward and told me about any affair with Updike, post 1976 or 1977. Possibly he did reach some kind of decision about that, giving up one side. But he continued to revel in depicting adulterous sex in his fiction. Suburban adultery continued to be a topic he was fascinated in—sex of all kinds right up until the very end. He in fact wrote out the plot for the short-story “Couples,” which the novel Couples was based on, on the back of a church service flyer and scribbled on it during actual service. So it was not that he would just resume normal activities after church, it was even in church. You have to remember that these were different times. We’re talking about the mid 60’s, really. Oral contraception had just come into play. And then there’s specific situation of Ipswich, which I don’t think was any more promiscuous than any other affluent urban town or town with affluent young set, but it certainly was all around him. And his wife was having affairs herself so that may have given him a kind of certain license that he might not have felt otherwise. He intimates, and I tend to believe him, that he was the last of the crew that actually did engage in promiscuous adulterous sex, that he was the last of them join to fray. There were two couples that stayed out of it, who joined in everything except but the sex. And as I pointed out, trying not to sound sanctimonious, but those were the only two couples that stayed married.
Question: You write that he felt disdain for his well-protected life, his careful management of his worldly affairs, his self-pampering concern for tranquility and material comfort. Why didn’t he try to do something about it? He seemed to cave to his second wife’s careful management of his career?
Adam Begley: That’s an easy one. The fact of the matter is that for him, writing took precedence over everything else. He had disdain for the way he had to manage his life in order to make room for his work. But his work was so important that he would never have changed it. You have to remember how much work he had to do, not only in order to maintain the rhythm of his output but to curate his backlist. Obviously, he had a lot of help from (his publisher) Knopf, but he had no agent. And when you’ve already put forty books out in the world, and a whole bunch of them are translated into more than a dozen languages and there are reprints and paperbacks and a constant permissions requests coming in, it would be a fulltime job for a regular person, let alone producing a new book every year. So that point you have to protect yourself, to create time to deal with it.
Question: You write at one point that Proust was a huge influence for Updike. Updike wrote: “It was a revelation to me that words could entwine and curl so, yet keep a live crispness and the breath of utterance. I was dazzled by the witty similes … that wove art and nature into a single luminous fabric. This was not ‘better’ writing, it was writing with a whole new nervous system.” What did you pick up on how Updike approached language? If you were to distill how he approached writing and words, how would describe it?
Adam Begley: I think you are quite right to pick how wonderful his vocabulary is and how extraordinary his use of the language is. You seem to be hitting all the things that at some fundamental level, I can’t help you with. At the profound level, every biography of an artist has to come up with the question of what made this person special? Why was this person able to make art that everyone else was trying to make and could not? There is a mysterious core at the heart of talent; what makes one person more talented than another? Having said that, Updike had a tremendous verbal facility that was encouraged by his mother, who was herself very verbal. They were engaged in verbal jousting from very early on and then John was a very voracious reader. So playing with words and reading constantly, binge reading, and then reading outrageously widely—when he was young, he read voraciously but narrowly, consuming entire authors, but later he read all across the globe, picking up stuff from every continent. So if I had to give advice gleaned from Updike it would be to treat language as a game and as a source of huge enjoyment. Because when you are a writer you want to please other people the way you’ve been pleased—and that’s what Updike did. He got tremendous enjoyment, a safe haven for himself, from other people and he wanted to produce that for other people.
Question: When and how did you realize you had an angle or a way to begin to write about him? Was there a moment where it all came together in terms of theme?
Adam Begley: The first thing I did was read. I had read about a third of Updike’s novels and most of the short stories, but that still left a huge amount leftover. I hadn’t read as much of the criticism—I had read maybe a fifth of the criticism. For almost a year, I read. And then I began to get nervous about the actual writing because I hadn’t written a big book before. Through the great good kindness of Ben Yagoda (author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made), I wrote to Ben and asked if he had had much contact with Updike and he said no, he hadn’t, but if I was interested that I should get in touch with this fellow named William Ecenbarger (a freelance journalist). He’s the fellow who is in the anecdote of going to see Updike in Plowville that begins my book. Ecenbarger told me a story and I thought I would try to write it out, to see how it would work. I just kept writing for about six months and produced the first three chapters and then I stopped and did a great deal more research, filled in holes and blanks and then started again. The Ecenbarger thing was one great push forward and then the other was reading his correspondence with his mother, which I read in two in phases. First, I read his mother’s letters to him, which were already very useful and helped me a great deal, especially in the early years. And then later, when they became available there at Harvard, I read his letters to her, which are remarkable and which were very useful. This was stuff that no one else had seen except for maybe one or two scholars and, if they had, they hadn’t made much use of it. She wrote to him every day for the first three years he was at Harvard, so that’s a thousand letters right there. And then she wrote at least once a week for the next thirty or forty years.
Question: What’s the most under-rated Updike story or novel, in your opinion? Most over-rated?
Adam Begley: Under-rated is easy for me. I think Marry Me for a specific reason. He put it in the safe deposit box at Ipswich National Bank for twelve years. If it had been published in 1964, it would have caused a sensation and it would have been much loved. Instead it came out in 1976 and it was universally dismissed as ‘there goes Updike banging on about adultery again.’ It’s terribly unfair, but he couldn’t really protest. It’s weird. I don’t think the novel is dated—it’s a little bit dated, not badly but dated, but somehow when it came out in 1976 it really does seem like it’s dated. If it came out in 1964, you would think of it as a novel of its time. He wrote Marry Me in 1964, realized he couldn’t publish it and instead wrote Of The Farm, which is a wonderful book. Most over-rated? This is a little perverse of me, but I think Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest are wonderful books and I think they are justly praised and they will play a part in keeping Updike at the top of the pile of literary greats but I think they are over-rated as compared to Rabbit Redux, which I think is the strongest of the Rabbit books. I think Rabbit, Run—I don’t dislike it (but) I think it’s tremendously difficult for people to approach it nowadays, unless they are tremendously invested in Rabbit. I often say to people, if you are going to read the Rabbit series, start with Rabbit is Rich and then Rabbit at Rest and then, if you want, Rabbit, Run and you end with Rabbit Redux, which I think is the most powerful.
Question: How did working on this biography influence you, as a writer, and how you think about your work and consume other writers and works today?
Adam Begley: I’m glad you asked that. I think the first thing is that Updike was such a tremendous worker. He was just an epic worker. He was always like that; he worked harder than anyone at Harvard and it paid off. He was never embarrassed by his hard work. I’m of the opinion that he is quite right when he said his epigraph should read, ‘here’s a small town boy who made the best of what he had and who made up for any lack of brilliance with hard work.’ That, too, is Updike. There’s that and the second is that Updike loved to play to with language and you have to learn to let your language go. Working on [this biography] on him has convinced me to not be so controlled over sentences as you’re writing, to let it flow a little bit more. The wonderful thing about Updike is it just spooled out of him. And then he went back and he polished and he did revise quite extensively. He had a tremendous ease with his writing—and I’d love to able to imitate that. I can tell you right now that I came away from this book admiring Updike more than I did when I started and part of that has to do with his total dedication of his craft, which is a source on the one hand of his character flaws and on the other the source of his great, fantastic output of marvelous books.