If you like the prose of John Updike, you’ll enjoy this biography. I suppose my job is to answer the question for non-believers: why should I read this? The answer is simple: Begley’s fine portrait helps us see the combination of family forces and innate personality traits that produced one of the finest writers of the 20th Century. Updike is entertaining and deliciously detailed. And, most of all, reading Updike gives us the chance to watch an artist develop and get to work.
Quite literally, work.
John Updike made a commitment as a young teenager and never altered his course. The youthful glint in his eye never faded. He wrote a poem about four weeks before his death. With a main character who is intellectually playful and a biographer who so copiously examined the connection between Updike’s life and the many ways he fictionalized that life in the written word, there’s a powerful or interesting idea on each page of this beautifully written book, either from Updike himself or Begley teasing something out.
Perhaps the single most important ingredient in the formative stages of Updike’s career was a mother determined to imprint an only son with ambition and expectations as a writer. But Updike makes it clear that the writer took his mother’s ambition (“enough for two,” Begley writes) and applied himself like a voracious, insatiable student.
Begley’s close readings of Updike’s short stories and novels (and poetry) provide terrific insights into the life of the man himself. (If nothing else—you’ll get some excellent suggestions for a few dynamite short stories to read; I had overlooked “Farrell’s Caddie,” among many others.) Updike, after all, digested his life for the sake of his art. He may or may not have written with a “callous disregard for his family and other, collateral victims,” but he observed and wrote and then he observed and he wrote some more.
Updike spends a fair amount of time on Updike’s youth in the Pennsylvania towns of Plowville and Shillington and it details young John’s interesting and complicated relationship between his mother and father.
Updike’s aunt sent the family a subscription to The New Yorker in 1944, when John was 12, and the young writer, really, never looked back. He loved the magazine’s cartoons and for many years developed talent as an illustrator and cartoonist but adjusted course after a successful and inspiring run at Harvard University (full scholarship) and at Oxford University (Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art). Along the way, he learned to love the Romantic poets and Shakespeare—and recognized his own talent for telling a story on the page. Young Updike wanted to stay in college forever.
From the outside, he made it look easy.
As Begley puts it: “This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”) but that’s precisely how Updike got his start. When he arrived at The New Yorker, he hadn’t yet written anything resembling a masterpiece (he sensibly aimed at the achievable goal of turning out stories and poems his favorite magazine would be likely to buy), but he was building for himself, plank by plank, a stable platform on which to perform more daring feats.”
New York didn’t last long. Neither did a job as staff writer for the The New Yorker—though his long relationship with the publication lasted all his life. It’s possible Marcel Proust is responsible for Updike setting loftier goals. “It was a revelation to me that words could entwine and curl so, yet keep a live crispness and the breath of utterance,” Updike wrote on reading Proust. “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.”
John Updike managed his own career, consciously leaving New York City for Massachusetts and bearing down (hard) on the goal of becoming a successful novelist at the highest level. He managed everything, right down to his “aw shucks” public image.
Begley makes it clear that Updike had taken a fairly significant risk in leaving the well-cushioned life of a New Yorker staff writer. There were no guarantees. There were setbacks but all obstacles withered in the face of Updike’s flying pencil.
For material, Updike drew heavily on his Pennsylvania youth and on the interactions among his circle of friends. His life was complicated and layered and so were the lives of his characters. Over time, Updike would develop three principal leading men to live his life on the page—Richard Maple, Henry Bech and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the star of the four novels and one final novella. Religion played a key role. So did golf. And so did sex. And sometimes (A Month of Sundays), all three.
Couples launched him to the level of public figure—a novel about the lives of well-off suburbanites in fictional Tarbox, Massachusetts who were busy balancing their religious upbringing with the new freedoms of the mid 1960’s. “Curiously muffled,” Begley writes, “the satiric element in Couples lies buried under two layers: Updike’s exuberant prose, which wraps in baroque splendor whatever it touches, and the mass of sociological detail provided about Tarbox and its inhabitants.”
Begley’s deep dive into various novels is powerful—particularly the Rabbit tetralogy and the three novels inspired by The Scarlet Letter—A Month of Sundays, S., and Roger’s Version. Begley gives strong play to Updike’s short stories, poetry and literary criticism, too. So Updike is part biography and part literary analysis. Reading Updike will make you want to pluck a title off the shelf and start reading his works all over again, this time armed with more awareness and insights about the man behind the words.
In Self-Conciousness, Updike said he approached the memoir fragments with “scientific dispassion and curiosity.” Begley accomplishes the same—and simultaneously makes a convincing case that Updike, while hardly perfect, belongs with the best.