By Adam Begley
558 pages, $29.99
By Jeff Simon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
There was an utterly astonishing admission by 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk in his review of this landmark book – which is likely to stand as the definitive John Updike biography for a while – in last Sunday’s New York Times.
Pamuk’s first acquaintance with John Updike as an essayist waited until 1985 when he found “a copy of Updike’s recently published ‘Hugging the Shore’ [his third after ‘Assorted Prose’ and the remarkable ‘Picked Up Pieces’] in a second-hand bookshop.” It was where the Turkish writer “discovered an Updike who had been invisible from Istanbul: Updike the essayist.” Those essays, he said, changed the way he read Updike’s novels and made him realize that Updike was “perhaps one of the world’s most distinguished men of letters.”
You can drop the “perhaps” entirely in my view. No one should know that better than Pamuk, whose 2006 Nobel Prize citation seemed to quote ideas that could be found in Updike’s previous essays on the Turkish writer.
And that was despite the fact that, two years later an utter fool on the Nobel literary prize selection committee had charged American writers with being too “insular and ignorant” to take part in the Nobel-level “literary conversation” of the rest of the world.
It was a great international literary moment when what had been the greatest international literary prize stood confirmed as the greatest irrelevance it had ever been – and, remember, we are talking about a prize that, in its history, had already passed up awards to Joyce, Nabokov, Borges, Calvino, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Ibsen, Rilke, Brecht, Conrad, Lorca, Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence (all of whom were alive and awardable after the prize began).
It is thus, almost always, with our greatest prizes – Oscars, Pulitzers etc. If you make a list of the worthiest winners and losers, it is almost always the latter list where one might find the greatest figures, by far, in any “conversation.”
We learn from Begley’s book on many Americans’ nomination for the most absurd Nobel omission among all recent American writers that Updike, despite his mischievous jape at the prize in one of his delightful Bech stories called “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden,” “was careful not to belittle the beneficiaries of Sweden’s bounty, not to let any hint of envy creep into his public remarks on new laureates. (The Italian Dario Fo won in 1997; the following year it was the turn of Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, whose ‘Baltasar and Blimonda’ Updike had reviewed without much enthusiasm , but politely, for the New Yorker.) “As William Maxwell put it forty years earlier” writes Begley “if Updike didn’t get the prize would be the Swedes’ fault, not his.”
To far too much of the “world” Updike as “man of letters” has perhaps been far too invisible.
Here is the first full distinguished biography of the writer whom the biographer compares to what Lionel Trilling once wrote about George Orwell “He was not a genius, and this is one of the most remarkable things about him,” that he stood for “the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers that one does have and the work one undertakes to do.”
Begley, I’m afraid, may be a wee bit too eager to accept Updike’s modest, mannerly, Harvard-boy self-asssessment as one “who made up with diligence what he might have lacked in brilliance.”
For at least four decades now, Updike’s “diligence” has seemed prodigious and all lack of “brilliance” has been, at most, transitory.
Begley is the son of novelist Louis Begley (the Schmidt novels), who went to Harvard with Updike. From 1996 to 2009 Adam Begley functioned as the superb book editor of the New York Observer. He lives in England now and his biography of Updike has the notably unavoidable misfortune of concerning a life abundant in industry and perspicacity and notably lacking in arresting incident.
You can’t find any equivalence to Hemingway’s war reportage or his duking it out with Wallace Stevens in Key West. Nor will you find anything like Fitzgerald subsisting on hope, despair and minimal largesse in Hollywood – or Mailer boozing and butting heads all over Manhattan. Updike had the same editor at the New Yorker – the fabled Maxwell – for more than 20 years, the same at Knopf for almost 50.
Alcohol and infidelity, predictably, provide some spice here, none of which will surprise for a second anyone with even the dimmest and most glancing knowledge of “Couples,” or the Rabbit novels or the Maples Stories (the collected book of which is, in the view of some of us, an artificial novel that may have been Updike’s best).
It’s a great life, nevertheless, despite its perforce low level of melodramatic or scandalous wattage. You know that Begley’s access and industry have been immense when you encounter things like this joking Updike account of a visit to London in a letter to Maxwell “I see why they call English women birds; they chirp and peck, and hop on one foot, leaving very precise tracks in the snow.”
You’ll certainly find some of the heavier bricks thrown at him here. As a former book editor, Begley is attentive to the characteristically harrowing late-life lumping of Updike with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth by reviewers; in David Foster Wallace’s words, he was one of the three Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated American postwar fiction” (“Just a penis with a thesaurus” in the words of one of Wallace’s female friends.) But you won’t find some of the political rage in full – at, say, a PEN convention that followed Updike the apolitical writer confessing his love of his mailbox rather than making observations on global injustice.
Why? Well, confesses Begley, “I was programmed to like him.” That Harvard connection with his father and all.
For all its occasional paucity of acid, Begley’s biography of Updike does what one very good biography of Updike needs to do and does it energetically, impeccably and wittily.
For the moment, it will do very nicely.
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books editor of The News.