Last night I finished another of the Best American Short Stories I'm currently reading. Before going to sleep, I flipped the page and inserted the bookmark at the beginning of the next. Today, the writer of that story, My father on the verge of disgrace, died, and my heart is filled with great pain. John Updike was one of the heros of American literature, a faithful creator of characters and moods, of stories and novels for over fifty years, a towering light in the world of letters.
I encountered his writing first when in college in Jena. I would visit the local library and scour its meager shelves of English books for those I hadn't read yet. Those were the times before Amazon and ubiquitous internet, and practicing a language was hard if you didn't have native-speaking friends.
I stumbled upon the Rabbit tetralogy but didn't warm up to it. Not much was going on in the pages, nothing that could captivate the hyperactive mind of a college student, nothing that would satisfy a inexperienced reader. I returned the book disappointed, and didn't lay an eye Updike for a good five years.
When I moved to the US, in a fine example of mirror symmetry, I dove into the German section of the Marriott Library at the U, though I could never hope to finish the thousands of books on the shelves. American literature and, more broadly, the brilliance of English writing, didn't reveal itself to me until I started reading the New Yorker, much later during my stay.
That's where I met John Updike again, a very different Updike than the one from Rabbit days. To me, John Updike became the uncontested master of the short story. He wrote about the quotidian, the banal sometimes, in simple terms and without fluff. I remember a story where a middle-aged man (possibly divorced, like so many of his characters, or unhappily married) drives through the rural expanse of his past and ruminates on the life that passed him by. On the way to some sort of reunion, he hopes to conjure the memory of brighter days. There is no drama in his actions, and no twist yanks him from his path.
Updike's mastery was that he made such ordinary proceedings compelling to read. I was drawn to the next paragraph not by suspense or excitement but by a feeling of caring and wonder. Updike shrouded each minutely detailed encounter – shopping at the apple farm, turning left at the intersection like his father used to do way back when – in a fine blanket of melancholy, to eerie effect. A feeling of sadness would creep over me without my knowing at first, and grow.
How did his words achieve such stunning effect? I read and reread his stories and could find no answer. His sentences were clear, his words simple. He always put them together without any pretense but most skillfully and created deeply satisfying artworks, even if they measured only half a dozen pages. Though his paragraphs rarely spelled passion, he writing must have been passionate, and I'm sure he deeply cared for his characters, making them come alive on the pages.
I was greatly touched by his writing. His stories of a bleak present, of characters shaped by failure and gloom, rang warnings bells to me. It was impossible for me to avoid jumping forward mentally, imagining myself in the sad position of the protagonist, hovering over the fragments of an exciting life, over the ruins of youthful dreams, resigned in gentle but ubiquitous gloom. I learned about the fragility of the future and about the misery of wasted opportunities. I think I am a more positive person for that, focused on the present and its promises. Thanks for this, John, and good-bye.
It shouldn't surprise that John Updike's death has moved the New Yorker to open their archive and release a chunksome of older pieces. More and more of their writers also contribute to a Remembering Updike section.