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Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

False Alarm

May 27, 2015 | by


Cheever, right, with Updike on The Dick Cavett Show in 1981.

From “On the Literary Life,” a series of excerpts from John Cheever’s journals published in our Fall 1993 fortieth-anniversary issue. Cheever, born on this day in 1912, had amassed twenty-eight notebooks by the time he died, in 1982; he wrote the extracts below between 1974 and 1978. “These were workbooks, a place to take notes, to practice and to fume,” Cheever’s son, Benjamin, says in his introduction. “Please remember that this is just one piece of the man. An interesting piece, I think: diverting, instructive, candid, and intimate. But not the whole guy.”

The telephone rings at four. This is CBS. John Updike has been in a fatal automobile accident. Do you care to comment. I am crying. I cannot sleep again. I think of joining Mary in bed but I am afraid she will send me away. I think I am right. When there is a little light I feed the dogs. I hope they don’t expect to be fed this early every morning, she says. I do not point out that John will not die every morning and that in any case it is I who feeds them. The restraint costs me nothing. When I go into the kitchen for another cup of coffee she empties the pot into my cup and says: I was just about to have some myself. When I insist on sharing the coffee I am unsuccessful. I do not say that the pain of death is nothing compared to the pain of sharing a coffee pot with a peevish woman. This costs me nothing. And I see that what she seeks, much more than a cup of coffee—is to gratify a sense of denial and neglect—and that we so often, all of us, put our cranky and our emotional demands so far ahead of our hunger and thirst. Read More »

The Rise of Slackness, and Other News

March 27, 2015 | by


General Echo‘s 12" of Pleasure LP.

  • Luc Sante on listening to reggae in the late seventies: “General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of ‘slackness,’ the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian ‘cultural’ style … his songs include ‘Bathroom Sex’ and ‘I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire’ (‘crotches,’ that is), as well as ‘Drunken Master’ and ‘International Year of the Child.’ ”
  • The Cannes Film Festival saw a lot more action in the fifties: “Of all the grueling daily rituals … perhaps the most frivolous are the combination beach party/publicity functions, where paparazzi scramble to get shots of the ‘traditional striptease by the starlet of the year standing on the rocks.’ This particular custom was spawned in part by Brigitte Bardot’s inaugural, bikinied appearance at Cannes in 1953. But disrobing actresses arguably didn’t become a fixture of the festival until the following year, when Simone Silva got banned for posing topless next to Robert Mitchum—a spectacle that caused a pile-up of frantic, injured photographers.”
  • How the Danish writer Dorthe Nors found her way to the short story: “The Swedes have that big, fearless, existential approach to literature. The Danes have an elastic, playful, anarchistic and ironic way of using language. And here was this dude telling me—the closet Swede—that I should make use of the strengths of my own language … ”
  • What does Taylor Swift have in common with Austen, Auden, Thackeray, and Shakespeare? And don’t say, She’s a storyteller of legendary talents—the answer is more mundane. She’s an adopter of they as a singular pronoun.
  • When John Updike tried to write a Jewish character—Henry Bech, who went on to star in four of Updike’s novels—Cynthia Ozick took him to task: “Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing … Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair.”

Updike: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

January 14, 2015 | by


“I can’t remember the moment when I fell in love with cartoons, I was so young,” John Updike once recalled in Hogan’s Alley magazine. “I still have a Donald Duck book, on oilclothy paper in big-print format, and remember a smaller, cardboard-covered book based on the animated cartoon Three Little Pigs. It was the intense stylization of those images, with their finely brushed outlines and their rounded and buttony furniture and their faces so curiously amalgamated of human and animal elements, that drew me in, into a world where I, child though I was, loomed as a king, and where my parents and other grownups were strangers.”

This is one of many passages where Updike talks about his childhood love of comics, a theme that recurs not just in essays but also in poems and short stories. What deserves attention in this passage is not only what Updike is saying but the textured and sensual language he’s using when he recalls the “oilclothy paper” and the “buttony furniture.” His tingling prose, where every idea and emotion is rooted in sensory experience, owes much to such modern masters as Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov, but it was also sparked by the cartoon images he saw in childhood, which trained his eyes to see visual forms as aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, the comparison with Nabokov is instructive since the Russian-born author of Lolita was also a cartoon fan. The critic Clarence Brown has coined the term bedesque (roughly translated as “comic strip-influenced”) to describe the cartoony quality of Nabokov’s fiction, including its antic loopiness, its quicksilver movement from scene to scene, and its visual intensity. I think one reason Updike felt an affinity for Nabokov is because they both wrote bedesque prose. Read More »


The Philosophy of Your Word Processor, and Other News

October 27, 2014 | by


A promotional photo for the Canon Cat, an early word processor.

  • April 1975: Updike and Barth hung out in Baltimore. They ate some soft-shelled crabs and visited Poe’s grave. “I don’t think we’re very unlike,” Updike later wrote. “We’re both sons of the hard-working, temperate Middle Atlantic region, twice married, depression-conscious, and stuck with the belief that there is such a thing as American littrachoor.”
  • A lost Malcolm Lowry novel, In Ballast to the White Sea, is soon to see print for the first time. Lowry spent some ten years on the book, which was lost when his home in Vancouver burned down in 1944. He’d left an early copy of the manuscript with his first wife’s mother; it wasn’t rediscovered until 2001.
  • Wash your hands of Microsoft Word and its misguided Platonism: embrace WordPerfect. “Intelligent writers can produce intelligent prose using almost any instrument, but the medium in which they write will always have some more or less subtle effect on their prose … When I work in Word, for all its luxuriant menus and dazzling prowess, I can’t escape a faint sense of having entered a closed, rule-bound society. When I write in WordPerfect, with all its scruffy, low-tech simplicity, the world seems more open, a place where endings can’t be predicted, where freedom might be real.”
  • Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, 1921: “I’m in the middle of my novel now, but have to break off, of course, to make a little money. I shall write an article on Dorothy Wordsworth, and so pay for our new sheets.”
  • Does the Internet ever sleep? Not in America.


Raiding Updike’s Garbage Cans, and Other News

September 2, 2014 | by


Paul Moran took these address labels, among many other discarded items, from Updike’s trash. Image via the Atlantic

  • In the years before John Updike died, a man began to steal a lot of his garbage—thousands of pieces, actually, including “photographs, discarded drafts of stories, canceled checks, White House invitations, Christmas cards, love letters, floppy disks, a Mickey Mouse flip book, and a pair of brown tasseled loafers.” Taken as a whole, the collection amounts to a kind of secret history, a trash biography. (“My life is, in a sense, trash,” Updike said in his Art of Fiction interview.)
  • How does one choose books that one knows one is going to enjoy? The obvious answer is that you can’t … Think of all the times we start a book that we think we should be reading—because everyone else is reading it, because it’s won a prize, because our book group has chosen it, despite our misgivings. And think of all the times we refuse to abandon a book we are not enjoying—because we are peculiarly puritanical about literature—thus creating an antagonism and a reluctance that must damage our relationship with reading.”
  • This year’s Venice Biennale, an architecture show, “reveals that modernism was never a style. It was a cultural, political, and social practice: the practice of making buildings suited to certain exigencies of life in a rapidly changing and developing world. And since, by definition, the question of how and what it meant to ‘make something modern’ changed over time and space—different in Finland than in Morocco—so also did the design of the buildings that emerged from it.”
  • In which the keening of a single blue whale teaches us something about loneliness.
  • What kind of worker is a writer? On Tillie Olsen, who wrote in dribs and drabs while holding down menial jobs and raising four children: “Writing, Olsen reminded her readers, takes time, education, energy, and resources, and these things are unevenly distributed. She encouraged us to attend to unorthodox writing produced in unfavorable circumstances—letters, diaries, scrapbooks like her own—and, in doing so, to question what counts as literature.”


Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by


John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.” Read More »