On John Updike

Dominique Nabokov
John Updike, Massachusetts, 1984; photographs by Dominique Nabokov

In his autobiography Self-Consciousness, a “big-bellied Lutheran God” within the young John Updike looked on in contempt as he struggled to give up cigarettes. Many years later the older Updike, now giving up on alcohol, coffee, and salt, put into the mouth of that God the words of Frederick the Great excoriating his battle-shy soldiers—“Dogs, would you live forever?” But all the life-enhancing substances were set aside, and writing became Updike’s “sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality.” In the mornings, he could write “breezily” of what he could not “contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God.” The plain facts of life were

unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light —in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it—approaches blasphemy.

And now this masterly blasphemer, whose literary schemes and pretty conceits touched at points on the Shakespearean, is gone, and American letters, deprived in recent years of its giants, Bellow and Mailer, is a leveled plain, with one solitary peak guarded by Roth. We are coming to the end of the golden age of the American novel in the twentieth century’s second half. Henry Bech, Updike’s remote Jewish other, never immune to an attack of status anxiety, mused on the teeming hordes of his gifted and despised contemporaries:

Those that didn’t appear, like John Irving and John Fowles, garrulously, Dickensianly reactionary in method seemed, like John Hawkes and John Barth, smugly, hermetically experimental. O’Hara, Hersey, Cheever, Updike—suburbanites all living safe while art’s inner city disintegrated. And that was just the Johns.

This most Lutheran of writers, driven by intellectual curiosity all his life, was troubled by science as others are troubled by God. When it suited him, he could easily absorb and be impressed by physics, biology, astronomy, but he was constitutionally unable to “make the leap of unfaith.” The “weight” of personal death did not allow it, and much seriousness and dark humor derive from this tension between intellectual reach and metaphysical dread.

In a short story from 1985, “The Wallet,” Mr. Fulham (who, we are told in the first line, “had assembled a nice life”) experiences death terrors when he takes his grandchildren to a local cinema. While “starships did special-effects battle” Fulham’s “true situation in time and space” was revealed: “a speck of consciousness now into its seventh decade, a mortal body poised to rejoin the minerals, a member of a lost civilization that once existed on a sliding continent.” This “lonely possession” of his own existence, he concludes, is “sickeningly serious.”

God makes no appearance in this story, but it is unlikely that an atheist could have conjured so much from the minor domestic disturbance that follows. First, a large check “in the…

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