Friday, August 7, 2015

John Updike

Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, 
wondering why the hell you went.

"I seem to have an upset stomach.  I should never eat on planes."

With that statement, John Updike, at the time a well-known novelist and short story writer, very much the toast of the Eastern literary establishment, parted the curtain and took his position behind the podium at the center of the stage.  For an hour or so he read from his collected works, answered questions from a crowd of mostly students of our Jesuit university, and offered piquant observations on contemporary life, human relations, and God.  As a graduate student, and a member of the "lecture committee" that arranged his appearance, I was pleased at the general response and delighted to meet him

Then, rather quietly, he asked if someone might drive him to the hospital as he thought his appendix had just burst.  He was almost right about that, as it turns out; it was certainly just about to; and, as loyal readers of The Coracle may have guessed, given my past history of being in cars with racing drivers, bishops, academics, and musicians, I was the guy who drove him to the emergency room.

If I were to write an autobiography, I think I would entitle it Karma's Chauffeur.

John Updike was something that is virtually non-existent in our flat, superficial, and spiritually retarded age: a man of letters who was also a person of the spirit.  How he got to that place of metaphysical realization, and the guides whom he used to nurture it, should be of interest to those charting a spiritual course through our post-Christian reality, displaying what literature once was and might be again.

Updike was born in middle class comfort to educated and capable parents.  As an only child, he was indulged, particularly by his mother, a writer of limited success but, apparently, boundless energy who instilled a love of words, sentences, and paragraphs in her son.  Even her typewriter and paper became for Updike symbols of comfort.  Graduating as valedictorian from his Berks County, Pennsylvania high school and earning a degree in English at Harvard, Updike starting writing for the Harvard Lampoon, a periodical he served as editor, and, upon graduation, for The New Yorker.

Honing his style, and making important contacts in the publishing world, Updike drew from contemporary voices in literature such as Salinger, Cheever, and Nabokov, and was grounded in the classics.  Almost on schedule, with the advent of the 1960's, he found himself in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis.  While he had been raised a Christian [or, as a Congregationalist, close enough] and had maintained the ethos of the faith, like many others of the era he found traditional spirituality lacking for the Atomic Age.  It was then that he turned for direction and some sense of intellectual solace to the works of the theologians Karl Barth and Soren Kierkegaard.  That brought a greater, and much more resonant, quality to his prose.

As Barth and Kierkegaard both stressed God at work in the hear-and-now, with the sheer impossibility of ever completely knowing God, and that such attempts at knowledge would be thwarted if one used only the tools of intellect and logic, Updike sought to create a character who would be both typical of the towns in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that he knew, yet evocative of the spiritual quest as it was encountered in the second half of the 20th century.  Thus was born Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, former high school athlete, suburban husband and father, and Toyota dealer.  Through four novels, from Rabbit, Run in 1960 to 1990's Rabbit at Rest, Angstrom comes to represent the experience of the middle-class Protestant through the Camelot of the Kennedy's to the Reagan presidency, all the while taking into account the remarkable changes in culture, mores, and world view.

There were other characters, of course, such as the rebellious teenage store clerk in "A & P" and the blocked writer, Henry Bech, the protagonist in a trilogy of novels.  [A note of interest, mainly to me:  Once, when speaking with my wife's cousin who, like my wife, had attended a women's college in the South, she recounted the time that Updike came to address the literary society in the college's refined and elegant sitting room.  I had to smile as not only did the cousin remember Updike's joy at being surrounded by lovely and gracious Southern women, but he also wrote a barely fictionalized scene of the same in one of the Bech novels, with his writer-hero realizing the same delight at a fictional college.]

Beyond Rabbit and Bech, though, the recurring character in an Updike novel is always some representative of 20th century standards, losing his or her way in the maze of conflicting ethics, attempting to find a true sense of love and purpose in the midst of existential chaos.  He made this philosophical/theological situation so familiar that it is nearly a cliche, even aped by nostalgic television shows like "Mad Men".

That night, in the car on the way to the hospital, we got to speaking of saints like Teresa and Updike became quite jolly thinking what it would be like for a 20th century Lutheran or Congregational pastor to suddenly announce to his congregation that he was having religious visions, hearing divine voices, and occasionally levitating.  His temperature was a little high, I guess.  We both laughed at what the reaction of congregations and bishops might be.  The only difference from the time of St. Teresa was that the clergy-person would be thought schizophrenic rather than demonically possessed.

"Of course, an Episcopalian would be defrocked, as that would be tantamount to cheating on a golf score."

Updike would continue to write at his self-imposed schedule of one book a year, a daunting expectation for any writer, but certainly testimony to how much he enjoyed creating characters and placing them in ordinary, and sometimes ordinarily remarkable, circumstances.  I attempted to count the number of published works that Updike produced, from novels and short stories to poetry and non-fiction appreciations, but stopped when I realized that his non-fiction alone accounted for six bound collections.  Suffice it to say, he was a writer of broad ability and deep talent.

He died in 2009 at the age of 76, succumbing to the long-term effects of cigarette smoking.  According to one of his nurses, he carried a bemused expression with him even past the point of mortality.  More than anything else, that bemusement captures the attitude and experience of a post-modern Christian.