“Updike” by Adam Begley; Harper (558 pages, $29.95)
When John Updike died in 2009 at the age of 76, followers of American literature could not quite comprehend it. Novels, criticism and poetry (60 books) had flowed like a river from Updike’s pen since his years as a Harvard undergraduate. It was as if the writer vanished midsentence.
One of Updike’s last public appearances before his lung-cancer diagnosis was in 2008 at Seattle Arts & Lectures — at the time Updike thought he had “walking pneumonia.”
He appeared with Seattle novelist David Guterson, who told the Post-Intelligencer book critic later: “I did have an impression of somebody who, after so many years of being a literary superstar, a literary giant, had learned to protect his privacy and not reveal himself,” Guterson said.
I thought of those words as I read Adam Begley’s new biography, “Updike.” Who was the man behind the genial mask, the seething genius veiled by the persona of a twinkly eyed, white-haired senior statesman of American letters?
Begley, son of the novelist Louis Begley (a Harvard classmate of Updike’s) says that his goal is to tell Updike’s story by gazing into a mirror world — Updike’s fiction. Was there ever a novelist who made more complete and effective use of his own life?
Updike wrote, obsessively, about his hometown of Shillington, Pa. His adoring mother and father were characters in his fiction. His wives and lovers were not exempt.
During Updike’s years as a New Yorker writer, many of his stories recounted a newly married couple struggling with work and children. (Updike, who received a New Yorker subscription from his Aunt Mary when he was 12, was first published by the magazine 10 years later and would write for The New Yorker for the rest of his life.)
Begley examines Updike’s marriage to Mary Pennington, his relationship with their four children, and his sex-saturated life in Ipswich, Mass., which would eventually cause the disintegration of his first marriage and lead to his marrying his mistress, Martha Bernhard.
Updike’s novel “Couples” is based on the Ipswich years, and his “Rabbit” novels broke new ground in their frank exposition of sex, particularly what Begley calls “the ache of a male’s physical desire.” His Maples stories, about the ups and downs of a married couple, drew from both of Updike’s marriages. The Henry Bech novels chronicled a literary star who wins every prize in the book, except the Nobel — just like Updike.
Begley seems to have read every word Updike wrote — no small accomplishment. He talked to legions of those who knew, loved, edited or sparred with Updike, though according to a New York Observer interview with Begley, Updike’s estate did not cooperate, blocking access to much of Updike’s voluminous personal correspondence.
Begley’s approach will appeal to fans of Updike’s body of work, but it doesn’t fully explain Updike’s contradictions. One enduring mystery: Updike was a Christian and attended church most Sundays, even as he led a serial philanderer’s life. Begley suggests that Updike’s “peace of mind depended on conventional religious observance. … Religion eased his existential terror, allowing him to do his work, and to engage in the various kinds of play that amused him — among them the hazardous sport of falling for his friends’ wives.” Conceivable — but there is that Seventh Commandment.
Neither Begley’s thorough reporting nor his dedicated analysis of Updike’s books and poems explains the writer’s carelessness with sex, his arm’s-length treatment of his children, his fondness of the ordinary and the everyday. Perhaps Updike hid his molten core from everyone. “Updike” is an engaging and thoroughly told account of the life of a literary giant, but for the essence of John Updike, you’ll have to do your own exploration of his lyrical, complex, shocking, moving and very human stories.