By Mark Roosevelt, president
A great many things happen as you age. Time grows shorter and options diminish or are eliminated. Health challenges mount. But there are many positives as well. You learn to spend your time more carefully, not to waste emotional energy, to savor and harbor, and you begin to distill what really matters. So as I write this fourth column about what I read, perhaps it is time to write about the books that matter most to me.
Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life, so there are many books that matter, or have mattered at one time or another. Although I read history and biography, fiction is what I would have if I had just one shelf to fill.
Most good books hit home when you are ready for them to. For me that has been especially true of many of the books I consider “great,” such as Middlemarch, War and Peace, Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Buddenbrooks, The Invisible Man, Moby Dick, and Naipaul’s House for Mr. Biswas. I was not open to them and then I was, and, at that time, they gave great joy. I cannot explain why this happens. I have still not been able to open myself to either Henry James or Faulkner, although I have tried multiple times. Perhaps those pleasures are still to come. And although I was once open to Hemingway, for example, I no longer am, even though I happily gobble up books by some of his literary successors, such as Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. And it is not always me that changes; some writers change greatly and become more appealing. I did not enjoy early Philip Roth, but love his later books, especially many of the recent short novels that distill a lifetime into two-hundred pages.
Some authors have meant a great deal to me for a very long time, among them Willa Cather (The Professor’s House might be my single favorite novel), Nadine Gordimer, William Maxwell, Patrick O’Brian, William Trevor, and Richard Yates.
But if I had to choose the books that matter most to me, they would be Updike’s Rabbit novels (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and the novella Rabbit Remembered), and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), which I will write about in next month’s column. These books help explain America to me, an America that I have inhabited, as well as the times in which I have lived. I realize that this is in large part due to who and what I am—a white man born in the 1950s—and that these books might not be as evocative for other people. They locate me in a time and a place, more luminous and yet also darker than I had realized.
Much could and has been written about what to make of John Updike. He has been extravagantly praised as the greatest American writer of the twentieth century with a prose style of unsurpassed clarity and beauty. And he has been vilified as sex-obsessed—the late novelist David Foster Wallace called him a “champion literary phallocrat” serving as “both chronicler and voice of probably the most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV” and conservative cultural critic Norman Podhoretz describes him as a writer “whose authentic emotional range is so narrow and thin that it may without too much exaggeration be characterized as limited to a rather timid nostalgia for the confusions of youth.”
Although it strikes me as odd that he is the object of so much hostility, especially as he was so modest, even self-deprecating about his own limitations, it is possible that all of the above observations are true. Updike’s prose is at times shatteringly beautiful, but he writes too often and rather embarrassingly about sex. He created many one-dimensional female characters and is certainly of that generation whose conservative beginnings were shattered by a new-found and often over-utilized sexual freedom, without significant contemplation of the many unwanted consequences. All of the above is part of him and his work.
He also wrote far too much, publishing 60 books in his lifetime, causing someone to remark that he never had an “unpublished thought.” As might be expected from someone so prolific, he wrote many mediocre, even bad books. I have started but not finished many of his books. He wrote books about art and golf, a science fiction novel (Towards the End of Time), an experimental novel (Seek My Face), a magical realism novel (Brazil), three novels riffing off The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, and S.), three novels based on a fictional Jewish writer (Bech a Book, Bech is Back, and Bech at Bay), and a novel about an African dictatorship (The Coup). He published six massive volumes of assorted non-fiction as well as eight books of poetry.
But after culling what is insubstantial, you are left with a body of work perhaps unsurpassed in the late twentieth century. He wrote one of the greatest baseball essays, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” about Ted Williams’ final game. He wrote several small volumes of lyrical short stories of tremendous insight and compassion. Note particularly the stories about the Maples, documenting the gentle early rhythms and painful dissolution of a first marriage and the end-of-life gems of reflection and regret in his final volume, My Father’s Tears. He wrote poetry that at its best, such as in his last volume, Endpoint, had what critic Charles McGrath called “another, deeper music.” And he wrote a great late novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, a sad, wrenching generational saga that would be the stand-out work of almost any other writer’s career. And he wrote the Rabbit books.
To contemplate Updike is to contemplate an America that existed in its distinctive form for only part of the fifties, sixties and seventies, and for only a select group of people—mostly male, heterosexual, and white. “My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Updike wrote. “I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”
He also once wrote that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” And perhaps for a time Updike really did believe that. But his fiction is nuanced and often dark, and happiness and stability prove as elusive in his small Pennsylvania or New England towns as it does anywhere else. And while most of his male characters are perhaps of “a type,” and mostly just alternative views of himself, he takes them deep. Updike was not a political writer, nor was he a very political person. But he had a profound sense for whom he spoke, even if it is a limited one by some standards. Very early in his career he determined that he would speak in a distinctly American voice for an American audience. He rejected the need to mimic a modernist European ethos. He believed America needed authors “who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory … who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic.”
And that he did. The Rabbit books will stand as a heart-stoppingly accurate portrayal of how life was lived by many Americans of the age through the story of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. High school basketball star and car salesman, Rabbit is coping, barely, with the social and cultural changes unfolding around him. The British novelist Ian McEwan says that in the Rabbit books Updike “touched at points on the Shakespearean.” The aspirations, illusions, justifications, disappointments and anxieties, as well as the hard-won successes and the probably more lasting and dispiriting failures are all there. Because of that, the books can be painful to read, especially when Rabbit’s delusions and limitations mirror one’s own. But Updike’s affection for Rabbit and for the scrappy Pennsylvania small cities and towns he inhabits comes through not because he protects them from scrutiny, but because he does not. He sees Rabbit whole and still loves him, later calling him “a brother to me, and a good friend.”
Updike concluded that “whatever the failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born.” He felt his “only duty was to describe reality as it has come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due.”
What a spectacular phrase that is—“to give the mundane its beautiful due.” Not surprising that Updike describes his own work better than any critic. And how wonderful is his respectful attention to what so many others dismiss as banal and pedestrian.
I grew up reading Updike and have read him all my life. For me he was like the weather and baseball, part of the taken-for-granted landscape of my day-to-day existence. I miss him enormously and return to his best work often.