Slightly nettled

It's a fraught business, meeting your literary heroes. Novelist and awed fan Justin Cartwright found himself sitting next to his idol John Updike at a banquet. He hoped for a meeting of minds. But it didn't quite turn out like that...
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The Independent Culture

Although I have lived all my adult life in the company of John Updike, I had met him only once. Two weeks ago during his flying visit to the UK, I was asked to sit next to him at a banquet.

Although I have lived all my adult life in the company of John Updike, I had met him only once. Two weeks ago during his flying visit to the UK, I was asked to sit next to him at a banquet.

It's a strange feeling that you believe you know someone who doesn't necessarily know you. It's akin to that feeling when you go to the cinema that you know the actors. Hollywood actors of the old school were simply regular guys or girls next door, who more or less did the same thing in every picture. In fact, if they tried something fancy you felt slightly betrayed. There is a quality both in Updike's writing and in his person that brings to mind the old Hollywood movies. He has said often enough that of the available entertainment in pre-war Pennsylvania, he preferred the cinema to the church. Now in his seventies, he seems to be more than ever preoccupied by the sense of an America lost, an idealistic country with simple values - essentially the values of the founding fathers - as far from the America of Abu Ghraib as is imaginable. And yet Updike is a subtle and complex thinker, aware of the contradictions of religious belief, fully attuned to the tensions of the animal/ human predicament and - quite different from Hollywood - unsparing in his depiction of human behaviour. His maxim, recently expressed - "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me: to give the mundane its beautiful due" - should not be seen as a soft option. Updike has stuck to that credo through nearly 50 productive years. Even his own son has described him as professionally ruthless.

Let me confess now that I have often measured myself against Updike. My first serious novel, Interior, owes a lot to The Coup, a book set in Africa. Updike likes to write from what he knows and The Coup, a magical and playful book, was not really an exception: although he has never been to Africa, Updike has an African son-in-law, but also this book is a meditation on America and its policies abroad. I remembered from the last time we had met in Boston that in our long discussion he singled out The Coup as one of his favourites.

So to our meeting. As we gather outside the medieval manor house where the banquet, a tribute to Updike, is being held. I ponder the connection between linen and the male English writer. We are mostly attired in it, or perhaps it's burlap. Updike, flanked by his wife Martha, appears among us in a very new blazer which may be a nod towards his stay in Oxford 50 years ago. It is without a doubt the only blazer on view. I am still concerned that he has no idea who I am, and when we sit down I find I have been listed as Justine Cartwright, which suggests that I may be here under false pretences. But no, he remembers our meeting and corrects me when I say it was in the Four Seasons: it was the Ritz Carlton.

He looks leaner, more papery, but still with that amused tolerant expression. He has old-fashioned manners and an abhorrence of brashness. Over nettle soup we talk about his next novel, Villages. Although he describes it rather dismissively, it is a story, I discover, about a businessman called Owen Mackenzie, born in the 1930s, who returns to his native village in Pennsylvania. It seems to be quintessentially Updikean, the balance between material success and unfulfilled longing, the quotidian weighed against the eternal and the pull of the small town set against the attractions of the "silver city". It is his 21st novel. He has, as always, two or three other books or collections in hand. Knopf, his publisher in New York, says that he sells more consistently than any other author in their catalogue, though not in huge amounts. I wonder why he feels the need for this fantastic activity; after all, he himself has said that he would be liked more if he had written less: when he left New York 50 years ago and opted for provincial life - as he has put it "out there where I belonged" - he wanted to keep in touch with the New Yorker and the metropolis. The habit has not died. Also, Updike has continued to see himself, I suspect rather fondly, as the boy from nowhere who got lucky. I suggest to him that the nettle soup tastes of lawn clippings, but he is far too polite to agree.

And now I discover that the great Rabbit tetralogy was ended prematurely - Rabbit was only 56 at the time of his death in Florida - because Updike himself had been ill and did not want to leave Rabbit unresolved if he died. It seems to me touchingly typical; Harry Angstrom, after all, is a fiction. The Rabbit books occupy a rather equivocal place in Updike's estimation. He didn't start out thinking they would be anything iconic. But the greatness of these books is that Harry Rabbit Angstrom is not a likeable man, yet he shares some of his creator's characteristics, notably an optimism about America, a simple faith, a love of women, and - this is the remarkable thing - a sensibility which is Updike's but wonderfully tuned to that of an unremarkable car salesman from Pennsylvania. Updike is a considerable art critic, and of course Rabbit has never in his life been to an art gallery, yet he is aware of the art in simple things: the trees which shelter his family house, the changing neighbourhoods of his home town. He is also an anxious, restless man - Angst-rom as Updike points out - and an incoherent striver after perfection.

Updike sometimes pays tribute to Bellow, particularly to his unrivalled ability to describe the innate qualities of his subjects through their physical appearance, yet I think that he resents the Bellow industry, because, and we have to face this, he is seen as Paul McCartney to Bellow's John Lennon. It may be Updike's great ouput, it may be the preoccupation with the mundane and the real, but somehow there is a feeling in literary circles, and certainly in Stockholm, that Updike is not operating in the higher reaches of literature. This is, of course, absurd. Bellow has unrivalled ability in some departments, but he is unable to do women at all and virtually all his principal characters have intellectual pretensions and are of immigrant stock. Yet Bellow received the Nobel 20 years ago, while Updike has been passed over year after year. It would be perverse to suggest, for example, that Nadine Gordimer or William Golding is a "better" writer than John Updike.

I remember the wonderfully ridiculous words of Bech, Updike's creation, when he receives the Nobel Prize: "I am an American and in religion a non-observant Jew, but when I write I am nothing less than a member of my triumphant but troubled species, with aspirations it may be to speak for the primates, the invertebrates and even the lichen as well." How perfectly Updike understands the literary business.

The dinner draws to a close with the award - based, apparently, on soundings from British writers, although no-one asked me - and he makes a characteristically modest speech. My last sight of him is retreating from the crowd to his room, the saint removed from the procession, leaving us to paddle hopefully onwards. He finds jet-lag taxing as he gets older.

He hasn't asked to read my books. Why should he? In my heart, I am his colleague, but in reality I am just someone who sat next to him at some banquet, Justine, né Justin. But if he had asked, a large parcel would be speeding towards New England.

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