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Updike by Adam Begley, book review: A biography shows that John Updike's talent was for fiction, not domestic drama

 

In 1999,John Updike contributed an essay about what he called "the Judas biography" to the New York Review of Books. "I raise the possibility," he wrote, "that we resent a fiction writer's manipulation of his private life, including the private life of those around him, and rejoice when he or she loses control."

As Adam Begley's much-anticipated biography confirms, Updike rarely if ever lost control himself. In fact, such was the orderliness of his life that he could be regarded as a renegade among the great novelists of the 20th century, never having stabbed a wife, taken to the bottle, gone bankrupt, shot himself or been punched on the nose by Gore Vidal.

Begley touches briefly on the NYRB essay – it caused a final rift in Updike's relations with Philip Roth – but does not include his subject's views on the matter of literary biography. It is a shame because the business of a novelist's material, the way those closest to him are served up for the purposes of fiction, is central to what Begley is doing and, although this is anything but a Judas biography, resentment rumbles beneath the surface of its decorous, well-researched pages.

Begley faced a double challenge. Updike's life was one of unchallenged success and therefore not terribly exciting. Having decided at Harvard that he was to be a writer and that the best way to advance down that path was to work for the New Yorker, he got a job at the magazine soon after graduating. He was so well paid for his short stories from his twenties onwards that he did not even need an advance from Knopf for his novels.

In his personal life, there were the sort of excitements one would expect from any interesting modern life: affairs, a broken marriage, some light literary spats, notably with John Cheever, Harold Bloom, Tom Wolfe and Roth. He received the odd kick along the way – when he refused to oppose the Vietnam war, when he was described in an essay by David Foster Wallace as "just a penis with a thesaurus", when he was accused of over-production, or misogyny, or writing too well.

By the standards of most writers, it was a life of calm achievement. "Suffering and I have had a basically glancing, flirtatious acquaintanceship," he wrote in his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness.

And there is the second problem. Updike, in his work and interviews, was always startlingly honest about his own failings. Whatever charge or revelation a biographer can offer, it is likely that not only has the sinner already confessed, but that the confession will be funnier and more stylish than any version from an outsider.

As someone who loves Updike's best work, I fell on this biography with yelps of glee, but ended up wondering whether sometimes literary biography is not a faintly futile genre. Begley is an assiduous researcher and has talked to most of the right people. He writes well, and is clear-eyed in his readings of the work. He shows how, no sooner had something significant happened to the author than he began to work on some sort of fiction around it, sometimes having to keep the result in a bank vault until it could be published without hurt or libel.

Yet, having acknowledged that his subject was cheerfully open about using reality in his fiction, Begley then doggedly sets about showing who was used, where and when. Much of this speculation is pointless, and some is frankly absurd. When the hero of The Witches of Eastwick seduces the three sisters Updike was, says Begley, "compressing into one orgiastic Halloween night the highlights of his erotic history: Mary, Joyce Harrington, and Martha, the three most important romantic attachments of his life, were undoubtedly on his mind." Oh yes, undoubtedly.

Any biographer whose subject is good at self-presentation will be eager to show that he has not been taken in, but Begley goes further. For all his slightly dutiful praise of the work, he is subtly ungenerous about Updike himself, interpreting his behaviour with a low-key disapproval and forever ascribing the worst motives to his actions.

Updike's ambition when young is repeatedly mentioned as if it were something suspect and unusual. His departure from the New Yorker was not prompted by a need to get away from a comfortable trap for a writer, but because "his ambition required him to be a big fish in a small pond."

He taught creative writing to get back at both his parents. Reluctance to rewrite his first novel The Poorhouse Fair revealed "a precocious sense of the sanctity of his own artistic aims". Begley takes a particularly stern line during the adulterous years, and later pronounces authoritatively that, in spite of all the evidence that Updike was a rather good father, he "was only fitfully aware of his children's problems."

Insecurities about writing are briskly dismissed. They were caused by something he had eaten, or when he was "feeling sorry for himself".

Beyond this sotto voce moralising, there are opportunities missed. It is an extraordinary fact that an author so prolific and internationally successful never used a literary agent. Why not? How did the management of his prodigious output actually work? What were his working methods? How did he react to Nicholson Baker's weird, winning fan-letter of a book U & I?

There are occasionally signs of the biographer's finger on the scales. Updike's first wife, Mary, spoke to Begley and emerges with credit for his book. Martha, the second wife, did not and is portrayed as bossy and controlling.

It is when Begley quotes from Updike, and that extraordinary prose brings much-needed light and air to the page, that the problem with this book becomes most obvious. In the end, it is difficult to care too much about those writerly manipulations, and whether their creator was behaving well or badly. The life was a predictable mess of achievement and disappointment. What will live on is the astonishing fiction which emerged from it.

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