Literature: JOHN UPDIKE Lyttelton Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
In the audience: a preponderance of fiftyish males wearing seriously casual blue shirts interrupted by powerful vertical white stripes. Not a black face among them. On the stage: an arrangement of restaurant tables with starched white linen tablecloths and a cocktail glass or two, the whole thing looking as expensively harmonious as any stage set at the National Theatre.

And then Richard Eyre scissors on, a big fan. There could scarcely be a bigger - especially when he puffs out his chest. Painfully close to idolatry, he says. And then it's Mr Updike himself - pencil-thin in a well-cut grey suit, hair thick and grey, side parted, raked into submission, with just a single bird's wing to the right to betray the fact that he sleeps - for exactly three quarters of an hour, not a second to left or right.

Not as we'd imagined. Cheery smile. Pleased to come. A preamble about Penguin Books on their 60th anniversary - his presence here is part of that celebration. What else was born in the same year? Alcoholics Anonymous. The Social Security System. The Luftwaffe. He prefers Penguin to any of those institutions.

Then a bit about the early Pelicans he used to buy when he came to England in 1954, a young man in pursuit of omniscience: Ur of the Chaldees, Alchemy, An Introduction to Typography, The Hittites. Of all this learning, "Not even a puddle stain remains

Being in England, the home of light verse, he wrote light verse because everything about England seemed so humorous - Victoria Station looked so grandly Kiplingesque; chillblains felt so startlingly new to his feet. He reads several of his poems.

Then comes a gobbet of prose - from a short story called A Madman. "I need to put on my glasses to read this tiny Penguin print," he giggles. "England seemed so extraordinary to me - too authentic to be read; too corroborative of its literature - all those Galsworthy mansions; all those parks landscaped by AA Milne ...".

Thirteen minutes to go, and it's question time. He skulks about the stage. "Your characters have an air of detachment - did he feel detached from them?" "I don't know how detached I am. It's like the woman who was asked 'Are your orgasms big?', and replied, 'They seem big to me.' I'm putting all there is into it ...".

"What's fiction all about?" asks a bonehead. Updike shoots his cuff. Maybe 46 seconds. "It extends us out of our naturally solipsistic mode ... my time, friends, is up, and I thank you all for coming."

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