Rabbit RIP: Giant of US literature dies of lung cancer

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Author who won Pulitzer Prize twice chronicled post-war America in 22 novels

John Updike, a giant of the written word best known as a prolific chronicler of American suburban mores, manners and misbehaviour in best-selling novels that included Couples and The Witches of Eastwick, died yesterday at the age of 76 after a battle with lung cancer, his publisher announced.

A resident of Beverly Farms, a small town in rural Massachusetts, Mr Updike leaves behind an astonishing canon of 50 books, including 22 novels, as well as literary criticism, social essays, poetry, memoir and one play. His career, which began in the 1950s, quickly established him as one of America's most prominent literary figures.

Though Norman Mailer, who died last year, once carped that Updike was adored by readers who knew nothing about writing, most others in the business fervently disagreed. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature twice for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, two of the four books that made up his popular Rabbit series.

He was furiously productive throughout, even though his other physical challenges included childhood asthma and psoriasis that stayed with him until the end. Nonetheless, he kept writing and also appearing regularly on the lecture circuit. He never did win a Nobel Prize, but, by way of self-consolation, he did bestow a Nobel on one of his characters, Henry Bech, a novelist who also distinguished himself as a womaniser.

Influenced at a young age by P.G. Wodehouse as well as Robert Benchley, Updike won a full scholarship to Harvard University and then studied painting for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford from 1954 to 1955 before returning to the US where he then briefly worked as a member of staff of The New Yorker. The magazine became an important repository for his short stories and commentaries over many years.

After striving to reflect what he saw in his fellow Americans in so many of his novels, Updike also wrote a memoir about himself, called Self- Consciousness. It was hailed by critics, including author and Updike admirer, Martin Amis, who argued: "the last section of the book, 'On Being a Self Forever', is to my knowledge the best thing yet written on what it is like to get older: age, and the only end of age".

Death was a theme to which Updike would frequently return. "The great thing about the dead," he once wrote humorously, "they make space."

Lines from The Witches of Eastwick include these oft-repeated classics, "Of plants, tomatoes seemed the most human, eager and fragile and prone to rot," and "We all dream, and we all stand aghast at the mouth of the caves of our deaths; and this is our way in. Into the nether world.".

While small-town America was his favourite exploring ground – Eastwick was originally based on Ipswich, the town in Massachusetts to which he moved, fleeing New York City, in 1957 – he produced books in a wide variety of other settings also, including post-colonial Africa and the court of Hamlet. His last novel, Terrorist, published in 2006, journeyed through the mind of an Islamic extremist in urban New Jersey. Updike is likely to be remembered foremost, however, for his exploration of the tensions experienced by most Americans in the post-war years as society confronted the new and unfamiliar forces unleashed by Vietnam, the women's movement, the sexual revolution and the collision of faith with materialism.

In a 2006 interview he said: "I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, 'This is it. Carpe diem and tough luck'."

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