Boyd Tonkin: Virtuosity never deserted Updike

Critics will write of him as the scourge of suburban Middle America
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A few years ago, as the US began to celebrate the fast-departing heroes who had won the Second World War, commentators took to talking about the "great generation" who had achieved so much and could not be replaced.

What applied to the forces also went for the quieter battles of fiction. During the inter-war years, on either side of 1930, a group of novelists were born who would chart the public and the secret history of America with a skill, savour and tenacity that has few parallels in modern literature. From that incomparable peer group, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer have already left the scene.

Now, John Updike, their junior in years if not in gifts, has also gone. Over the past 18 months, Updike had published not only a new novel (The Widows of Eastwick, the sequel to one of his best-loved works) but a typically eclectic volume of critical pieces.

That "great generation" of novelists boasted a punishing work ethic that puts feckless European literati to shame. Even as they turned severe and unblinking eyes on the faults of their own society, Updike and his contemporaries worked in a very American grain. They never idled, they got to work with glee, and did the job.

During the coming days and weeks many critics will write of Updike as a scourge of suburban Middle America. Certainly, his immaculate, finely modulated prose skewered its sexual hypocrisies, its intellectual blinkers, its stifling domesticity from the era of Eisenhower to (almost) the era of Obama.

But this tireless professional from old Dutch settler stock knew, and felt, the world of ambition and insecurity that he dissected with such expertise. Novels such as Couples and the magnificent Rabbit Angstrom trilogy see their people, and their places, from the inside out. Of course, satire and critique formed part of Updike's purpose. But his inner history of post-war American life also hums with the sheer pleasure of exact observation. He's always half in love with the victims of his penetrating pen.

Versatility and virtuosity never seemed to desert Updike. As even non-readers know, he wrote with acrobatic assurance about sex – but then he wrote as well about art, about business, about fashion and interiors. And, in his later career, he chose to spread his wings. Novels such as Brazil and Terrorist saw him mount bold raids on settings and subjects that could hardly feel further from adultery and anger behind the picket fence. Some of these far-reaching experiments in fiction worked better than others. All bore witness to the aspirations of an author who was never content just to cultivate one domestic patch.

When novelists produce copiously (and, in Updike's case, pile heaps of eloquent essays on top of a fertile fictional output), the verdict of posterity can be unfairly harsh. Pundits tend to pick out the undisputed masterpieces (and the Rabbit novels will endure as long as American culture does) and dismiss a mass of other work as middleweight ballast.

But Updike, like the nation whose changing manners and ideals he chronicled so powerfully, thrived on sheer productivity. Plenitude and generosity defined his talents, as they define the best self of his country. Without Updike, America itself seems that bit smaller.