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John Updike, 1932-2009

Filed under: In Memoriam   Tagged: , , ,

Alfred A. Knopf has announced that John Updike died of lung cancer today at age 76. More words to come (including yours in the comments).

  • The Times obit by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
  • Updike's 855 author search results on the New Yorker website, as well as reminiscinces and other posts on the newyorker.com blogs Book Bench and Goings On. (This comment thread is open for readers' memories of the author.)
  • An archive of Emdashes posts on Updike.
  • The New York Review of Books' Updike archive (unfortunately, almost all subscription-only)
  • From Vanity Fair, James Wolcott—noted here just the other day for his all-embracing take on The Widows of Eastwick—with a tribute and a recommendation of a "book that captures Updike's writerly public persona best."
  • The London Review of Books' homepage showcases 21 essays on Updike from its archives—by 17 men, I might add, including Frank Kermode, the Woods James and Michael, and the Jameses Atlas and Wolcott aforementioned. The Times Literary Supplement unsheaths its 1996 review by Gore Vidal of In the Beauty of the Lilies (and "the failings of its author"), which at 10,000 words is "the longest review ever printed in the TLS."


In the late 1980s, on a hot summer day, I had just left my office at Random House and saw John Updike walking toward the building entrance, on 50th Street, off Third Avenue. I circled back into the lobby and like a nervous schoolgirl approached him (there was no mistaking him). I fumbled for the right words of praise and sheepishly asked him for an autograph just outside the newsstand in the lobby. He graciously obliged. “Gracious,” that describes him. And courtly. I took out a piece of notepaper and he wrote: “for Paul Kocak here in the lobby of 201 E. 50th John Updike.” Then Gordon Lish, whom I knew a little from having met him by a copier, came by. I felt like an intruder in my own conversation. They spoke of each other’s skin ailments. I bowed out, with a bounce to my step.

As a reader, I have known John Updike for some thirty-five years. His work, particularly his literary criticism, has been for me a tremendous source of pleasure and stimulation. Just today, before I’d heard the sad news of his passing, I was rereading his great review of the Metropolitan’s 2001 Bruegel show and marveling at its sinuous 16-line opening sentence. His death, at age 76, comes too soon! He was a great, great writer – a master artist. For many years, I have had taped on the wall above my desk a poem of his, entitled “Perfection Wasted,” which I’d cut out of The New Yorker. It begins, “And another regrettable thing about death / is the ceasing of your own brand of magic …” It ends with a question: “Who will do it again?” And it answers, “That’s it: no one; / imitators and descendants aren’t the same.” That pretty much sums up the way I’m feeling right now about Updike’s death. If there’s any solace, it’s that he’s left behind a resplendent body of work.

I too relate to Updike mostly as a literary critic. A decade or two ago, my dad put a paperback copy of his collection Hugging the Shore in the backseat of our family car, for something to read in those odd unpredictable moments when you have to wait, a book so thick and squat it was practically cubical. We wore that book out.

For years, I kept a paperback of Updike’s “Picked-Up Pieces” in the pocket on the driver’s door of our old Suzuki Vitara. The book’s spine was creased and broken. When handled, it always seemed to fall open to “Remembrance of Things Past Remembered,” which just happened to be my favorite piece in the collection. Sitting in the driver’s seat, waiting to give someone a drive, I would open the book and read: “In the interminable rain of his prose, I felt goodness.” How I love that sentence! No matter how cold it was inside or outside the car (we were living in the Arctic at the time), in the luminous fabric of Updike’s prose, I felt warmth.

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