There’s no subtitle to this biography of writer John Updike (1932-2009), perhaps because the only logical one is a rather old-fashioned phrase: “His Life and Works.” Recognizing how relentlessly Updike’s fiction draws on its author’s own experiences, Adam Begley structures his book as a kind of double helix with two interlaced narrative strands. In one, he provides the facts of Updike’s 76 years in the world, in the other he shows how this most writerly of writers used his work to probe and reflect on nearly every aspect of his life.
At first, Begley’s extensive paraphrases — of dozens of stories and poems, as well as nearly all the novels, except the weak ones of Updike’s last decade — can be slightly troubling. A lot of this biography is taken up with retelling plots, examining characters and commenting on Updike’s artistry. Spoilers abound. If you aren’t already familiar with the Richard and Joan Maple stories — about the gradual breakup of a marriage — or the four novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, you might feel they have been wrecked for you.
That is, if you believe that people enjoy serious fiction mainly for the plot. In a popular novel the crises, surprises, reversals and final revelations keep the reader turning the pages, which is, after all, the author’s main objective. But in literary fiction, style is paramount: How the story is told is the real story. That’s why we can reread, why we actively want to reread, anything with Updike’s name on it. He writes — to stretch an adverb — charismatically, with a seemingly effortless and inexhaustible pizzazz. “The purr of a zipper unzipped” may be a simple, almost throwaway phrase, yet it simultaneously conveys meaning, the right sound and erotic promise. Yes, there is a certain exhibitionism to such prose, even an air of winking archness. Still, most of us read Updike in the same way we watch Fred Astaire dance — with awe and sighs of pleasure, with gratitude.
Compared to most lives, John Updike’s was golden from the get-go. The adored only son of a highly educated mother (who herself wrote fiction, some of it eventually published in the New Yorker), the star student of Shillington, Pa.’s high school, recipient of a scholarship to Harvard, an invaluable contributor to the Harvard Lampoon (“seven cover illustrations, more than a hundred cartoons and drawings, sixty poems, and twenty-five prose pieces”), winner of a year’s fellowship to Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, a staff writer for the New Yorker in his early 20s, and then a successful and wealthy novelist for the next 50 years, as well as an underrated poet and a superb reviewer of books and art exhibitions, Updike could apparently do no wrong.
Except, of course, in his private life. Just before his senior year at Harvard, Updike married an intelligent and quietly attractive Radcliffe student named Mary Pennington. When he decided, in his mid-20s, that he could make it as a professional writer, the couple and their children (four eventually) moved from New York City to Ipswich, Mass. There they joined a circle of families that got together on Sundays to play volleyball and drink white wine. Before long, though, another, more toxic ingredient was added to the surburban mix: adultery. Slightly transmogrified, Ipswich became the Tarbox of the notorious, and bestselling, novel “Couples” (1968).
Updike, notes Begley, cut a wide swath through the town’s young matrons. He was smart, famous and teasingly funny; moreover, as his fiction and poetry make plain, he loved all “the rises and swales and dulcet shadowed corners” of the feminine body. Did he love the women themselves? “Not enough,” as a character says in one of his many stories about infidelity; not enough, that is, to break up his family, although he once came ditheringly close (an experience chronicled in the novel “Marry Me,” which Updike salted away for a dozen years before he could bring himself to publish it in 1976). Somehow the skirt-chasing writer and his wife — who was occasionally errant herself — remained together until they were in their 40s.
Then Martha Ruggles Bernhard arrived in town and, despite having a husband and three children already, set her sights on the celebrated writer. Or so Updike’s friends maintain. At all events, Updike finally left Mary for Martha. (Aware of the biblical echo, he once quipped that if he ever wed again it would have to be to Lazarus.) This second marriage finally ended Updike’s sexual restlessness, although that bland phrase hardly conveys the hurt and damage it had caused others. Updike often confessed to being miserable himself, but, as Begley shrewdly notes, he was never so miserable that he couldn’t write. John Cheever once claimed that beneath all the surface bonhomie and charm Updike possessed a “stony heart.” Maybe all great writers do.
In his research and reporting, Begley received help from Mary and from Updike’s four children, but not from Martha. This may partly explain why he skims more swiftly over Updike’s last two decades, when the now Nobel-worthy man of letters buys a Massachusetts “palazzo,” travels the world and beams at audiences from behind microphones, the consummate literary statesman. Settled down, even domesticated, with Martha as his protector and gatekeeper, Updike seemed to lose some of his imaginative zest after “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990). By the mid-’90s, he had already begun to tidy his desk, bringing out omnibus editions of his stories, bidding farewell to the Maples and his Jewish alter-ego Henry Bech and Harry Angstrom (in the novella “Rabbit Remembered”). The best work of his last 15 years is his art criticism and his poetry, especially the moving, final poems of “Endpoint” (2009), which he produced just before his death from lung cancer.
If you’re already a devout Updikean and familiar with his nonfiction — the autobiographical “Self-Consciousness” (1989) or his many essays and interviews — some of Begley’s book will be old news. We learn again of Updike’s psoriasis, his admiration for the novelists Henry Green and Vladimir Nabokov, his patriotism (which led him to support, cautiously, the Vietnam War), the hurt he felt when attacked by feminists for his depictions of women and sex, his dislike for how Tina Brown changed the New Yorker. Still, I had no idea that for decades Updike played in a biweekly poker game, recited the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime with his children, and that three of his grandchildren are African American, nor did I know that he didn’t have an agent or take publisher’s advances and that, in his early days, if the New Yorker rejected a story, he simply threw it away.
Not only has Begley written a convincing interpretative biography, one characterized by suavity, wit and independent judgment throughout, he has also produced a major work of Updike criticism. He cogently affirms, for instance, that “Rabbit Redux” (1971) — which focuses on black rage, drugs and the turmoil of the ’60s — is “Updike’s most powerful novel.” In short, this “life and works” is the perfect companion to the Library of America’s recent two-volume collected stories of John Updike. Displaying total command of his material, Adam Begley does his author proud.
By Adam Begley
Harper. 558 pp. $29.99