Sharp­en­ing the blur of daily life

Updike bi­og­ra­phy takes full mea­sure of the au­thor

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - ANN LEVIN

Dur­ing his life­time, John Updike was ac­claimed as one of the great­est writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, the poet lau­re­ate of mid­dle-class, small-town, Protes­tant Amer­ica.

From the time he was a boy, sub­mit­ting ar­ti­cles and draw­ings to school news­pa­pers in his beloved home­town of Shilling­ton, Pa., un­til his 2009 death at age 76, he pro­duced an end­less stream of short sto­ries, nov­els, es­says, po­etry and crit­i­cism — more than 60 books in just over 50 years.

Now, af­ter five years at work in the Updike ar­chives, Adam Be­g­ley has writ­ten an in­dis­pens­able guide to the man and his work. A for­mer books edi­tor at the New York Ob­server, Be­g­ley ap­proaches his sub­ject from the per­spec­tive of a lit­er­ary critic.

As Updike him­self of­ten ac­knowl­edged, his life was the ba­sis for his fic­tion, and Be­g­ley care­fully, decade-by-decade, documents the sim­i­lar­i­ties, iden­ti­fy­ing in short sto­ries from the late 1950s, for in­stance, the first glim­mer­ings of adul­ter­ous feel­ings that Updike would fa­mously ex­plore in 1968’s Cou­ples.

“The more Updike one reads, and the more one learns about his life, the more bla­tantly ob­vi­ous it be­comes that he was en­thralled by the de­tail of his own ex­pe­ri­ence,” Be­g­ley writes. Yet Updike’s fic­tion was not merely “the prose equiv­a­lent to a live we­b­cam,” he adds. “He selected, he edited ... sharp­en­ing the blur of daily life so that mean­ings be­gan to emerge.”

Updike called it his “re­lent­less do­mes­tic re­al­ism,” and it reached its apogee in the four Rab­bit nov­els about Ev­ery­man Harry “Rab­bit” Angstrom, each one set in a dif­fer­ent decade against the back­drop of a chang­ing Amer­ica, from the 1950s through the ’80s.

Be­g­ley, whose fa­ther, the nov­el­ist Louis Be­g­ley, was a class­mate of Updike’s at Har­vard, is par­tic­u­larly well-suited for the job of Updike bi­og­ra­pher. In the in­tro­duc­tion, he re­counts a fam­ily anec­dote about the time that Updike vis­ited his par­ents not long af­ter he was born, saw the tod­dler in his baby chair, and showed off his lesser-known skills as a jug­gler. Young Adam laughed.

Over the decades Be­g­ley has re­mained a fan, yet his af­fec­tion hasn’t blinded him to Updike’s short­com­ings, in­clud­ing the oft­heard com­plaint that he ob­jec­ti­fied women. He sees Updike’s strengths and his weak­nesses, and pre­sents the full mea­sure of the man in this en­gross­ing and fair-minded book.


Lit­er­ary critic Adam Be­g­ley has writ­ten an in­dis­pens­able lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy of John Updike.

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