Co­me­dian and au­thor David Bad­diel chooses

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - David Bad­diel’s lat­est chil­dren’s novel, Birth­day Boy,

Co­me­dian and au­thor David Bad­diel se­lects John Updike

John Updike was an Amer­i­can nov­el­ist and short-story writer. Best known for his Rab­bit se­ries of books (1960–90), start­ing with Rab­bit, Run, he is one of only three writ­ers to win the pres­ti­gious Pulitzer Prize for Fic­tion more than once. His novel The Witches of East­wick was adapted for the big screen.

When did you first hear about John Updike?

When I was study­ing for an English de­gree at Cam­bridge, a lec­turer men­tioned Updike dur­ing a talk about sex, and as a lust­ful 18-year-old I was im­me­di­ately drawn to his work! To be se­ri­ous though, I was just as in­trigued by the speci­ficity of the lan­guage Updike used. His choice of words made the reader think anew about what was be­ing de­scribed and it was that which re­ally im­pressed me.

What kind of per­son was he?

Updike seems to have been a sin­gu­larly nice man – charm­ing, eru­dite, wise, softly-spo­ken and rather self-dep­re­cat­ing – very dif­fer­ent to a lot of the more ma­cho ‘Great Amer­i­can’ writ­ers such as Nor­man Mailer and Saul Bel­low. De­spite writ­ing quite ex­ten­sively about sex (in most of his books some­one has an af­fair), un­like these other writ­ers, in my opin­ion, Updike was not a misog­y­nist. He was ac­tu­ally quite in­tro­verted, had a bit of a stam­mer and var­i­ous ner­vous-re­lated skin disor­ders.

What made Updike a hero?

The qual­ity of the prose: he made ev­ery word count. A lot of great writ­ers oc­ca­sion­ally let a lazy or clichéd de­scrip­tion pass by their pen, but not Updike. His de­scrip­tions forge the world anew. You find killer sim­i­les or metaphors on vir­tu­ally ev­ery page. Un­like a lot of great post­war US au­thors, Updike also wrote about the or­di­nary man. And it was his un­be­liev­able abil­ity as a writer to make the most mun­dane, ev­ery­day sub­jects in­ter­est­ing that in my view makes him a greater writer than the likes of Philip Roth and Gore Vi­dal. His char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is also ex­tra­or­di­nary.

What was Updike’s finest hour?

His bril­liant se­quence of Rab­bit nov­els. In re­al­ity, the four-book se­ries is one novel, just writ­ten over a very long pe­riod of time. It’s a chron­i­cle of Amer­ica but also of one ev­ery­man, Harry ‘Rab­bit’ Angstrom, who’s not a par­tic­u­larly good per­son – he’s just a mix­ture of good and bad, like most of us.

Is there any­thing you don’t ad­mire about Updike?

His writ­ing went off the boil a bit to­wards the end of his life and I don’t like The Wid­ows of East­wick (2008), his last novel and a se­quel to The Witches of East­wick.

Can you see any par­al­lels be­tween his life and your own?

Al­most none – he wasn’t a co­me­dian or a Jewish athe­ist like me, and he didn’t know any­thing about football. The only sim­i­lar­ity is that we both write. But I’d like to think we would have got on.

What do you think he would have made of your books?

I hope he would have liked them. My adult nov­els are very in­flu­enced by Updike. I ac­tu­ally keep his books next to mine in the hope that some of his great­ness will rub off on me…

If you could meet Updike, what would you ask him?

I nearly did meet him. He gave a read­ing at the National The­atre and I’d hoped to get him to sign his lat­est novel, but the queue was just too long. I’d like to have asked him why he be­lieved in God. As an athe­ist, I’m al­ways in­ter­ested in why in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, like my friend Frank Skin­ner for that matter, be­lieve in God. David Bad­diel was talk­ing to York Mem­bery

“He made ev­ery word count. A lot of great writ­ers oc­ca­sion­ally let a lazy or clichéd de­scrip­tion pass by their pen – but not Updike. His de­scrip­tions forge the world anew”

David Bad­diel ad­mires John Updike’s “un­be­liev­able abil­ity to make the most mun­dane, ev­ery­day sub­jects in­ter­est­ing”

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