My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let me say upfront: I’m not usually a fan of biographies. They always end badly. Especially in today’s morally unanchored world, the towering ambition of most lives worthy of a biography leaves a path of destruction on the way to temporal success: families destroyed, other careers shortened, lives poorly and feebly lived, if not outright crippled with disease.
Despite being one of my favorite authors on late 20th century American life, John Updike does not diverge greatly from the pattern. While rocketing to success for being the first to indulge in and divulge rampant adultery in suburban America with his lightly-fictionalized novel Couples (1968), Updike – to his credit, later regretting “In our attempt to be beautiful, we often break a lot of innocent bystanders’ bones” (p.354) – left a path of destruction in his, and others’, children’s lives. It takes two to not only adulter, but to foster an environment in which it thrives, so Updike’s first wife Mary for years had affairs of her own. Yet, despite the murkiness of her transgressions, it can safely be assumed that Updike, not only as the man of the house but a powerhouse one, was most responsible.
Here was are, three paragraphs into the review, and not yet a word on the quality of Updike’s oeuvre, but biographies, and especially literally biographies, tend to do just that: focus us, in a sad Peeping Tom sort of way, on the particulars of an artist’s life rather than the supposed glories of his work. This is unavoidable, however, for we rightly suspect that the quality of a man’s character colors the quality of his work; particularly where the work is inscrutable or resistant to facile interpretation (as it must always be these post-modern times), a writer’s character becomes determinant, or controlling, a vital clue to the work’s trajectory and meaning.
Given all the challenges, new biographer Adam Begley has done an extraordinary job molding the life of one of America’s most famous recent authors, the first big bio since Updike’s death from lung cancer in 2009. He sets the tone early and well in his introduction. Snappily, Begley details Updike’s obvious charms, a prophetic first encounter with the great man from his crib (Begley’s father was a Harvard classmate of Updike’s), and ends the intro with a most winning, and agreeably humble, sentence: “It’s one of my fondest wishes that those books [the Library of America’s recently published two tomes of Updike collected stories] will mark the beginning of a surge in his posthumous reputation.” (Which this biography may ably contribute to.) We are immediately assured that such a big, important life is in the hands of a competent and sympathetic (not sycophantic) biographer.
Not only has he read all 29+ published novels, countless short stories, reviews, poems, and light verse, but a sizeable amount of the author’s correspondence, including with other authors (Joyce Carol Oates, in particular). No detail was too inconsequential for Begley to track down: he corrects Updike’s memory of past events in not-too-obtrusive footnotes (such as the source of his first wife’s French), and offers up the clarifying arcanity of New Yorker magazine payment particulars. He much more than ably weaves in quotations from diverse works without ever seeming pedantic. While, thankfully, avoiding psycho-babble, he brings insights into the potential motivations and drive of a literary titan hiding behind the vast facade of his public image – understandably so, as his “fiction” was almost always very thinly veiled autobiography. Peeking behind the veil, Begley does so with a light and competent touch, his literary judgments always well informed and argued, his psychological or moral ones a tad less so.
As the “it’s” of the Introduction quotation above, Begley writes with an informal style, a respectful and non-purple prose. Given Updike’s frequent lack of restraint when plumbing the depths of (his) sexual antics, Begley demonstrates an admirable remove, gliding swiftly over (the many) prurient details.
With frequent quotes, that tickle the palette like amuse-bouches, Begley builds a solid case for why the great man received so many awards (even if denied the coveted Nobel for Literature) and why we should care. Updike’s habitual self-deprecation is shown to be yet another lovely fruit of his generation. What I personally find most admirable is Updike’s startling and observant prose, coupled with his self-declared objective “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” He loved America and, unlike so many post-modernists, was unafraid to say so. Begley attributes this gestalt, and much else, to Updike’s only-son upbringing in the small town America of Shillington, Pennsylvania, an idyllic upbringing (rudely interrupted by his mother’s insisting on the young family’s retreat to the unimproved farmhouse of her own childhood), and that seems just right. His mother, a frustrated writer (though eventually with several published works and New Yorker articles to her name), was clearly a towering figure in his life, who not only breast-fed a massive belief in his importance and talent, but followed him diligently with a constant correspondence. (In today’s terminology, they were enmeshed.)
Yet – that familiar curse of the famous – Updike’s life ends badly. He ends the marriage to his first wife Mary (who comes off as a much more sympathetic person than Wife #2) after twenty-one years, and marries Martha, or Mistress #?, towards the end of his Ipswich romp. He demonstrates regret, even telling Mary at the divorce proceedings he would undo it all if he could, but in the end gets what he wants: a controlling wife who protects his privacy and writing time like a lioness her pups. Among those kept at a distance are his children, now doubly wronged. (As son David later commented: his father decided early on that his writing would “take precedence over his relations with real people.”) (p.410) His last three decades, accordingly, seem drained of color and warmth. (Begley, appropriately, titles his penultimate chapter “The Lonely Fort.”)
Begley’s judgement and task fail him in few areas. After prior allusions to the deleterious impact of Updike’s philandering on the children, he offers a justification for the serial adultery this way:
“Couples made him rich and famous – and, in a sense, notorious. But his notoriety – the winking acknowledgment of his dizzy ride on the merry-go-round of Ipswich adultery – is misleading. The novel was made possible not because he made a habit of bedding down with the wives of his friends but rather because he remained detached, because his “inner remove” freed him from the moral and social constraints most adulterers surrender to.” (p.294)
It is a curious supposition: that Updike’s art is validated by an inner remove (while wreaking havoc in the lives of others) which justifies his repeatedly going back to the same passion-well without, thank goodness, surrendering to the usual moral and social constraints. Wow! That sounds like a 007-like Licence to Bed.
A final area where Begley’s analysis likely falls short is with Updike’s “spirituality” (today’s non-terrifying euphemism for “Christianity”). One of the main reasons, at least for me, that Updike stood out from a post-World War II cohort of mega-stars who felt compelled to let it all hang out, was his professed belief. Begley, for good reason, treats the subject charily, for it represents the most glaring paradox of Updike’s life, that he remained a believing man while his actions confessed something else. Many Updike stories treat the spiritual crises of the protagonist’s. Begley writes that one such protagonist’s “religious doubts are eventually resolved to his own satisfaction (if not the reader’s – the boy deduces from the beauty of nature evidence of a caring deity.)” (p.40) Clearly Begley is skeptical of such deity-proofs. And while Begley makes many yeomen attempts at explaining Updike’s beliefs through those of his characters, I couldn’t shake the impression that the biographer was usually, while competently, speaking a foreign language. By adopting a non-judgmental tone about Updike’s philandering (“It seems clear that the time and place were also ripe for an unbuttoned pursuit of happiness.” “…they went too far, frolicked too freely. But I suspect that, at the time, they merely thought they were making the most of happy circumstances.”) (p.184), Begley seems to condone that the end, great art, justifies the means.
Alas, we only get cold gruel about Updike’s many spiritual crises. When a golf buddy quotes Updike as admitting that he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives,” (p.191), the reader has to wait thirty-two pages to learn more about the change in churches, after dozens of pages detailing the house and wife swapping. Given Begley’s declared desire to encourage more readers to return to Updike’s extensive works, perhaps it was better he tread lightly on issues of faith and belief, as they could well have condemned Updike as a towering hypocrite.
One of the biography’s few descriptive scenes of Updike’s faith (other than rosters of church committees and service) is how, as the father of an unbroken home, he would go from one child’s room to the next, together reciting the Lord Prayer’s before bed. It is heartbreaking that only after the long, thirty-two year distancing from his children during his second marriage, that the scene is repeated, if inverted, with Updike, on his death bed at the hospice, repeating the Lord’s Prayer with two of his adult children and his Episcopalian minister. (p.483)
Yet in the end analysis, Begley is largely persuasive: Updike’s paradise lost was his Shillington childhood. He concludes the opus of Updike’s biography with a curious echo of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud:
“Up until the final weeks of his life, when he was too sick to write, he was always that little boy on the floor of the Shillington dining room, bending his attention to the paper, riding that thin pencil line into a glorious future, fulfilling the towering ambition of his grandest dreams. ‘I’ve remained,’ he once said, ‘all too true to my youthful self.’” (p.486)
But even there, doubts creep in. Was the towering ambition his own or his mother’s? Did his early resentment of his mother impact his treatment of women? If he was all too true to his youthful self, did he ever grow up in a meaningful, even spiritual way? As Begley earlier admits, Updike “seemed incapable of changing how he behaved,” (p.350) and was “incorrigible.” (p.352) Not a kind judgement of any adult, for it implies the spiritual crises were never resolved favorably.
I, for one, am encouraged to return to Updike’s work, as an acutely and lovingly observed dissertation on the not-so mundane of American life. Yet, like one of his latter-day critics who, as I do, would characterize many of his passages as high-brow porn, I will delicately skip the pulpy parts.
(My grandparents and the Updikes were neighbors for many years, so I got to meet the man several times and exchange a few postcards. Adam Begley is an old friend from college days, to whom I wish a continuing and growing success – and more.)