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Updike, by Adam Begley, Harper, RRP£25/RRP$29.99, 576 pages
“His schedule remained essentially the same for the next fifty years” is a sentence to make the heart sink, coming as it does fairly early on in Updike, a hefty new biography of the great American writer.
Although John Updike was the author of more than 60 books in total, including novels, poetry, essays and short stories, his biographer Adam Begley is faced with the same problem as a director making an author’s biopic: he can’t just show his subject typing all the time. Yet that’s pretty much all that Updike did. Actually, that’s slightly unfair. He also brought up a family, had affairs and played a lot of golf. But that doesn’t exactly make him a Hemingway in terms of having a gripping life story.
Updike was born in Pennsylvania in 1932; in 1945, the family moved from small-town Shillington to a remote farm in Plowville, a house that would later haunt his fiction. Updike’s mother was also a writer, though an epic historical novel remained unpublished. As her son was to do, she mined her life for her work. Linda Updike was ferociously ambitious for her clever son; he went to Harvard, where he excelled at the undergraduate magazine Lampoon as a poet and cartoonist. He was talent-spotted by the New Yorker in his early twenties and, after a stint at Oxford university, worked briefly at the magazine. Here comes the next great life decision; already married with two small children, he turned his back on the big city and returned to small-town life in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Begley is unashamedly on the side of his subject and his ardent wish is for “the beginning of a surge in [Updike’s] posthumous reputation”. Making up for the lack of incident, he foregrounds the literary work, examining Updike’s fiction closely. This can be a little bewildering as we read précis after précis, rummaging for evidence of Updike’s own feelings. But Begley is a generous and perceptive reader, illuminating the different alter egos – Henry Bech, “Rabbit” Angstrom, Richard Maple – who populate the fiction.
Often, what makes an author groundbreaking will eventually date them; in Updike’s case the beady eye on sexual escapades, the slavering attention to women that can make him a bit creepy and sexist to later readers. The novel that made him famous, Couples (1968), detailed the swinging scene in Ipswich, where “it was a matter of a certain pride to be sleeping with John”, as one wife told Begley. (Disappointingly, the women spoke to Begley on condition of anonymity, adding to the air of detachment over the whole book.)
There are a few lively episodes: Updike’s unfashionable pro-war stance regarding Vietnam; his friendship with Philip Roth and its painful break; his growing fame and wealth; and attempts to grapple with the changing times. Much later there is a critical backlash; Begley loyally defends his hero. Small incidents loom large: one hostile reviewer, eight years later, invites Updike to a conference. Begley quotes the refusal as an example of Updike’s “impish” wit – “I guess I’ve recovered from your review ... but it was nip and tuck for a while, with intravenous glucose and months of staying quiet in a dark room ... ” But you can’t help thinking: eight years?
The biggest drama by far is Updike’s divorce of his first wife, Mary, after two decades of marriage. For years he had been compulsively writing stories about his unhappy family life that had to be put “on the bank” at the New Yorker, too hurtful to publish.
The mistress who broke up the marriage and became his second wife, Martha, is notably absent from the acknowledgments, unlike Mary, who is thanked prominently: “An inspiration to me from the day of our first interview.”
Martha’s first husband, a lawyer, threatened legal action if his children appeared in Updike’s fiction. Begley is very careful around Martha, though he permits himself a few digs. When Joyce Carol Oates, a friend, declared that Martha was Updike’s “equal in every way”, Begley cattily comments of some notes to friends from Martha: “To judge from the brisk confidence of those postscripts, she, too, thought she was John’s equal in every way.” To Martha fell the common role of the second partner to a famous person, that of gatekeeper and guard.
Updike’s habit of fictionalising his life continued: Begley notes a story in which a “crisp and forbidding” second wife is a “fearsome nag”. In our last glimpse, Martha shoos Mary away from Updike’s deathbed in January 2009. In the only photo of Martha here, she looks gimlet-eyed and implacable.
This is a generous tribute to an amusing and brilliant man but, ultimately, there just isn’t much incident. Not all great writers merit a big biography.