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My memories of the American Dostoevsky

Justin Cartwright recalls his conversations over the years with John Updike, who died this week, and the master’s contention that the only excuse for reading is to steal

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

Justin Cartwright recalls his conversations over the years with John Updike, who died this week, and the master’s contention that the only excuse for reading is to steal

I love John Updike immoderately. I am profoundly shocked that he has gone, because he was for me the greatest American writer of the second half of the 20th century. He was also a gracious, charming and witty man. But above all he had a very rare quality in writing — absolute integrity. He never jumped on bandwagons, he never wrote down or pretentiously, he never pulled his punches, he never renounced his patriotism or his religious faith, as he applied himself diligently and sympathetically to his depiction of America in his time. He was also one of the most penetrating of critics, always honest, always looking for the best in a writer, always sympathetic to the great project, but at the same time relentlessly following the demands of a serious writer’s life. His son once described him as having a ruthlessness in family relations too, inclined to place the needs of his writing above the needs of his family. There are exceptions, but it is almost impossible for a writer to achieve the great heights without this quality of single-mindedness. He told me once that he liked to get up after the domestic chores in the house were complete: enviable but impossible to emulate in my house. In his great Rabbit series he displayed an almost chilling understanding of family.

Rabbit at Rest, the final book in the series, is an absolute masterpiece, and will live for ever: in it, his own description of his literary goals — to give the ordinary its beautiful due — is most fully realised. He told me that when he wrote the first Rabbit book he had no plan for a series, but decided to write another when a book he was writing seemed to him to be going nowhere, and in this way his most enduring legacy was born.


It’s a strange failure of the literary world that Updike never quite received his due. Despite winning two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards and countless other awards and honours, he was denied the Nobel. He got his own back, slyly, with a story about another of his creations, the hack writer Henry Bech, receiving the Nobel and delivering a mawkish speech in Stockholm with his new baby on his shoulder. There was something about the realism of his writing, his distaste for tackling big political issues overtly, which clearly placed him, in the minds of the Nobel academy, below Nadine Gordimer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Toni Morrison and many others, who appeared to write about issues of world importance. But of course, the state of a nation, the revolution in sexual attitudes, the question of the conscious life, the almost tactile sense of the American reality and destiny, are all great issues, without having to be flagged as such.

His greatest achievement to my mind was his ability to create characters out of the unremarked American middle class — a term which has a wholly different resonance from our own middle class — characters who live, even sing, out of their very ordinariness. When I wrote — at his instigation — the introduction to Rabbit at Rest for a new edition, I suggested that his great sympathy for and understanding of this vast group of golf-playing, adulterous and fundamentally religious and patriotic group was because, unlike most British writers, he had not sprung out of any class system, but from small-town America in its heyday, complete with his experience of the very democratic high-school system, and its fundamental optimistic sense of purpose. He seemed to agree with me. Or perhaps he was just being typically polite.

He himself has written of Rabbit that, ‘My intention was never to make him — or any other character — lovable.’ But the genius of Updike was that even a character like Rabbit Angstrom is lovable, because his weaknesses and his inchoate principles are so wonderfully and completely described, and tell us so much about small-town America, its longings and regrets, its ever-changing surface, and its mythological role. In the same piece, Updike explains that Rabbit ‘was imagined, at a time when I was much taken with Kierkegaard, as a creature of fear and trembling; but perhaps my college exposure to Dostoevsky was more central. Rabbit is like the Underground Man, incorrigible; from first to last he bridles at good advice, taking direction only from his personal, also incorrigible God.’ What I see here is that behind the apparently effortless creation of the common man, Updike has in mind a universal character, and I don’t think that it is at all fanciful to say that he was in his own way the American Dostoevsky, although I think he would have preferred to be compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I grew up reading Updike. I remember being alarmed to find that he had published short stories by the time he was 22. I think Pigeon Feathers was the first collection of stories I read. Only much later did I discover his non-fiction reviewing and art criticism. Hugging the Shore, all 900 pages of it, was the first book I ever reviewed. Since then, every ten years he produced another volume of his critical essays and speeches. There are many writers, and I am one of them, who dip into these collections for inspiration and even guidance. He said to me in a long and — for me — utterly memorable conversation in Boston, which lasted for four hours, that the only excuse for reading is to steal. When I wrote my first serious novel, Interior, I was inspired by a 1978 book of Updike’s, The Coup, which is set in Africa and will come as a delightful surprise to anyone who has only read his Americana. It is elegiac, poetic, playful and quite different from his other books, except in one respect: that it has that unmistakable core of human sympathy. The Coup demonstrates Updike’s great versatility in an exceptionally productive writing life. I have been proselytising about its virtues for years, and I feel I owe it and John Updike a great debt.

My most recent memory of Updike is of sitting next to him at dinner at Hay-on-Wye. My place card read ‘Justine Cartwright’ and I wondered if he was going to be disappointed when he discovered it was me. If he was, he gave no sign of it. To my enormous (and obviously rather pathetic) delight, he remembered every detail of our previous meeting.

I feel as though something very important has gone from my life, but then I would guess many hundreds of thousands share this feeling. By close examination, he made the ordinary beautiful.


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