Thursday, May 15, 2014

What Mattered was Writing: Updike by Adam Begley

Reflection on Updike by Adam Begley (New York: Harper Collins, 2014). 

I win a drawing for a day off, sleep in to 6:30, and take my marked-up copy of Adam Begley's Updike to IHOP.  Between bites of pancake and sips of coffee, I review my notes on this review of a life endlessly reviewed for nearly six decades by the subject in his own writings -- most of which I've read.  Should someone notify the Department of Redundancy Department?  Yet, after an hour or so, I drive away feeling content.  What do we Updike readers get from Begley's biography that we haven't seen many times before?

At least we get some sharper edges to facts that were blurred by invented details whenever Updike revisited homes of his past.  "Naomi" is the name of his girl friend from high school, called "Nora" in his memoir, "Nell" in his early story "Flight". His mom, whom he portrayed as a disappointed "aspiring writer" actually published as many stories in The New Yorker as J. D. Salinger. and more novels.  The Other Woman, for whom he almost left his family in 1962, was Joyce Harrington, familiar in spirit to anyone who has read Couples, Marry Me, Villages, the Maples stories, and many other stories besides.

Others' perspectives on Updike correct his self-portraiture.  His ex-wife Mary was "dismissive of Updike's female psychology" when he devoted half of Marry Me to the perspective of Ruth, her stand-in: "Possibly," Begley opines, "she noticed that Ruth spends a disproportionate amount of her time brooding about her errant husband" (252).  Drawing on letters from Updike's Harvard roommate Christopher "Kit" Lasch and memories of chums from the Harvard Lampoon, Begley gives us Updike as some of them did, as social-climber (82) and practical joker, albeit talented and manically hard-working.

Three themes emerge in Begley.  First, we read the phrase "he couldn't help himself" enough times that it begins to sound like an ironic comment on Updike's worst behavior.  Updike may have used the same excuse for himself.  In a review of a book about the Tristan myth, written during his affair with Joyce Harrington, Updike objects to the idea that adultery is narcissistic: "But what of that thunderous congestion in the chest...which Tristan endures at the sight of the Unattainable Lady...?"  In other words, what if Tristan just can't help himself?  In the story "Separation," Updike's stand-in Richard Maples weeps at the head of the table, alarming his children, until his wife has to explain that mommy and daddy will be separating: "He could not help himself" (352).  When both Updike's mother Linda Hoyer and his son David each published stories based on the facts of his divorce, he felt "hemmed in -- an absurd reaction ... but as usual he couldn't help himself..." (384).  Did he repeat himself in his final decade of writing? "He couldn't help himself.  The compulsion to circle back... grew stronger as he grew older" (469). 

This theme threatens to make Updike repellant as some of his worst critics always said, blurring the lines between author and creations:  Rabbit, Bech, Maples, and all those other self-indulgent, sometimes cruel, sometimes misogynistic protagonists.  In his book reviews, he's so polite and so insistent on appreciating whatever's there to like about an author, that I was shocked to see some gratuitous discourtesy to Philip Roth (280).  Begley gives us a capsule description of the serious faults that Updike keeps mostly out of his collection of autobiographical essays Self-Consciousness:
[Revealing] flashes of cruelty, promiscuity, narcissism, and petty vindictiveness, the essays are only selectively indiscreet.  His fits of avarice, for example, and his tendency to meet emotional crises with a vacillating indecision to what he elsewhere called emotional bigamy -- those faults are not on show. (427)

I, for one, was a bit disappointed to see just how closely the incidents in the lives of the fictional Maples family hew to the facts of Updike's own marriage to Mary, from bikes and college greens to a whiff of adultery on a snowy night, to the tears (the father's, and later, the son's in my favorite story, "Separating" -- see note, p. 354) to my favorite detail, a kiss that concludes the ceremony of divorce.   Nonetheless, the artistry is in the use of the detail, not in its fabrication.

Another theme is Updike's sensitivity to those criticisms that still cling to his name: that he writes only about himself, or else, that he writes about nothing.  He was first called "shallow" at 25 (153).  Through Begley, we see how he purposefully stretched outside of his own experience to include wide-ranging observations of contemporary culture and events (in Rabbit Redux and beyond) and assiduous research into the Koran (The Coup, Terrorist), car dealerships (Rabbit is Rich), and computer science (Roger's Version)

The third theme turns out to be the best thing about Updike, and maybe an excuse for the worst.  In his son's words, "writing had to take precedence over his relationships with real people" (9).  But for Updike, description was his expression of love.  Begley, reviewing Updike's copious letters to mother Linda, tells us that he sent "weekly bulletins" on his children's growth, "clearly as much for his benefit as hers."  Begley explains, "As so often with Updike, looking, seeing, and noting on paper were acts of worship: description expresses love" (231).  He felt an "inner remove" from the "merry-go-round of Ipswitch adultery" that "freed him from the moral and social constraints most adulterers surrender to," according to Begley (294).  "What mattered most profoundly to him wasn't sex or even love; what mattered was writing."  In his last days, having already written the last expression of gratitude in his last poem, he was "angry," not at death, but at his inability to write (482). 

Begley is a good writer in his own right, letting themes emerge organically from the roughly chronological outline of the chapters, and dealing with those themes through Updike's own early and late writings.  He begins the book, not with Updike's birth, but with a reporter's tour of Updike's hometown, led by the author himself, layered with the fictionalized version of that tour published by Updike a few months later, to explore the biographer's themes of fact, fiction, memory, and the "dangerous" streak under Updike's congenial public persona.  Then come chapters on his Mother, drawing on facts and fictional versions by Mother and Son; then high school and Father, and so on.  Begley's masterful description of Updike's method in Self-Consciousness is a pretty good description of Begley's own work: 
Self-Consciousness is the trace of a mind speeding back and forth like a weaver's shuttle between idea and thing, knitting together abstract and concrete, word and flesh. (428)

Begley shuttles between the facts of Updike's life and Updike's imaginative versions.

In the end, Begley knows that he can do no better than to quote Updike himself, for his last poem "Endpoint" considers all these matters in meter and rhyme -- how he chewed up life (and wives) and "spit them out" in type, how his memories "have no bottom," and what Begley calls "nostalgia...pure as sunlight in the dead of winter:  'Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life'" (482).


1 comment:

George said...

Nicely done, as usual, Scott. I wish I had become acquainted with Updike in my earlier life; it seems to be too late now.