Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No More Words

I am always, it seems, so far behind the curve that news of significant events can sometimes elude me for days or even weeks. This is partly by design when one is living, as I am, in self-imposed exile. But it can be aggravating. When I was living here in the Philippines in 1995, I heard about the Oklahoma City bombing at a friend-of-a-friend's birthday party three days after the event. So it did not surprise me, however much it grieved me, to find out on Valentine's Day that John Updike had died on January 27.

Most of the people who marked his passing in print knew him for his novels, which he turned to after becoming celebrated for his short stories. I first encountered his writing in the short form and I must have read every one of his story collections one after another in my middle twenties. I found his first novel, Of the Farm, a comedown from his stories. He got better at novel-writing, but I was never attracted to them. He was much like John Cheever, another great American short story writer and fellow contributor to The New Yorker, to whom Updike was a kind of spiritual successor.

But because writing was as much of an avocation as a vocation for him, he was sometimes guilty of writing too much, of turning his beautifully turned voice, which I would liken to John Gielgud's sonorous speaking voice, to subjects that were clearly beneath him. His essay collections are a disappointing grab bag of sometimes serious, but too often frivolous opinions and arguments. And because he could not seem to avoid striking beautiful poses, some of his more sincere professions of taste were unconvincing. He wrote poetry, which was dutifully published, even if it showed more intelligence than poetic talent.

Increasingly, as he grew older, he used his novels to explore an American scene that, as always, cried out for a literary intelligence to chronicle. But for all the substantial gifts that he lavished on them, and for all that the era, which is also my own era, needed and deserved his loving attention in prose, I feel certain that it will be his stories to which readers will return, time and again, as long as English is still a living language. He was easily one of the finest American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, like Bellow and Roth. I am only sorry that I did not discover him at an age when he could have meant so much more to me.

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