As the two-week mourning period for John Updike comes to an end, I pledge to turn my mind to other matters . . . after no more than four or five more hosannas.
I’ve been waiting to see what The New Yorker, Updike’s “home base” for half a century, would do to honor him in its pages, and the result is, for me, a mixed bag.
First the good. In one of two “Talk of the Town” pieces in the Feb. 9 & 16 issue, Adam Gopnik takes the measure of Updike and says that he
“. . . fulfilled Virginia Woolf’s dictum that the writer’s job is to get himself or herself fully expressed without impediments–to do so as Shakespeare and Jane Austen did, without hate or pause or protest or obvious special pleading or the thousand other ills that the embattled writer is heir to. Woolf meant not that the writer’s job was to write a lot, or to register the self with a splash, but to get his or her real experience down: all the private pains and pleasures, the look on a loving parent’s face when humiliated in a school corridor, or the way girls smell in football season–to get it down and fix it there for good.”
Based on my reading of almost all Updike’s 50-plus books–novels, short stories, reviews, poetry, essays–that nails it. I don’t know of another fiction writer who touched more points on the spectrum of human existence than he did. Wherever you go, as I’ve discovered over more than three decades of reading him, Updike has been there.
The other adios-Updike piece is by the wonderful Roger Angell, the country’s finest writer on baseball, still going strong, it seems, at almost 90. He admits that some of his own prose style, so well displayed in The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings and other works, was unconsciously cribbed from Updike.
Starting in 1976, Angell served as Updike’s editor at the magazine, which must be a bit like hiring on as Tiger Woods’ putting coach. Angell’s tribute seems especially fitting since he is the stepson of the legendary E. B. White, another New Yorker star, and the son of Katherine White, one of the magazine’s founding editors. Taken together, these names bookend a proud history of which Updike was so much a part.
Then comes a lengthy section the magazine calls “Picked-Up Pieces,” after the title of one of Updike’s own nonfiction books. It’s ten or so pages of excerpts from many of the stories, poems, reviews and miscellania Updike published there from 1956-2008. If you haven’t been an Updike fan, it’s a nice sampler to whet the appetite.
Okay, all good, so what’s my beef? Well–the obsessed can never be satisfied– couldn’t they have instructed one of their clever artists to give us an Updike cover?
They did a cover for Ray Charles when he died. They must have done 10 of Bush. Even Tony Soprano got a cheesy portrayal on the cover. But no cover for the greatest writer ever to grace their pages? Go figure.
I even had a cover design in mind, picturing a rabbit (after Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom) slipping from a well-manicured lawn (in a comfortable Updikean suburb) under the fence and into the dark thicket of woods that surrounds and transcends the world Updike loved and illuminated so well.
What do you mean, “heavy-handed symbolism?”