John Updike Dies
John Updike, 76, a leading American writer of post-World War II suburbia, died of lung cancer Tuesday, Jan. 27. He lived in Beverly Farms, Mass.
In an autobiographical essay, Updike famously identified sex, art, and religion as "the three great secret things" in human experience. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and almost every other literary prize available. Although himself deprived of a Nobel, he did bestow it upon one of his fictional characters, Henry Bech, the womanizing, egotistical Jewish novelist who collected the literature prize in 1999.
Some critics, like John Cheever, consider Updike "the most brilliant and versatile writer of his generation." He was called America's greatest poetic novelist, who skillfully wove metaphor, lyricism and detail into his narratives. Others say that his prose is superficial and overly descriptive to hide the fact that his work is about nothing.
He captured, and sometimes embodied, a generation's confusion over the civil rights and women's movements, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment. On purely literary grounds, he was attacked by Norman Mailer as the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing.
But more often he was praised for his flowing, poetic writing style. Describing a man's interrupted quest to make love, Updike likened it "to a small angel to which all afternoon tiny lead weights are attached."
Nothing was too great or too small for Updike to poeticize. He might rhapsodize over the film projector's "chuckling whir" or look to the stars and observe that "the universe is perfectly transparent: we exist as flaws in ancient glass."
With ominous frequency, I can't think of the right word. I know there is a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language. But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness. Eventually, with shamefaced recourse to my well-thumbed thesaurus or to a germane encyclopedia article, I may pin the word down, only to discover that it unfortunately rhymes with the adjoining word of the sentence. Meanwhile, I have lost the rhythm and syntax of the thought I was shaping up, and the paragraph has skidded off (like this one) in an unforeseen direction.
By Patricia Sullivan |
January 27, 2009; 1:27 PM ET
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