John Updike, Sans Nobel Prize

Hearing about the death of John Updike saddens me. And maddens me. So long as the prolific author lived, there was always a chance that the Nobel Committee -- that bastion of proud obscurity -- might correct one of its greatest errors. Having won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the Rea Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Medal of Arts, the O. Henry Award, and even the Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, he kept writing on and on. Only the Nobel remained beyond his grasp.

Was he grasping for it -- or was he thumbing his nose at Stockholm? After all, he toyed with the Swedes in his witty short stories about the Nobel laureate Henry Bech. Perhaps Updike was working through his disappointment by describing how little joy the prize brought his alter-ego.

Author John Updike takes part in a panel discussion at BookExpo America 2006 in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

Last year on the Book World podcast, Marie Arana asked Mr. Updike how he felt when the head of the Nobel committee complained about Americans' ignorance and insularity. "Well," he said dryly, "it didn't bode well for any American getting the Nobel Prize, so in that regard I was sorry to read it."

He should have won for his "Rabbit" tetralogy alone. Those four masterful novels about Harry Angstrom, starting in 1960 with "Rabbit, Run," remain the best depiction of the 20th-century suburban male ever written. Of course, the notorious sex scenes (in the Rabbit books and others like "Couples" and "The Centaur") attracted the most heated attention -- both pious condemnation and clandestine delight -- but I was always more impressed by the daring intimacy of his depiction of spiritual angst. That, after all, is really the last taboo in America. Everybody talks about sex, but Updike was willing to follow the tortured Protestant soul right up to the edge of the abyss. I'll never forget selfish, irresponsible Rabbit watching the churchgoers on Easter morning from the window of his lover's apartment. Or the moment when something shifted in Rev. Clarence Wilmot's soul, and his faith suddenly evaporated -- for no apparent reason at all. In book after carefully crafted book, Updike brought us those harrowing insights laced with wit.

In the mid 1980s, he spoke at Washington University, in St. Louis, where I was in graduate school. As soon as he left the auditorium, I darted out after him with my copy of his latest novel, "In the Beauty of the Lilies." His handler blocked me when I asked for an autograph. "Mr. Updike already had a signing in the book store," she snapped.

"Oh, it's just this one," he told her, as though asking permission as he reached for my book. "Surely, I can do that."

For five decades there didn't seem to be anything he couldn't do.

-- Ron Charles

(* More Updike coverage: Obit | Gallery | Podcast interview | Post Mortem | Achenblog)

By Ron Charles |  January 27, 2009; 3:31 PM ET Ron Charles
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Well said--The fact that John Updike has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature undermines the credibility of the award itself.

Posted by: dr_terrapin | January 28, 2009 12:18 AM

Shut the hell up...John Updike was never that good. Just because his publicist was able to grease some pulitzer board members, the Nobel prize is a totally different ball game.

Posted by: August30 | January 28, 2009 11:33 AM

Posted by: subwayguy | January 28, 2009 12:07 PM

John Updike was the rare writer who left a huge oeuvre and still crafted every sentence. We'll also miss the man as a perceptive art critic.

Asked about the drudgery of writing during his "In Depth" appearance on Book-TV, I remember him saying: "Even on the dreariest of day, I find that one well-written sentence will lead to another."

John Updike's at rest. "Enough." There will be no more dreary days for the Old Rabbit in front of the keyboard, but all lovers of literature will sorely miss those well-written sentences.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | January 29, 2009 10:08 AM

I do have a question. When the nightly news teased early in the broadcast that a great American writer had died, I thought "Well, maybe Salinger." Updike would have been one of my last guesses.

Were you insiders aware that he was in a terminal state? I remember Marie's recent interview with him. He sounded just as robust and life-positive as ever (at least for a man in his 70s).

Also, like you and many others, I pulled for him each October. When he made his "In Depth" appearance, a lady called in and said it was one of the biggest disappointments in her life, that he hadn't received the Nobel. With his usual one-of-a-kind charm, he smiled warmly and said, "Well, thanks for caring."

He went on to say that he hadn't thought much about the Nobel until his name started showing up in lists of prospective Americans. He said that once you are considered to be in the race, that "Of course, you want to win." He went on to say that since it had not happened to him in his 60s, his sense was that it had "passed him by."

I thought his Henry Bech conceit where his Jewish alter ego actually delivered his acceptance speech in Stockholm but none of us heard it due to a baby crying (think I remember that right) was so imaginatively Updike. That should have worked. I really don't want to accuse the august Academy of tin ears. Still.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | January 29, 2009 3:44 PM

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