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.
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
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