If you happen to be one of those people who notice what is on my currently reading widget over on the right there, you may have noticed that I have been reading Updike, by Adam Begley for several months now. It’s not that I’ve been remiss in updating my currently reading selection, it’s that I really have been working on Updike that long. I’ve read several other books over the same period, but I keep sampling Updike in tasty little 5-10 page morsels. Here’s the deal – John Updike led a pretty boring life, all-in-all. Until I read this book, I didn’t realize how much of his writing (of which I am a huge fan) is autobiographical. Begley has created a mash-up of biography and literary criticism out of necessity; there would be no way to separate the two. The book seamlessly weaves his story with his stories and I am enthralled.
After college and before kids I was an author binge reader. When I read something I enjoyed, I would read everything my local library shelved by that author until I was sated. John Updike was one of the authors that I discovered and devoured during this period. He is equally adept with poetry, short stories, and novels. I think one of the reasons that I admire him so much is that he is the kind of writer that I wish I could be – an observer and chronicler of life.
I’m also envious of the man’s ability to just plain do the work of writing. Updike’s drive, focus, and ambition are evident throughout Begley’s book. Earlier this week I came across this passage:
…David remembered going with a couple of his siblings to visit their father in his downtown Ipswich office sometime in the sixties. As they climbed the stairs they could hear the busy noise of his typewriter, a continuous clickety-click that ceased the instant they knocked. The children piled in to the office and delivered some message or made some trivial request. Their father was perfectly happy to see them and faultlessly attentive; he wasn’t remotely grumpy about being disturbed. After a few minutes, their business settled, the kids trooped out again, shutting the door behind them – and before they reached the stairs, the clatter of the typewriter had resumed, rapid-fire, unbroken.
By contrast, for the rest of us, I came across this passage from an interview of writer Italo Calvino that appeared in The Paris Review:
“Every morning I tell myself, Today has to be productive—and then something happens that prevents me from writing. Today … what is there that I have to do today? Oh yes, they are supposed to come interview me. I am afraid my novel will not move one single step forward. Something always happens. Each morning I already know I will be able to waste the whole day. There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills … always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. While I am out I also do errands such as the daily shopping: buying bread, meat, or fruit. First thing, I buy newspapers. Once one has bought them, one starts reading as soon as one is back home—or at least looking at the headlines to persuade oneself that there is nothing worth reading. Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then … I cannot do without them. They are like a drug.” – from William Weaver’s interview of Calvino in Paris Review.
It made me laugh. And it made me appreciate even more what kind of person Updike must have been just to produce the volume of quality work and at such a consistent rate throughout his entire life.
There are no long passages of Updike’s work, but the biography is peppered with short phrases and sentences from his published work as well as correspondence and interviews. And it is Updike’s quick insights that have always been my favorite part of his writing. This book is not interesting enough to absorb myself in for hours at a time, but it is truly delightful in small doses and I will keep it on the bedside table for a page or two before lights out. I’m also looking forward to reading and/or rereading some Updike. With the new insights gained from reading Begley’s book, it can only be an even better experience.