Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Rabbit Remembered—McEwan, Amis and Others Wave Goodbye

Among the many tributes to John Updike, perhaps the most expansive and detailed is Ian McEwan’s fine essay in The Guardian. Mr. McEwan has been publicly praising Updike—the “reticent, kindly man with the ferocious work ethic and superhuman facility”—for decades. Here he trains his craftsman’s eye on the mechanics of Updike’s method:

“Like Bellow, his only equal in this, Updike is a master of effortless motion—between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalization, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic. For his own particular purposes, Updike devised for himself a style of narration, an intense, present tense, free indirect style, that can leap up, whenever it wants, to a God’s-eye view.”


A FEW OF my favorite passages from the flood of eulogies:

“I love Updike’s writing so much I can barely read it. My eye falls on a sentence. My mood has already improved. I slam the book shut. Another sentence may do me in. Still, I read on, and my mood goes vaulting upward yet again. This isn’t reading; this is drinking. I read him in order to become ebullient. Those extra words he plunks into his sentences, the unusual images, the way that everything seems to shimmer, his habit of dissolving each new visible thing into microscopic radiant glints of God knows what—every last over-the-top element of Updike’s prose has the effect of lighting me up.” —Paul Berman

“Updike was congenitally unembarrassable and we are the beneficiaries of that. He took the novel onto another plane of intimacy: he took us beyond the bedroom and into the bathroom. It’s as if nothing human seemed closed to his eye.” —Martin Amis

“Even when his essays included a harsh criticism, he politely coiled it, tucked it inside, part snake, part rose, and the reader would feel the bite sprung silkily only at the end—in a balletic allegiance to both generosity and candor.” —Lorrie Moore

“Updike’s example seemed the model of a real writer’s life, in that this was an existence spent not in talking about writing, promising to write, boasting of having written or telling other people how they should write, but simply in the act of writing, every day, for decades.” —Zadie Smith

“Now and then he would turn up at the office, startling me once again with his height and his tweeds, that major nose, and his bright eyes and up-bent smile; he spoke in a light half whisper and, near the end of each visit, somehow withdrew a little, growing more private and less visible even before he turned away. The fadeaway, as I came to think of it, may have had to do with his exile from his own writing that day, while travelling; the spacious writing part of him was held to one side when not engaged, kept ready for its engrossing daily stint back home.” —Roger Angell


AND HERE—one last fadeaway—is the first paragraph of an interview Updike gave just three months ago (the interviewer is the eminent Peter Conrad):

“‘Lately,’ said John Updike, ‘I’ve been feeling not so much a wish to die as a wish that being alive didn’t generate so many demands.’ Sitting across from Updike in a Boston hotel suite with my notebook open, I was the demand, and I have to say that he looked equal to it: now 76, with a wintry shock of white hair, his eyes gleamed in his angular, beveled face, and his mouth curved in wry amusement. ‘You write a book,’ he went on, ‘and that generates demands, like this interview—though of course I’m sure it will be perfectly delightful!’”

Updike was right, as usual: The interview is a delight, Updike as the polished old pro, charming, sly, gracious, generously intent on the task at hand. Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Rabbit Remembered—McEwan, Amis and Others Wave Goodbye