THE AGE – May 27 2002
Ginny Dougary

Greengage Harris tweed jacket. Matching-coloured eyes which glisten with merriment as though he is enjoying an ongoing private joke. An imposing nose, flared nostrils over unsensual lips which become coated in white at the corners when he has been talking for too long. Pleasant old-timer’s voice, punctuated by lilting rises; the mellowness of the delivery slightly at odds with the sharpness of his mind. Long, tapered fingers. Not a nail-biter. Clicks them occasionally when attempting to summon a recalcitrant word. Steady hand as he fills our glasses with water. For someone who has suffered from nervy conditions since boyhood – psoriasis, and a stammer that returns at times of crisis – he is strikingly still and self-contained. Hard to prick the mask of inscrutable affability. A hearty laugh which belongs to a larger, thigh-slapping man. Trousers? Shirt? Shoes? Blank.

John Updike, once described as compulsively observant, as though there were something faintly unhealthy about the novelist’s greed for detail, reckons that we all have within us the capacity to make connecting notes between the outward minutiae of a person and what those apparently trivial things might signify about the character. Everyone operates by this shorthand but it is the writer’s job to amplify and orchestrate that process of decoding in order to bring his creations to life in the reader’s mind. Thus Updike, whose microscopic intensity is so extreme it can sometimes seem almost hallucinogenic, will describe at great length the way a woman peels and eats a piece of fruit or the precise way someone performs the tricky task of arranging peas on a fork; transforming the ordinary, everyday act into a sort of symphonic ritual entirely specific to this or that character.

“When you write, I think you draw upon a lot of things you didn’t know you knew,” he says. “We all have an immense reservoir of observation and experience which you try to bring into play when you write. I may be unusual in that I sometimes try to describe the small things, but you hope that even the little detail reveals something about the character and the kind of struggle that’s going on here. There’s the hope that you will take the hitherto unobserved detail and lift it into significance. Lift it into the light.”

Updike has lived in Massachusetts for so long – he and his second wife, Martha, a retired psychiatric social worker, have spent most of the 20-odd years of their marriage in the same gracious white house, overlooking the ocean, not far from Boston – that he could easily pass for a native of the state. He certainly has that New England tilt towards self-deprecation and a generosity of spirit unmarred by gushiness which is so appealing to Old Englanders, but clearly not so agreeable to some of his fellow Americans. “I think his magnanimity is specious,” wrote John Cheever in a letter published posthumously, adding for good measure that “his work seems motivated by covetousness, exhibitionism and a stony heart”. Pretty wounding, particularly since Updike looked upon the older writer as a mentor as well as a friend.

So, in his modest way, Updike draws my attention to his deficiencies as an observer. He says that he’s hopeless, for instance, on clothes – always having to ask his wife what people were wearing, not even able to remember the colour of a woman’s dress. He believes that women are always much better than men at this sort of thing, although some men get it right – “Philip Roth is quite good about clothes, I think, and clothes certainly should be observed. I tend to let the world wash over me, you know, and hope that something has stuck. Like when you go to the beach and find all the sand in your shoe … I’m not very conscious about it.”

I point out that he is, perhaps, a little over-fond of the peasant blouse. Before we met, I’d read the four Rabbit books – with that mounting sense of excitement that I was in the pages of a colossal work, a modern American classic (how could I have not read it before?) – and their novella postscript, Rabbit Remembered, at the end of a new collection of stories, Licks of Love. And my only quibble is that every 10 years – the gap between each Rabbit book – at least one woman gets to wear a peasant blouse, as does one of the female characters in Licks of Love. Now perhaps the peasant blouse is in its own way a timeless classic, never out of fashion (it’s certainly in again now), but… “All right, no more peasant blouses,” Updike says amicably. “Maybe my first wife wore them a lot. I don’t think my second wife does, but I’ll have to ask her to make sure.”

The first book of his I read was the notorious Couples, Updike’s graphic exploration of middle-class adultery in New England suburbia. I got hold of a copy shortly after it was published in 1968, when I was a precocious 12-year-old. “That’s about right on your maturation curve,” Updike grins. At this distance, there’s very little that lingers from what is still probably one of the writer’s most famous novels, along with The Witches of Eastwick, which has been made into a film and a musical … only the vaguest, impressionistic memory of tennis (or possibly golf?) clubs and cocktails and American cars, dinner parties simmering with subterranean tension and covert, joyless sex in what seemed to a prepubescent reader to be rather baffling positions.

Couples was described as a kind of underhand propaganda for oral sex – several publishers declined to touch it – and Updike as its presumed advocate was expected to respond to a battery of embarrassing questions. “You can’t deny that the book is somewhat about oral sex,” he says. “It’s about why some couples link up better than others and it often is perhaps a matter of sexual positions, tastes or whatever. It hardly bears talking about, but it did bear writing about, I thought.”

He had some pretty strong attitudes about women and sex at the time, although his comments may have sounded less shocking then than they do now. He appeared to believe, for instance, that what many women really wanted was to be raped “…and civilised man has lost the ability. Perhaps what goes wrong with some marriages is that you can’t rape your own wife.” When I read this out, there is a little pause and then: “Clearly I was in a different psychological place than now, I guess.”

I wonder whether his views have shifted dramatically in the intervening three decades, thinking that, if so, this must feel like being mugged by your old quote. “I’d be too savvy and too politically correct to say that now, but I do think there’s something in it. I’m interested in female sexuality and what women say about it because – as Freud has been chastised for saying – it really is a mystery that somehow remains a mystery amidst all our shamelessness,” he replies evenly.

“What do women want? They write and read romantic novels in which they are, in effect, raped … yes, carried off and told what to do, as in that French thing L’histoire d’O. There is a masochistic or submissive streak in females. And even a man feels the voluptuous pleasure of having things taken out of your control. Humans beings kind of like that.”

There is a sense in his fiction of Updike pushing himself to a point beyond his own embarrassment. Almost no bodily act is too private to remain unexamined. Both Harry (Rabbit) and Janice Angstrom, the central couple of the quartet, furtively masturbate while the other is asleep. Harry washes his arsehole before going to bed with someone else’s wife who then invites him to bugger her; an initiation which takes on a heightened, almost metaphysical quality not unlike one of D.H. Lawrence’s darkly rhapsodic moments. And yet, unlike Lawrence, there is none of that primal struggle for ascendancy between men and women at the point of meeting: sex, certainly for Rabbit, seems more like a short cut to oblivion than a way of illuminating intimacy. This may partly account for why some women readers dislike Updike’s fiction, although, as Germaine Greer told me in defence of Dennis Potter’s later work – women too often make the mistake of wanting men to write about things the way they’d like them to be, rather than how they are.

For all the boldness and dash of Updike’s work and, indeed, on occasion, his life – as a young man it was brave of him to leave the staff of The New Yorker, where he’d always dreamed of working, to strike out on his own as a writer in the country, with a young wife in tow – there is something distinctly safe and old-fashioned about him in person. He doesn’t have that edge of danger or the bristling energy of older American writers of his stature, say, Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer or even Arthur Miller. He is a Democrat, partly, one suspects, because that’s the way his family has always voted. Divorce for him was a sort of troubled adventure (he once referred to the “racy glamour” of second marriages), since it meant breaking away from the Updike tradition of staying together “no matter how much you fought or were miserable”. His fondness for golf and the church, his loyalty to presidents and those who serve the community, his dismay at the Stars and Stripes-burning protests of the late 1960s which prompted him to flee to London, his belief in hard work and his iron-clad sense of duty to the vocation of writing … these are the strands which appear to be uppermost in his make-up.

The emphasis on sex in his fiction – and Updike does concede that he writes about it possibly to an abnormal degree – may be his only outlet for misbehaviour. When he describes himself as “a very law-abiding, disciplined, docile type”, I ask him whether his years as an enthusiastic adulterer were his one form of rebellion. “Well, writing about it enthusiastically may be the rebellion,” he counters. I had assumed that Updike had some personal knowledge of what he was writing about. “There must be some experience there,” he says, “but probably less than you think. I’m really a sort of sexual innocent, otherwise it wouldn’t interest me, I suppose.”

Isn’t that a bit of a cop-out? “No, I’ve been thinking about it since I’m about to be 70 [his birthday was in March] and I think that’s a very good description,” he says. “I was an only child, which gives you one degree of innocence in that you don’t have the rough and tumble and get to see your sister undressed or any of those little moments that a large family can bring. Raised in a sort of straight, middle-American kind of environment by my parents – although they were, in a way, liberals – but anyway, I certainly think I came to sex later and less ably than many of my contemporaries and most people my age of later generations. So I’ve written about sex because it’s a sort of astonishment to me. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’m still astonished. Astonished that we do this,” his voice lifts with wonderment, “and that people will risk their livelihoods and their marriages. Nothing gets higher priority.”

Updike certainly knows what he’s talking about here since his first marriage eventually collapsed under the libidinous strain of the swinging ’60s and ’70s. Several of the stories in Licks of Love, the new collection, have a strongly autobiographical flavour … the grim challenge of how to exterminate the legions of wild cats on his late mother’s land, lovingly fed by her towards the end of her life; the childhood scene of hearing his mother berate his financially strapped schoolteacher father for borrowing money from a school basketball fund; a two-page tribute to a youngest son, “Oliver”, who suffered most from his parents’ divorce; a homosexual vagrant’s obscene overture and its effect on our protagonist. All these stories, Updike acknowledges, have been carved out of his own life.

Natural Colour – a reference to whether or not the husband’s lover’s red hair is dyed – has a number of devastating lines about the conflicting toll of infidelity … “His own [marriage] was enhanced by his betrayal, his wife and children rendered precious in their vulnerability. Returning to them, damp and panting from his sins, he nearly wept at their sweet ignorance.” In the story, the husband chooses to stay with his wife despite being madly in love with the other woman. “It happens in my fiction, yeah, more than once,” Updike says. So did this ever happen to him? “Yes, I think you could say that,” he says. Does he have permanent regrets about those sorts of decisions? “No, I don’t. Maybe I’m rather deficient in regrets in my life,” he replies. “I’d probably be a better person if I regretted more. But at the time you do what you can and you try to be a good citizen and a decent family member, but I’ve always seen my duty as ultimately to my writing and so I’ve tried to take care of the writer first, I guess.”

There is something about this last statement that is, if not chilly, then certainly somewhat daunting in the absolute, unwavering sense that Updike has of what must take precedence in his life. With more than 50 books under his belt – including poetry, essays, criticism, a memoir, a play and children’s fiction – as well as the stories and pieces he still writes regularly for The New Yorker, he certainly cannot have any regrets about squandering his talent. What I don’t really believe is that the writer is as dispassionate about the more personal aspects of his life as he chooses to make himself out to be.

I had brought up the John Cheever stinger fairly early in the interview, and Updike had indeed been most (unspeciously, it seemed to me) magnanimous in his response. He said he was stunned and shocked when he first read it, but that “there may be something in it. Cheever was a very shrewd guy.” Updike went on to say that, no, he wouldn’t have dreamt of rebuking the man if he had still been alive – “chastisement is no way to treat an older writer” – and then spoke fondly about their trip to Russia at the height of the Cold War – after which Cheever penned his damning comments – and how much he was charmed by him: “John was so funny, so irreverent, so unintimidated by this, what I thought, fairly intimidating surround of totalitarianism … but not John.” I could not help contrasting the mildness of his response with Paul Theroux’s vengeful book when he was snubbed by his erstwhile mentor and friend, V.S. Naipaul.

The comment which seemed to make the strongest impression was the one about his “stony heart”, which is interesting since it is surely about Updike’s defect as a human being rather than as a writer. He says another writer, the late Alfred Kazin, wrote about Updike’s “keen-eyed child’s view of the world, without that element of empathy into adult doings” – which is certainly a less harsh way than Cheever’s of putting it.

Throughout the interview, he circles back again and again to the nature of his heart. He says that he grew up learning to be “tactful” because both his parents were hotheads and his mother, who had dangerously high blood pressure, was particularly explosive: “…and maybe that’s why I developed this coldness – which ties in with the Cheever quote, doesn’t it? – this terrible coldness that” he sounds haunted by himself, “John, who was very perceptive, felt.” Later, when I ask him whether he was flirtatious when he used to drink – he stopped because of the medication he takes for psoriasis – he says, “Yes. Probably. But I was always a kind of controlled drunk when I was drunk. I was always, you know, that cold-eyed guy.”

And, yet, would someone who was so essentially cold have been so tormented by guilt as he was when he eventually did leave his first wife, Mary, and their four children? Would such a flint-hearted soul talk about “having sought in agony for divine reassurance”, as he once did? Even now, when he is, as he puts it, “thoroughly grandparented”, he still says, with the rawness of recent pain, that it’s the worst thing he’s done in his life. His stammer would return, like verbal stigmata, whenever he saw his children. “It’s not as though they were complaining – they weren’t,” Updike says. “It’s not as though they were infants, either. The youngest was 10, the oldest was 18 more or less, and they were … they were all stoical. But, no, I felt rotten. It’s something my father would never have done. And, well, time heals most wounds,” he clears his throat aggressively, “but, yeah, the guilt, some guilt, is still there.

“On the other hand, you’ve got to take the overall picture. I was the person with the cards and so in the end I had to make the decisions. But I think it was … it was not ruinous for anybody.”

He says that he and his wife argued a lot and that although most children are scarred by the divorce of their parents, it’s probably no worse for them than living under the shadow of a bad marriage. “My parents fought,” he says. “My mother talked about getting a divorce and moving with me to Tucson, Arizona.” How old were you when she burdened you with this information? “I would have been maybe between 11 and 12,” he says, and then, seeing my expression, “Wild, wasn’t it? But it was just talk. We didn’t have the resources to do any of that, fortunately. And I loved my town [Shillington, Pennsylvania] and I loved my father and I was pleased that they stayed together.”

The most recent story of his that was published in The New Yorker was about him trying to fathom his parents’ “glue” – a favourite Updike word for describing the chemistry between a couple – “and their courtship because my mother would only talk about it ironically. It’s sort of primal, isn’t it? What made these two people get together, because without them, you wouldn’t be here.”

Linda Grace Hoyer, Updike’s mother, was an aspiring writer herself; one who appears to have been highly competitive with her son. When her only child first met with literary success, she said that she would have been happier if it had happened to her. The New Yorker did run 10 of her stories, after Updike had made his mark there, and two of her novels were published, Enchantment and The Predator – although she managed only to see the proofs of the second book before she died.

Given that he is held in such high regard as a critic, I wonder what Updike thought of his mother’s writing and if he had expressed his views candidly. “I thought she was quite good,” he says. “And she wrote wonderful letters. She would probably have been a better writer if she’d worked less hard at it. But she was kind of inhibited and never really grabbed her own anger – didn’t get at what was agitating her – in the way that a younger woman, a woman now probably would easily. I would give her criticism, although she couldn’t really take it very well. But I was encouraging, and so was my father, and we were all thrilled when she got into print.”

One has the feeling that his mother was permanently aggrieved by the way her life had turned out. Updike’s grandfather lost his fortune in the Depression and his father lost his job as a travelling salesman. In order to get by, his mother took a job in a department store – which must have smarted – and his father taught maths at his son’s local school.

Updike inherited her sense that he was a cut above his schoolmates, whose fathers tended to be tradesmen. “I was very prickly and vain, and believed I was some kind of aristocrat who had been stolen by gypsies,” he says. He may have had private piano and tap-dancing lessons, but the other families always appeared to him to be better off than his own. “Their children all seemed to have more sweaters than I did,” he recalls. “And sweaters was the index of wealth. If you could wear a different kind of sweater to school every day…”

It was his father’s sister, Mary, who sent her nephew a subscription to The New Yorker on his 11th birthday. He was instantly smitten, even at such a young age, initially by the cartoons, since his first ambition was to become a cartoonist. “Aunt Mary and her husband lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, in what I thought was a rather fancy way,” he says. “They drank cocktails and smoked a lot of cigarettes and, yes, I aspired to move to Greenwich and live like them.”

I wonder whether Updike’s mother encouraged him to look upon his father as a slightly inadequate figure? “Yeah, yeah, I think she did, quite frankly. She did encourage me to see him through her eyes. There was something about him which drove her wild. She was a sort of a redhead and had quite a hot temper and … I always thought he didn’t do anything wrong. I thought he was good and kind and taught Sunday school, and did all manner of good things,” he says.

He suffers some guilt, he says, about exposing him in the story My Father on the Verge of Disgrace – but as a child he always felt that his world was about to collapse, and his father would be dragged off to jail, and that he and his mother would be put out into the street with their furniture. He writes about the discomfort of sitting in the classroom in front of his father who was too little of a disciplinarian to control his pupils: “…in my helpless witnessing I was half blinded by impatience and what now seems a fog of love, a pity bulging towards him like some embarrassing warpage of my own face.” But the story ends with a touching reprieve: “Nothing but death could topple him, and even that not very far, not in my mind.”

In the introduction to the handsome Everyman edition of the Rabbit quartet (all four books were published in a single volume for the first time in 1995), Updike writes that Rabbit was “a receptacle for my disquiet and resentments”. Rabbit Angstrom – a sort of angst-ridden Everyman, himself – son of a Lutheran typesetter, who reaches his peak in life as an 18-year-old basketball champ, marries too young (like Updike, who was 21), runs away from his responsibilities with tragic consequences, seems as though he will never amount to anything (and probably worse), maddeningly, frighteningly passive in the first two books, a nebulous drifter through life who only becomes solid in the third book when he inherits his father-in-law’s Toyota franchise, a compulsive adulterer with a fatal junk-food addiction in his final years … well, not quite the alter ego you might expect from a man who as a boy believed himself to be an aristocratic changeling.

What is wonderful about the books, the first one written in 1959 and then published at the cusp of each new decade, Rabbit ageing at the same rate as his creator, is that the characters and their lives seem utterly real, however surreal their circumstances. And more than that, particularly read as a whole, they do what great fiction does, which is to reassure the reader that however grim life seems to be, most of us will somehow muddle through and – if we are lucky – experience the occasional, transcendent glimpse of joy.

The Rabbits continue to repopulate; they must now be in their umpteenth printing, despite the cavils from some critics – particularly in America – that Rabbit is too much of a prole to feel and see as eloquently as he does.

The suggestion seems to be that a Harvard alumnus, who walked straight into a job at The New Yorker, could not possibly divine the inner workings of the average working-class American man. “Well, there might be some truth in what they say, but my defence would be that we all feel a lot, and sense and know a lot of things that we don’t express,” Updike says, “and so what the author tries to do is to put that into words. Undoubtedly I do give Rabbit the benefit of some of my best thoughts and my keenest perceptions because I see no reason in withholding from him any more than Shakespeare withheld eloquence from anybody. You just try to test each sentence as it goes along and if it feels all right to you, you have to go with it and suffer the criticism. Because for me if you work too hard at making him [Rabbit] limited and making him stupid, then you’re not going to engage the reader.”

This mention of Shakespeare reminds me of the ending of Rabbit, Run – the harrowing first book of the tetralogy. (They became more up-beat, as Updike has pointed out, when their author remarried.) Young Janice Angstrom, deserted by her husband, in a moment of drunken haphazardness, drowns her new baby daughter – a tragedy which reverberates throughout the rest of the characters’ lives. “Never hear her cry again,” Harry grieves at the funeral, “never see her marbled skin again, never cup her faint weight in his arms again and watch the blue of her eyes wander in search of the source of his voice. Never, the word never stops, there is never a gap in its thickness.”

Those “nevers”, even as your eyes well up for Rabbit, are an echo of another, more famous fictional loss – King Lear holding the prone body of his most dearly loved daughter, Cordelia, in his arms before he dies of grief. “Yes, it’s a line that you always remember, isn’t it?” Updike asks. “It’s terrifying, that neverness. It takes five [or six, in his case] ‘nevers’ to do it. You fall into it naturally, of course, since that’s what you think about when somebody’s dead. Never, never, see them again. Never get to hear them make a joke again, never…”

If Rabbit was the receptacle for Updike’s resentments, Nelson, the Angstroms’ son, seems to have been the vessel for the author’s sense of parental guilt. Writing about Rabbit Redux, which followed Rabbit, Run and is probably the darkest of all the books, he describes Nelson as remaining “the wounded, helplessly indignant witness. He is ever shocked by ‘the hardness of heart’ that enables his father to live so egocentrically, as if enjoying divine favour.” Re-reading these lines after our interview, I was struck by how much they chimed in with the encircling thrust of our conversation – prompted by Updike’s preoccupations rather than my own.

It is Nelson, he says, rather than his father, who is really the hero of the books: “You’ve seen him first as a very little boy, given one trauma, and then 10 years go by and he gets another trauma … It’s no wonder he’s a little jittery.” When I ask him if there is a direct emotional connection between his authorial investment in Nelson and Updike’s feelings about his own sons as they were growing up, he concedes there is. “I tend to feel guiltier, this is just between us … and your readers, of course,” he adds dryly, “about the boys. I don’t know why. Chauvinism, I suppose. But in this guilt towards the left children, the boys moved me more. Somehow I think the girls understand. Do I think they are more resilient?” he asks himself. “I don’t know what I think. But the two boys have been lightning rods for my feelings of guilt and angst, and so on.

“Maybe it was identification, too. In that I can easily see in them the little vulnerable boy that I used to be and not wanting my parents to separate and just wanting things to go on. That’s what children want. They want things to go on from day to day until they can cease being children and get out.”

It’s a measure of how much I was drawn into Rabbit Angstrom’s internal world that I found the new novella – Rabbit Remembered – something of a disappointment. It felt almost as though Updike had committed a breach of etiquette, to take us back into Harry’s universe when he was no longer there. I found myself missing the way he looked at life; his struggle to prove that he wasn’t altogether past it; his losing battle to control his various appetites. It didn’t seem right for there to be a resolution without Rabbit being part of it. And I felt outraged, on his behalf, that Janice had ended up marrying the man he most despised.

I wonder why Updike felt the need to provide this coda, when he’d always insisted that there would be no more Rabbit books. At first, he seems to imply that he only wrote the novella as a way of filling out half a book of short stories: “And I thought that it would be a discreet way to touch base without going back on this vow that I so solemnly took. It’s really about Rabbit as a ghost, in a way.”

In 1995, the author was clearly beset by intimations of his own mortality: “I had wondered if I would live to the year 2000,” he wrote in the Everyman edition, “for this fresh printing, apt to be the last I shall oversee…” Perhaps he found it a comforting extension of his own life beyond death to have Harry still being talked and thought about 10 years after his coronary coup de grâce. But he also seems to have felt the need to give the story – particularly Nelson’s – a happy ending. “I thought we needed to know whatever happened to Ruth’s child. [In the last book, Harry is convinced that he has a grown-up daughter by the woman he was living with while Janice was pregnant with the daughter they lose.] Yes, I did,” he says. “And I assumed that you all care about Nelson and how he is doing. In the last book he was a not very satisfactorily cured coke addict, so…” So Updike has made amends, while he still can.

He once referred to the bliss of writing. Could he describe that state of being? “There’s the feeling of having written a happy sentence, making a happy connection, of the music beginning to play. And along with that, of describing something well enough that has never been made quite real in words before. But for me the bliss of writing is mixed in with the bliss of being in print. The book itself is where the heavy bliss comes in. The notion that you’ve made an artefact as good as you can make it – flawed no doubt, but as good as you can do for now. And to see it taking its place in the world – that you’ve brought something in that wasn’t there before – I suppose that’s where the bliss lies.”

I wonder, finally, whether it still gives him a kick to see his name in print. “I don’t see it often enough, actually. And I keep seeing words like Upside and Upstate … and all these words take my eye, and I think I’m being mentioned and it turns out to be just some other word that begins with a capital U. So yes,” he smiles, warmly. “I guess I do like seeing it in print.”