Interview with John Updike
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McEwan I’d like to start by taking you to an early point in your career. In your early twenties you’d spent some twenty months in Manhattan when you suddenly tired of the literary operators – what you call the Weisenheimers. So you decided to cut loose and move out of the metropolis. It was a crucial artistic decision. I wonder if you could say something about that. You seemed to know what you wanted and where you wanted to go.

Updike It turns out to have been a life decision. I thought the move might be temporary; I saw that I was giving up a rather good, safe thing. I had a job with the New Yorker, a magazine I’d loved since I was thirteen – ten years before I was actually hired by them. So I had everything I wanted – and yet it wasn’t what I wanted. There was a lack of physical space and a lack of psychic space also. I felt oppressed by New York. I attended a party given by the late Brendan Gill, which was attended by a lot of old New Yorker hands, all grizzled and old and hard-drinking. I looked at them with my naïve provincial eyes and thought, do I want to wind up like this? I thought not. And we’d been looking for a bigger apartment because we had a second child, my first wife and I. So I had this Road to Damascus revelation that I could maybe leave New York at least for a while – go to somewhere remote and cheap and try to write a little bit of what I felt was in me. I had various Pennsylvania boyhood impressions I wanted to get out of me, and I thought I’d be a better writer if I could get out of New York.

McEwan Did you have a sense that you were travelling towards a subject matter, that you could discover an America nobody else was touching on?

Updike I think I did have some feeling at least that America was out there. New York was another country – fascinating, and people get addicted to it and can’t ever move out of it. But it wasn’t the America that I thought needed writing about. There were a lot of writers already covering New York. So the town we picked was in New England. My wife was a New Englander. I didn’t want to go back in the direction of Pennsylvania which had my very pleasant parents in it, but was territory that I knew and where they knew me. They had my number, so to speak. I was Wes Updike’s kid and John Hoyer’s grandson. I wanted to be somewhere where I could, as they say Americans do, make yourself. So we moved to New England. Ipswich, to be exact. Nice town. Well-chosen town, actually – a little off the commuter beat, a little beyond the commuter belt of Boston.

McEwan You began sending what you described as despatches from a terra incognita – or what would have been incognita without you.

Updike I did say that. Rather conceitedly. Because there were other literary people around me, heaven knows. This was New England after all and a centre of culture – Hawthorne, Marquand, the professors in Cambridge. But, no, I did feel that nobody was experiencing middle-class life quite the way I was. So what I had to say was news, at least in my eyes. And I think to the New Yorker, too, because they took a lot of the short stories I wrote; it was by those short stories that I supported myself and my family. Back then it didn’t take much to support a family. Believe it or not, a couple of thousand dollars a year would do it. Not in great style, but it would do it.

McEwan But you did what from this distance looks like a very 1950s thing. Marry young, accept the responsibility of a family – you were in your early twenties, weren’t you?

Updike Yes. We met in a fine arts course. I discovered when I was already smitten that she was a senior. I was only a sophomore. So she was an older woman. I was afraid if I didn’t marry her, she would get away. We got married between my junior and senior years. I was a married senior at Harvard, and probably not a very good student as a result; my academic career peaked in my junior year. I know it sounds bizarre in today’s world and it was a little bizarre even then. What our parents in their hearts thought, I can’t imagine. But somehow in the headlong momentum… Maybe I was rash. I sound rather rash, don’t I? Married young, got out of New York for no real reason…

McEwan Well, we’re the ones who benefit because you began to describe a fairly cohesive world. In the very first Rabbit book, Rabbit, Run, we see that world – coherent and ordered, but beginning to fray at the edges a little, too.

Updike The sense of entrapment that Rabbit feels was, I suppose, a version of some of my own sensations. But…

McEwan You felt you’d plunged in too deep, too soon?

Updike I might’ve felt that. But also it was cosy. One man’s trap is another man’s nest. I had both feelings. I certainly wouldn’t have done it otherwise. You make your choices early and I didn’t feel there was a tremendous world of options. Courtship was still a fairly old-fashioned staid thing, supposed to end in marriage. And now I was married. But, yeah, Rabbit was a handy vehicle for exaggerating and expressing my own anxieties and anger even.

McEwan Because there was a generation of writers like Kerouac urging people to, as it were, get On the Road.

Updike I know he’s seen as a precursor to the great revolution of the 60s. But Kerouac annoyed me because he created very unrealistic expectations.

McEwan So Rabbit runs – but you suggest vividly there’s a price to pay for this running. The novel ends with the death of a baby…

Updike That was my thought. That to go on the road does exact a price. That we’re all enmeshed in society enough so that, if we move, the rest of it jostles. The plot of Rabbit, Run illustrates that others are affected. To get on the road, he has to abandon a wife, and in her distress she accidentally drowns the baby. I dreaded writing that scene. Some writers – perhaps you among them – rather relish scenes of violence. Having avoided violence in my life, I tend to avoid it in my fiction. Which is wrong, since violence is part of life. Yes, maybe it’s a key part of life. I put off writing that scene, then I wrote it all in one day full of cigarettes and dizziness, to get it out of the way.

McEwan You break the news of that scene ominously by telling us, not that the baby was dead, but that the worst thing that could happen to a mother had happened, and that she was aware of that. This is a chilling, bleak way of presenting the scene to us.

Updike The worst thing that has ever happened to anybody in effect has happened to her. And there was a sense of her hugging an imaginary God by the knees so as to unmake this event.

McEwan You still keep an eye on current literature. You review contemporary fiction. Is there someone still out there in that terra incognita among young writers? Are those reports still coming back?

Updike I’m probably not as much of an expert on the young writers as I should be. And if I were a more paternal type, I’d be following them and nurturing them. But I’ve always rather dreaded other, younger writers, who would have the same appetite and hunger that I had once. There’s a number of young American writers but they don’t have a much of a platform. I think. They either write a magnum opus or nothing.

McEwan The wish to write the great American novel seems very strong.

Updike I know. And it seems to me such a bogus ambition, such a crippling ambition to begin with. Better to begin modestly and it becomes great under your hands. You discover its greatness. Ulysses began as a short story, one more Dubliner. But to begin with the notion of bigness is daunting to the author and I would think somewhat paralysing.

McEwan Whereas that whole world of small-town America, from this distance, now looks like a community – an intact world. For example, in Rabbit, Run, when Rabbit’s marriage starts to dissolve, it’s the local minister, the priest who gets involved and tries to put it back together. That would be inconceivable in the world, say, of Rabbit at Rest 30 years later. Do you feel that America has lost something of that coherence?

Updike Yes. You remind me that my most recent novel is an attempt to describe the village mentality. It’s called Villages. I suppose I was born into a village world, where people looked out for one another and, indeed, interfered if needs be. And Rabbit is in that world. The minister intrudes because he has the abandoned wife in his parish. I suppose there’s less of that now. Norman Mailer, who says many wise things, said that the strip mall has killed the small town – that the small town no longer exists. The old villages were isolated in farmland – even my home town of Shillington had farms between it and the next town. You don’t have that now so much, in the East at least.

McEwan Now and then we are reminded, though – for example, when the first American went on trial after Abu Ghraib, we saw on TV his hometown and people there were outraged. They rallied round the accused. Perhaps fragments of this old-fashioned American small-town cohesiveness survive.

Updike I’m a child of the northeast, the most congested and oldest and most metropolitan section of America. That young man, I think, came from Maryland, where Maryland becomes almost West Virginia, where you do get these communities, smallish and often embattled, because the mining industry or whatever supported them has left. An awful lot of our soldiers come from less privileged areas and social strata like that. So, yes, it’s touching. This man who has been tried, and the people who will be tried, are by and large small-town kids. Not very old either. I’m glad you noticed this aspect of it.

McEwan Maybe that’s where a young John Updike should head off to – and send us some messages.

Updike I’ll think about that. I’m kind of old to do that, you know. The time when I should’ve done this kind of roving and adventuring, I married instead. That was my adventure – so I’m a man of domestic adventures almost exclusively.

McEwan I know you have high regard for Nabokov’s writing. In one of his lectures, on how to read a novel, Nabokov urges his students to fondle the details first. Only then might they allow themselves to graduate to what he calls ‘the moonshine of generalisation’. I’d like to dwell on details now. Sometimes I sit around with friends, talking about American writing. The mood is often celebratory – especially when we turn to details. And especially when we turn to details in your work. There are these turns of phrases, little edgy asides. I’m not going to ask you where they come from. I really want to talk about pleasure. For example, a baby ‘corkscrewing’ in Henry Bech’s arms. Or that moment when Harry Angstrom is lying in his thin-walled room with his lover Jill – and his son Nelson is next door. The mad, revolutionary, inspirational figure Skeeter is downstairs. And the lovers are making too much noise. They have to be quieter because, as you say in an aside: ‘the rooms are quadrants of one rustling heart.’ It seems to me an inspired little sentence.

Updike Yeah, I’m dazzled. I’d forgotten I’d ever written that…

McEwan Even as I say it now, I realise it’s an iambic pentameter. I just wonder, when you make those little landings, do you get a thrill of pleasure? Or is it just an onward rush? And do you punch the air, as it were?

Updike I think some of the happiest phrases – as you would know as well as I – are those you’re not especially aware of being gems when you strike them off. There is a certain heat – you’re trying to get the imagined moment into print – and you maybe excel the demand by coming up with a phrase that turns out, when you look at it in cold blood, not so bad. But you can’t have too many of these, of course; the reader can’t be constantly stopping to fondle these phrases.

McEwan Don’t you want them to stop and fondle?

Updike I don’t mind that, but I would hope to sort of enlist them in the story and have them keep moving forward. But maybe not as rapidly forward as say some other writers would drive them. Yes, you should read slowly enough, because what is readerly pleasure but phrases that scintillate and express something that hasn’t quite been said that way before? I can remember reading by accident Nabokov’s first stories in the New Yorker – and I said, what is this? This is like another atmosphere. I mean, dazzling! And a man whose native language wasn’t English was doing all this! That kind of pleasure is what Shakespeare gives us after all, isn’t it, again and again? Oh my God, what did he just say! And it’s all so compressed and yet offhand in an odd way.

McEwan Here’s another detail from Roger’s Version. Lambert lies to his wife, ‘trusting my face, that thin-skinned traitor, to back me up.’ Lovely, compacted imagery.

Updike Please.

McEwan What I get from this is a sense of gleeful pleasure in the undertaking. That actually when things are rolling for you, you’re in a kind of heaven.

Updike When you’re in the scene and when the words are flowing, it is a sort of short-lived heaven. But there’s scratching out, obviously. There’s scratching out and worry. At first, you get a cloudy image and then you try to find the words. And sometimes the words have a kind of musical harmony with other words. It’s really those moments of harmonising and of echoing that you like, and that give a page of prose a certain abstract form. As well as telling the tale and moving the story along. You must have a story.

McEwan There’s always, I think, something funny about good writing – something hilarious about it. I mean, a good image – even in the saddest scene – still lights up a little corner in your mind…

Updike You’re right. It’s making language do something antic, in a way, isn’t it? A little like rhyming, as opposed to not rhyming, poetry. Some characters permit antics on the part of the author more than others. Lambert is an educated, sardonic, conflicted man. Henry Bech is saturated in the verbal, the world of print and words and so on, so you can let it out a little more than with, say, Harry Angstrom. Harry, you must keep reminding yourself is a high-school graduate, a man of very limited perspectives.

McEwan You once said of the Rabbit books, or maybe of just the first Rabbit book, that it was an exercise in point of view. Here you have a limited man, and yet somehow you want to be able to give us the full blast of your consciousness through his. That seems a difficult undertaking.

Updike It was. And maybe I didn’t succeed. Certainly, the book was criticised. People said Harry knows too much and thinks too much. And he thinks much more than most people do. In fact, we don’t think – or I, at least, go through life in kind of a fog basically. People expect writers to be extraordinarily observant. I don’t feel I am especially observant. I often have to ask my wife about what clothes somebody would be wearing or was wearing. As to Harry’s given limitations, somebody said of Shakespeare that he always gives everybody eloquence. In a novel, you have to give the characters eloquence and not be constantly chopping them down to what you think is the correct size. Anyway, everybody senses more than they could say. A novelist tries to give people the words to express what in fact almost everybody does feel. We’re all aware of things in the corner, of things bubbling inside. We’re constantly mediating between these worlds of outside and inside, with many more nuances than can be captured even in James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. And Joyce obviously made a great attempt to capture the way we move through life.

McEwan You confer on Harry and other characters a ruthless honesty. For example, ‘just yesterday it seems to him she stopped being pretty’. Or in Couples, the moment when one of your characters, Piet, is making love – he closes his eyelids in case he might find her plain. You have a sort of tough-mindedness that also carries with it this edge of hilarity.

Updike Well, we are involved, at least till a certain age is reached – and I haven’t quite reached that age yet – in sexual combat of a sort. The Elizabethan sonnets get it right. The eyes are out there flashing and one is making all of these observations about mostly the opposite sex and their beauty. One of the truths about sex is that we males are searching for beauty; it’s rather lovely, really, when you think about it. But when the beauty is not there, that fact is registered too. It’s too darkly Darwinian, isn’t it? Only the lovely get the prize. Anyway, I’m sorry if Harry appeared rude.

McEwan But this is interesting because it’s such an important element in your work – in the moment of lovemaking there is a pursuit of something we might even call the eternal, but there’s also disappointment. When Harry Angstrom finally makes love to Ruth, for example, there’s a moment of exquisite tenderness followed by sadness, I think – of the kind referred to in that famous Latin tag – omne animal post coitum triste est. But there is a quality of religious pursuit in your characters’ sex lives, isn’t there?

Updike You know who wrote that? Thomas Aquinas somewhere. Are we surprised that he would know enough about sex to say that? That all animals are sad after coitus. But, yes, I was excited about that scene with Harry and Ruth because I don’t think I’d described lovemaking in my fiction before. And here I’d given myself the license to go ahead and try to do it. Somewhere in there, when it’s all over, or mostly over, he thinks, ‘The body lacks voice to sing its own song’. The feeling that you can’t do enough physically, that you’re physically limited – that people are more or less homely, we’re all mortal, we’re all decaying even as we watch – so to try to have an exalted experience with one another is in a sense a strain. It’s an effort but a rewarding effort. But thank you. You’re making me think about that scene. I remember my then mother-in-law drily remarking that I’d gotten rather carried away.

McEwan Yes, you say: she is first and waits for him, while at a trembling extremity of tenderness, he traces again and again the arc of her eyebrow with his thumb. His sea of seed buckles and sobs into a still channel. We might’ve given the impression earlier that you were going off into safe territory by quitting Manhattan, but really the opposite is the case. Didn’t you have trouble with lawyers at this point? You really were striking out, in a very clear sense, with precision in description and getting into the fine print, as it were, the act of lovemaking.

Updike Right: the fine print of the act of lovemaking. It wasn’t as if I was entirely breaking new ground – there had been Joyce and D H Lawrence and Henry Miller in his fashion. But I was trying to bring to it even more attention, if I could, than they had. So yes, that passage, when I hear it now, I wonder if it isn’t really rather overwritten. On the other hand, there’s a certain precision about it. I’m trying to describe the way love feels to him. He is in a sense swollen – in the middle of this act – and so these sort of feelings… The tracing of the eyebrow is quite striking – at least to me. You know, you forget. Or I forget what I’ve written, so if I act surprised or pleased, you must forgive me.

McEwan Over the years it becomes typical in your work – just behind the sex, lies the religion. Harry and Ruth are aware that it’s Sunday morning. The church across the road is filling. They actually have a discussion about the existence of God. The ex-basketball player and the small town prostitute have a theological discussion. They talk from gut instinct. She just knows there’s no one up there. He just knows there is. And this opens up a vast avenue for you, doesn’t it, in novels to come?

Updike Throughout the series, Harry runs up against people who inform him, more or less calmly: forget it, there’s nobody there, there’s nothing there. His own son becomes one of the more vociferous spokespersons for this point of view. But Harry, I think, even to the end thinks that maybe there is somebody else, somebody out there corresponding to his sense of the space inside him. He’s a natural believer. Not a theologian or very orthodox believer. And certainly rather antinomian in his behaviour; the same instinct that persuades him there’s somebody out there also persuades him that his other instincts need to be gratified. I mean he moves in the direction of happiness, you could say – whether it’s a woman or a father-figure of a God. Rather sleazy behaviour when I think about it, but that is sort of the way I do it, too. He’s open to ameliorations of the human predicament.

McEwan When your central figure in Couples, Piet Hanema, makes love outdoors, he’s rather troubled that he’s right under the eye of God somehow. In ways that wouldn’t happen in the bedroom. The sense that sex actually takes you into a closer, perhaps uncomfortable dialogue with this unseen presence is quite remarkable in your world.

Updike It’s a trouble for believers – and a source of mockery in those who don’t believe – that the Bible, especially the Old Testament but even the New, have to cope with the fact that we are sexual creatures. God’s pets in the Old Testament are often very sexy. David and Bathsheba come to mind. So in some way God condones sexual behaviour. In Europe, in England, this may not seem a problem. But in a country as puritan in its origins as the US, we’ve been slow to assimilate our creatureliness. Keep it in the bathroom, close the door and not talk about it. The same with the bedroom. And it was my modest mission to try to talk about it, to embrace the stretch between our most abstract and idealistic thinking and our actual physical behaviour.

McEwan There’s a telling moment when Harry is taken off by a starchy, venerable nun to look for the first time at his newborn daughter, the little baby that’s going to die. But as he follows the nun down the corridor that old reptilian brain just can’t stop. He’s thinking about her legs, he figures her for a good piece…

Updike Does he really?

McEwan Yes. ‘Haunchy’, he thinks. But that doesn’t stop him having the transfiguring moment when the baby’s held up through a glass pane. This is the 50s: you didn’t get so touchy-feely with babies then, I suppose. Then he feels a great fire going through him. ‘It’s like a damper being slid back in his chest.’

Updike Harry goes through life looking for blessings. The nun herself, the fact that this is a place run by nuns, blessing the fruit of copulation, after all, enrolling it in the pageant of human acts – this is somehow important to him. My initial conception of Harry, as signified by the title of the first book, was that he is a man on the run. He runs in part just as we run – in pursuit, but also in fear. We’re running from something. We’re afraid, we’re fearful, we’re full of angst. His name is Angstrom. So I see him as constantly looking for reassurance, really. And trying to find the way. Trying to find the direction to run, to move.

McEwan But the striving through countless seductions, or fantasies of seduction that drift across the minds of your characters, can never really bring them to a plateau of great satisfaction, can it? We come back to the sadness. They get a momentary exultation – and then life presses in and there’s an emptiness there that can’t be filled.

'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera