UPDIKE & ME
Last night I learned that John Updike had died of lung cancer at the age of seventy-six – too soon to lose such a fine writer. It occurred to me that this most likely explained why I had never received a response to the last note I had sent him a few months ago. We had exchanged occasional notes over the past decade and met a couple of times, though we had never progressed beyond the Mr. Updike/Mr. Kennedy phase.
Teaching at a writers conference in New Jersey in 2000, I was delighted to learn that John Updike was the headliner. Not only that, but the organizer promised to invite me home for drinks and cigars along with Updike after the reading that evening. I had a mission; I was in the process of completing preparations for an anthology issue of The Literary Review entitled “Poems & Sources” for which I had selected a couple of dozen poems and invited the poets to provide an essay on how that poem had come to be written. I had some outstanding poets, including two or three Pulitzer Prize winners, but to include something from Updike would be a coup. I also had the miserable job of telling him that I had no budget to offer anything but copies in payment. Previously I had used a long excerpt from a review he had published in a book I wrote about Andre Dubus and got a bill from his agency which equaled about eighty percent of my advance on the whole book; I appealed to Mr. Updike and was granted permission for a double sawbuck. Now I would have to ask to use something for free and considered digging into my own pocket.
Prior to Updike’s reading at the New Jersey conference, there was a reception in his honor at the home of the president of the host college. When I arrived the guest of honor was understandably already surrounded by a double ring of academic admirers. I had met him once before, at a conference in the Netherlands, but doubted that he would remember me. I sidled up, cradling my glass of red wine close to my chest to avoid mishaps, in the hope of getting close enough to make my face visible to this great writer whose work had been a model of style for me since I was a teenager. As I penetrated the second tier of the ring of people around him, I became dazzled by the man’s aura – his stature, his bearing, his powerful smile, his great mane of silver hair.
I heard him say, in response to some comment, with a nonchalance that belied the profundity of his words, “Of course the easiest thing in the world is not to read a book.”
Instantly I recognized the truth of the statement; further I recognized that I knew this to be true but would not have had the awareness to have known that I knew it without Updike’s having said it. In the grip of this complex of truth and submerged awareness and his dazzling aura, the hand that clutched my glass of red wine spasmed, and I jostled the wine all over my tie and jacket lapels.
Clearly, the college president had hired only the most alert and alacritous servers for I was instantly taken by the elbow and spirited toward the kitchen by a woman who performed magic with a dishcloth and club soda, eradicating all trace of red wine from my best silk tie and pale grey jacket. When she was done, she gazed kindly into my horror-frozen face and asked, “Would you like another glass of wine? You’re welcome to drink it with me here in the kitchen. Perhaps you’d like to sit down?”
An hour later, Updike was on a stage reading to a theater full of some 500 persons. He read a story titled “The After Life” which I had read on the plane from Copenhagen to Newark, and its beautiful language combined with the mix of clarity and subtly and frank and honest revelation which characterizes the best of Updike fiction took my breath away.
The apres-reading autograph line wound up and down the aisles of the theater, at least 200 people, each holding several books. I waited in back with the organizers, Jean and Bob Hollander, who had recently published the first volume of their new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (a segment of which was to be included in my sources anthology), to drive back to the Hollanders’ for a nightcap and conversation and cigars. This would be my big chance. By the time he had signed the last of the books, however, Mr. Updike was understandably tired and asked to be driven back to his motel, where I watched him disappear inside.
The spirit had gone out of the party, and although Jean and Bob invited me back anyway, I thought it would be an imposition and begged off. From his breast pocket Bob produced a Cohiba Robusto. “Well here’s your cigar anyway,” he said. And I stood in the motel parking lot, smoking my Cohiba beneath the moon, feeling like Ferlinghetti seeing the moment of his greatness flicker while hearing the eternal footman snicker.
In the morning I entered the motel dining room for early breakfast and was startled to see Updike eating breakfast all by himself, reading a newspaper. I considered asking if I might join him, but decided to sin boldly: I swept across the room and plopped into the vacant chair opposite him, saying, “Good morning, Mr. Updike, wonderful reading last night, how did you sleep,” preparing to work into my anthology request.
He looked up from his paper and said, “Oh, you’re the guy who lives in Denmark. Why in the world would you want to live there? What’s it like?” and proceeded to ask me a hundred questions about Denmark before he took his leave without my having got my anthology request in edgewise.
His questions were not idle. I learned later that he was working on his novel about Gertrude and Claudius at the time. In fact, when I got back to Copenhagen there was a note from him, asking what sort of birds one might encounter in the Danish countryside in autumn. Which finally gave me an opportunity to request a poem for my anthology and a short essay about how it had been written, and regretting that I could only pay in copies.
He replied graciously with an original handwritten sonnet he had jotted down on an airplane, along with several further hand-corrected drafts as well as the letter from Alice Quinn commenting on it as she accepted it for The New Yorker and finally a cut-out of the poem as it had appeared in that magazine. There was no comment about the lack of fee. Incredibly, he had sent me the original hand-written copy of the sonnet! At the end of the week I spent trying to decide what type of wood to frame it in, I received another note from him, mentioning that when I was done with the handwritten copy, he would appreciate having it back.
My last letter to him was only a few months ago. I had got it into my head how wonderful it would be if Mr. Updike would read one of my books – specifically the book that I thought was the best of the twenty-five I’ve done. I had nothing specific in mind. I would not presume to request a blurb. I just thought that it would be wonderful if what I considered my best work would occupy the thoughts of John Updike for at least as long as it took him to read it. I recall years before talking to Diane Benedict about the fact that Updike, who was guest-editing Best American Short Stories that year, had selected one of her stories for the volume. I congratulated her, and she said, “What excites me most about it is that my words occupied his mind while he was reading it and that he was not displeased.” That was what I hoped for, too – to have one of our greatest living writers read something of mine before, well before it was too late.
I argued with myself whether or not it would be outrageous to do so, but finally sent him a note requesting permission to send him the book, recalling that I had once heard him say the easiest thing in the world was not to read a book, but nonetheless enquiring whether he would consider reading one of mine. He had always responded to my notes within a couple of weeks so when two or three months had passed without a reply, I cursed myself for having asked, began to feel as though I had violated the discreet perimeters of our peripheral association.
Then last night I learned that he had died, and abruptly it was clear to me how irrelevant it was whether or not John Updike had ever read anything of mine. What was relevant was that I had been privileged to read the breathtaking prose of John Updike, that I had been privy to the originality and often startling honesty and insights of his fiction, that I have been privy to sentences and stories that have taken residence in my sensibility, touchstones that remind me what fine writing can be. After all, reading an author’s book is the closest one can ever come to that human being.
Not infrequently I find myself quoting Updike, referring to specific works, stories like “Guilt Gems” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” and “Your Lover Just Called” and “Pigeon Feathers” and Rabbit, Run and Couples and so many others. The story about the couple who are divorcing and have to tell each of their children, and finally the husband gets to the oldest son who incredulously demands, “Why?!” And the father cannot remember why. Or the story about the man in New York City who has to urinate and cannot find a men’s room, the description of the radiant urinal when, in agony, he finally finds one, more beautiful than even Marcel Duchamp could ever have presented it.
And I remember that cocktail reception – one of my own cherished guilt gems – and hearing him say, “The easiest thing in the world is not to read a book,” as I spilt red wine down my tie.
Perhaps that is the easiest thing in the world. And how grateful I am that I bothered to read so many of his!
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (www.thomasekennedy.com)
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