John Updike photograph (B&W) - Justin Cartwight on the Rabbit novels

The American Dostoevsky

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I have read so much Updike, so many articles, so many collections of his criticism and journalism, and virtually all his many novels, that I sometimes think I know more about his thought processes than I do about my own.

In his introduction to The Early Stories, 1953–1975, John Updike speaks candidly about his professional life. His inspiration, he says, has been drawn from life; he has always believed that ‘out there was where I belonged, immersed in the ordinary which careful explication would reveal to be the extraordinary’. And this, I think, gave him the leitmotif of his writing life and made him the writer he became.

He was, consciously, the product of small-town Pennsylvania and always his remarkable mother’s son. His father, a schoolteacher, is a rather shadowy figure in his accounts. His mother moved the family from their home town of Shillington out to a farm in the countryside, which Updike described as ‘the crucial detachment of my life’. In the late Forties and Fifties he had discovered the joy of films, and he would go to local movie houses as often as possible, experiences which he treasured and described nostalgically. He once wrote a wonderful line: all movies are really the story of two huge faces on a screen coming together and eventually kissing.

For the rest of his life he harked back to Pennsylvania, most obviously for his Rabbit Angstrom novels; he cherished the local idiom, the banality of conversation, the deep-grained, unthinking patriotism, the rumours of adultery, and all the small endeavours and lapses of the people in the towns he knew. He had a great visual awareness too, and many of the towns he appropriated are almost lovingly summoned, even as they are lapsing into neglect and decay.

In his progress from rural Pennsylvania, via Harvard and Oxford, to international celebrity, he never tried to distance himself from his background. In fact he needed it as a kind of emotional base camp, something that he could explore and use. During his year in Oxford he studied drawing at the Ruskin. He had a very intense, almost painterly, appreciation of place, a sensitivity he applied to writing his novels, so that his descriptions of New York, New England and Pennsylvania are rich and precise. He was a wonderful observer of art; over the years he wrote some outstanding art criticism for the New York Review of Books and other magazines. His last piece about art appeared in the New York Times shortly before he died in 2009. Poignantly it was called ‘Always Looking’. The year before he had reviewed the J. M. W. Turner exhibition in Washington with his customary diligence and insight.

He was always an original boy, in his early days obsessed with paper and cartoons rather than the act of writing. He sent off stories and cartoons and they began to be published. He was very young, with a growing family, when he was invited to join the staff of the New Yorker i

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About the contributor

Justin Cartwright won many awards for his writing but doubted he’d ever be as famous as John Updike.

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