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Perennial Promises Kept

27 minute read
Paul Gray

COVER STORY

For John Updike at 50, Bech tops off a very good year

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your tour guide speaking, welcoming you once again to the New England literary express. We ve already visited the houses of Hawthorne, Melville and Robert Frost. Next, a live one. Our bus is 25 miles north of Boston and nearing the seaside home of John Updike. Get your cameras ready. You will find the author’s barony photogenic, and the author, if we should spot him, has weathered well himself. It might interest you to know that our subject and his second wife Martha moved here in the spring of 1982, a particularly productive time in the life of…

Rabbit is rich. Bech is back. Updike is ubiquitous.

The perennially promising young man of American letters is 50 and enjoying a very good year indeed. Spring kept him busy accepting awards. Rabbit Is Rich, his third look at an aging ex-jock in southeastern Pennsylvania, is now being issued in paperback after winning the literary Triple Crown: the Pulitzer Prize (“Critics have called the book a fulfillment of Updike’s fabulous promise”), an American Book Award (“Let us celebrate the prestidigitator who tells today with passion and warning, and tricks it into language’s jubilee”) and a commendatory scroll from the National Book Critics Circle (“The novel vibrates with success”). To commemorate Updike’s first half-century, his longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., has released a handsome new edition of the author’s first book, a collection of poems called The Carpentered Hen (1958). Many writers would be content to rest, at least for a beat, on such laurels. Not Updike. This month will witness the publication of Bech Is Back (Knopf; $13.95), a series of seven related stories that amount to his 26th volume. This figure does not include Updike’s four books for children, which sometimes tug at the dust jackets of their elders and ask to be let into the canon. And No. 27, a thick manuscript of essays, literary criticism, reviews and serendipitous miscellanea, currently sits on a groaning desk in his editor’s office in midtown Manhattan, awaiting its turn to augment the author’s reputation.

For Updike is now indisputably at the top of his craft. No one else using the English language over the past 2½ decades has written so well in so many ways as he.

Light verse? A younger Updike retired with the title some years ago:

The cars in Caracas

create a ruckukus,

a four-wheeled fracacas,

taxaxis and truckes.

Neither the author’s older self nor anyone else has mounted a convincing challenge. Updike belongs to the minority that takes his serious poetry seriously. As for the rest, he has his peers, perhaps betters, as a novelist, belletrist, essayist and short-story writer, but they are different people in each case. Updike’s versatility has been achieved at some cost. The rules governing his work have remained consistent and deliberately circumscribed. Wit dominates passion; irony mocks the possibility of tragic grandeur. The feelings most likely to seize Updike’s comfortably situated people are nostalgia and lust.

Yet this world, for all its limitations, remains a living, growing entity. In so faithfully maintaining and adding to it, he has earned a place apart as a contemporary man of letters.

Updike has managed this old-fashioned literary career in an era obsessed with the new. In the past, writers in the U.S. could expect to be left pretty much alone by their fellow citizens. They could blame such neglect on Philistinism or the no-nonsense approach of youthful capitalism. They might, like Melville, produce superb work and still decline into seedy obscurity. But the only one trying to keep them from writing was the wolf at the door. Even during the early decades of this century, a young William Faulkner could learn his trade unheralded and in peace.

All that changed dramatically at the end of World War II. A vast cultural apparatus began heaving itself into place across the land. Writers, even raw beginners, found themselves suddenly in great demand. Colleges and universities beckoned with speaking engagements, reading tours and adjunct professorships in creative writing. Symposiums, panels and conferences proliferated, all unable to get along without the presence of a well-known author or two. Foundations and government at every level began making money available to artists and writers; much colorful and highly imaginative prose was funneled away from fiction and into grant applications. And television, with its voracious appetite for talk-show guests, started to employ non-mumbling authors as classy filling between starlets and commercials.

By the ’60s writers were being encouraged, often paid substantial wages, to do everything but write. Updike lived through and withstood such pressures on his private labors. He withstood, too, the more chronic depredations on an American writer’s productivity: drink, the extremes of isolation or cliquishness, and, above all, early burnout. All too often, as Updike once noted in a speech at an Australian arts festival, a writer uses up his youthful material and finds himself, though empty, still posed in his role. “It is then that he dies as a writer and becomes an intercultural object merely,” said Updike, “or is born again, by resubmitting his ego, as it were, to fresh drafts of experience and refined operations of his mind.” Updike seems to have put himself through a succession of such regenerations and, in the process, has not only sustained his professional standing but deepened and enriched his talent.

Partly his staying power comes from an almost religious dedication to craft. Christian symbols and ethics hover around much of his work; it was no accident that in Atlantic Brief Lives, a biographical compendium, he chose to write about Søren Kierkegaard. The existentialist, Updike noted, works “with flirtatious ambiguities, elaborate deceits and impersonations, fascinating oscillations of emphasis, all sorts of erotic ‘display.’ ”

They are methods familiar to Updike, and never more apparent than in his newest work.

Bech Is Back concerns an obverse, almost perverse antiself. Henry Bech is Jewish; John Updike is Wasp. Bech suffers from a 13-year-old writer’s block. Updike averages a book a year. Bech is an unathletic urbanite. Updike is an enthusiastic sportsman and a countryman. Once these disparities have been marked, the author is free to play with words, with personae, even with whole nations.

Does Updike withdraw to his study to write three pages every weekday? Bech instead takes up the literary life: “The author [Bech] in these thin times supported himself by appearing at colleges. There, he was hauled from the creative-writing class to the faculty cocktail party to the John D. Benefactor Memorial Auditorium and thence, baffled applause still ringing in his ears, back to the Holiday Inn.” Did Updike, invited by the Franklin Library, once agree to sign 20,000 volumes of Rabbit Run on the island of St. Thomas? Bech is lured by Su-perbooks, a subsidiary of the Superoil Corp., to autograph 28,500 sheets, at $1.50 each (Updike was paid a bit more), to be bound in pigskin into a special limited edition of his novella Brother Pig. The assignment carries with it an all-expenses-paid two-week working holiday in the Caribbean with the companion of Bech’s choice, who will pull each sheet from under his busy pen. Bech brings along Norma, the reliable mistress whom he will never marry; the two of them have settled into “a limbo of heterosexual palship haunted by silently howling abandoned hopes.” As the tense sojourn drags toward its close, Bech finds his signature harder and harder to complete. Finally he lifts his pen. “All was poised, and the expectant blankness of the paper seemed an utter bliss to the author, as he gazed deep into the negative perfection to which his career had been brought. He could not even write his own name.”

Attention, autograph hounds. Mr. Updike claims that some misadventure in his past has made it difficult for him to sign his own name. He says that he can handle John quite competently, and that the U, p and d of his surname present no insurmountable obstacles. But he protests that he clutches on the i and consequently botches the k and e.

In extremis, Bech becomes a wandering minstrel for the U.S. State Department. He junkets to Venezuela, Korea, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, shamefacedly giving a speech on…

We are being delayed by the pampered geese that live on the pond and claim the road as their own. While we are stalled here, it may be worth mentioning that Mr. Updike has occasionally traveled abroad. For example, he visited a number of so-called Third World nations speaking on. . .

. . . “The Cultural Situation of the American Writer.” Bech is not, as a rule, well received. South American students noisily circulate leaflets to the audience during one of his talks. Bech glimpses a copy: “It showed himself, huge-nosed, as a vulture with striped and starred wings, perched on a tangle of multicolored little bodies; beneath the caricature ran the capitalized words INTELECTUAL REACCIONARIO, IMPERIALISTA, ENEMIGO DE LOS PUEBLOS.” In Africa, Bech the imperialist discovers that the rate of cultural exchange is being alarmingly devalued: “The students found decadent and uninteresting Proust, Joyce, Shakespeare, Sartre, Hemingway—Hemingway, who had so enjoyed coming to Tanganyika and killing its kudu and sitting by its campfires getting drunk and pontifical—and Henry James. Who, then, Bech painfully asked, did measure up to the exacting standards that African socialism had set for literature?” The Orient brings Bech confused mash notes from South Korean schoolgirls and a beaming local poet who writes poems about “flogs.” How many poems about frogs? Bech the good-will ambassador wonders through the translator: “No question was too inane, here in this temple, to receive an answer. The poet himself intervened to speak the answer, in proud English. ‘One hunnert twelve.’ ”

Updike devotes the longest story in the book to an unfamiliar Bechian agony: against all expectations, the aging author writes a bestseller. He does so in his new wife’s home: a spacious suburban house in Ossining, N.Y., the town, not incidentally, of Updike’s friend and mentor, the late John Cheever. (Bech does not meet the real-life author, but a number of Cheever characters are mentioned by name.) The long-stalled novel Think Big unfurls rapidly after he changes its intimidating title to Easy Money, which proves to be prophetic. “Bech is IN,” announces Vogue. The author is interviewed, lionized, beseeched for autographs, invited to the best parties and most chic restaurants. He muses: “The world, by one of those economic balancings whereby it steers, had at the same time given him success and taken from him the writer’s chief asset, his privacy.” Bech’s marriage cannot stand the strain. He winds up back in Manhattan, living alone, but in a better apartment. Bech is rich.

“I feel some sort of relief when my characters become well off,” says Updike. It is a generous and sensible impulse. If Rabbit and Bech have helped make their creator comfortable (a six-figure annual income from royalties), why not enrich them in return? Updike’s 14-room house radiates financial wellbeing. It sits, mammoth and gleaming white in the autumn sunshine, on a hill overlooking the Atlantic. Originally put up as a summer place back in 1905, it now resembles a real estate agent’s fantasy: ample downstairs rooms invite the outdoors in, curtains covering ceiling-to-floor windows billow in the offshore breeze, light dances, the whole structure seems to coast on air and sea spray. “I would have settled for something semi-idyllic,” Updike says.

Upstairs, the north end of the house has been turned into a warren of creativity. Updike has not one study but four, each leading off a narrow central hall. One room, dominated by a large chair and ottoman, is set aside for reading: books of all sorts for reviews, scientific studies for relaxation. The other three have been fitted out with desks or tables for writing. A sturdy, aging manual typewriter sits in one room; a pile of manuscript written in pencil on the backs of old typed pages is stacking up in another. Updike sometimes keeps different projects going in different locations: a novel here, a review there and correspondence over yonder. His idea, unlike Bech’s, is to keep busy: “It’s always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work. You’d rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you’d rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you’ve enjoyed.”

He turns his first drafts into typescript, revising as he goes along, and is likely to make extensive changes before publication. He cannot remember any extended period when he could not write. Still, he concedes: “I have begun a number of novels which I abandoned. That’s sort of a failure, isn’t it, a false run at a book? The sense of being pretty near the bottom of the barrel has been with me some 20 years, but I haven’t quite hit the bottom.” Should he ever do so, he comforts himself with the thought that he could, a la Bech, “scratch along without writing another word. The literary world is thriving. There are a lot of people out there who want to look at a writer.”

That busload of tourists has not yet pulled up in front of his pillared portico and berry-blue front door with a painted American eagle plaque hanging above it. The vehicle is only momentarily stalled, though, just below the steep incline of road that rises through Updike’s nine acres. It will arrive, some time soon, just as surely as scholars, journalists, graduate students and the idly curious have been tracking down Updike’s past for years. They make pilgrimages to Shillington, Pa., where the author was born and spent his first 13 years. They then proceed to the old stone farmhouse outside town where he and his parents moved in 1945. They find his mother Linda, 78, still living there, cheerful, alert and willing to guide visitors through the landscape that her son transcribed in the stories of Pigeon Feathers (1962) and the novels The Centaur (1963) and Of the Farm (1965).

John was a scrawny smalltown boy troubled by asthma, psoriasis and a stammer, a trace of which persists to this day. He knew before his tenth birthday that he wanted to be a writer. He left his rural home for four years at Harvard, one at Oxford and two as a reporter for The New Yorker. Although he gave up his staff job, Updike and the magazine have remained best of friends. Fees paid for his fiction and other contributions over the years allowed Updike to keep on writing, freeing him from the need to look for teaching jobs: “I guess you could say The New Yorker has been my substitute for a university.” On his own, he then began to grow up in public view. Early dust-jacket photographs and publicity stills caught the young novelist and poet as a newly fledged bird, all beak, startled eyes and unruly plumage. In his 30s, happily domesticated and the father of four children, he lived and went on working in Ipswich, Mass. He added some bulk to his frame and bibliography.

Then came the mate-swapping sex and commercial success of Couples. An autobiographical poem written shortly thereafter included the lines:

From TIME’S grim cover, my

fretful face peers out.

Ten thousand soggy mornings have

warped my lids

and minced a crafty pulp of this

my mouth*

The years that followed have been kinder than this self-portrait would suggest. He has grown comfortably into his looks. Graying hair softens features that once seemed mismatched. He is tall (a shade over 6 ft.) and broad through the shoulders and chest. His arms are longer than strictly required. He manages to appear both rawboned and delicate at the same time.

Updike embraces other contrasts. He is unfailingly receptive and fair to the works of other writers. His frequent book reviews in The New Yorker are models of critical generosity. Yet he is also fiercely competitive. He can joke about this side of his character. After moving his thousands of books into the new house last May, he found that he still had not built enough space to shelve them all. “I had to put my American contemporaries down in the cellar,” he recalls. “The funny thing is that I really haven’t missed them.” But Updike sees rivalry as a fact of an author’s life: “There’s a lot of competition for rather few spaces. Or, to put it another way, the major leagues of writing are not very big.”

He has never lacked for critics eager to consign him to the minors. His career began during the heyday of brilliant U.S. Jewish writing. Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, among others, were the critics’ darlings. A sensitive outsider from the sticks did not measure up to prevailing standards. In Commentary, Norman Podhoretz complained, “His short stories … strike me as all windup and no delivery.” Bruised by appraisals like this, Updike eventually turned his hurt feelings to good use: “Out of that unease, I created Henry Bech to show that I was really a Jewish writer also.”

Other early complaints centered on Updike’s refusal to tinker with fiction in the approved post-modernist fashion. He recalls, “I certainly did feel left out of the black-humor thing when it was heavily publicized, because it did sound like an awful lot of fun, and they were getting all this serious attention.

People like Leslie Fiedler were smiling upon them, and one will do almost anything to get Leslie Fiedler to smile upon him. He never smiled on me.” Indeed he did not. The champion of Norman Mailer and John Earth once called Updike “a strangely irrelevant writer.” Updike later took gentle but effective revenge. At the end of Bech: A Book, a mock bibliography lists critical works on the imaginary author, including “Fiedler, Leslie, ‘Travel Light: Synopsis and Analysis,’ E-Z Outlines, No. 403 (Akron, O.: Hand-E Student Aids, 1966).”

With hindsight, Updike’s unswerving dedication to realistic fiction looks both daring and inspired. At the beginning of his career, the prevailing wisdom held that Joyce, Proust and Kafka had made the old-fashioned novel redundant, a tired illusion that had been exposed once and for all as a sham. Literature should no longer pretend to portray people doing things: it ought to be an artful arrangement of words on a page. Critic Richard Oilman, typically, called narrative “that element of fiction which coerces and degrades it into being a mere alternative to life.” Updike’s novels and stories went right on, stubbornly offering swatches of alternative lives. Their author proved over the years that the ramshackle, theoretically condemned house of story telling still has some unexplored chambers and fresh air. “Fiction,” he once said, “is a tissue of literal lies that refreshes and informs our sense of actuality. Reality is—chemically, atomically, biologically—a fabric of microscopic accuracies.”

From this belief stemmed the famous, or infamous, Updike style: tiny things described at great length. Rare is the reviewer over 30 who has not at least once twitted Updike for preciosity and overwriting. Yet he is not a showoff, as critics like Alfred Kazin have sometimes claimed (“a brilliant actionlessness … the world is all metaphor”). In the service of his intense, precise idea of truth, Updike simply loads some moments in his fiction with more words and significance than they can bear. From a story in the 1960s, describing the fragrance that high school girls seem to acquire in the fall: “As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things.”

This is probably too much of a good thing. And Updike, while disagreeing with former critics of his methods, has noticeably reined in his writing in the past few years. His style has become tougher and more concrete. Says Author Roger Angell, who edits the Updike stories that appear in The New Yorker: “It seems to me that he’s freed his writing from brilliance. He is a brilliant writer. But his prose has the brilliance of crystal; you can see through it. In reading the early Updike, you were aware of the writer. But now you find that all his perception and intelligence are being brought to bear on doing what the writing should do. You’re no longer distracted by his writing.”

Updike’s past excesses stemmed from enthusiasm, an ardency toward the world that his major characters share as well. In the famous conclusion of Rabbit Run (1960), the hero races toward life as if it promised victory: “Out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.” Updike’s men are lovers of the here and now and not afraid to look foolish while saying so. Piet Hanema in Couples, Harry Angstrom in the three Rabbit novels, Bech, assorted adolescents and husbands in the short stories: all act in childlike confidence, as if their surroundings have been put there specifically for them to enjoy. In a typical Updike domestic scene, the young people are more cynical than their parents. Rabbit’s disagreeable son Nelson sees and awkwardly ridicules his father’s satisfaction with self: “Such a fool he really believes that there is a God he is the apple of the eye of.”

Updike’s fiction consistently repays such faith. His people lead charmed, if sometimes guilty lives, and so in most ways has he. An only child, encouraged by doting parents, he became what he had hoped to be. Fate has sometimes kissed him. Once, on a fall day in 1960, he was “falling in love and away from marriage.” He went down to Boston to visit a woman friend on Beacon Hill. She was not home. Disappointed, Updike wandered off and remembered that the Red Sox had a game scheduled at Fenway Park that afternoon. He went and saw Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat, during what turned out to be the last game of his splendid career. Inspired, Updike wrote an instantly recognized classic of sports reporting: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

Updike’s furtive presence in Boston that day was indeed lucky, but the strains in his marriage, then seven years old, were to grow increasingly severe over the next decade. He began writing stories about a couple named Joan and Richard Maple and their four children (pieces later adapted for TV and collected in a book called Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories). The Maples move through an intricate arabesque of estrangements and reunit-ings. Richard slowly decides that the only thing worse than parting is staying together. The author says that the Maples’ long travail was not simply a transcript of what the Updikes were going through: “A novel should never seem autobiographical to the writer, autobiographical though it may seem to the reader.” But many moments in the Maples stories betray a knowledge of pain too recent to disguise. The occasion arrives when Richard must tell his children he is leaving: “The partition between his face and the tears broke. Richard sat down to the celebratory meal with the back of his throat aching; the champagne, the lobster seemed phases of sunshine; he saw them and tasted them through tears.

He blinked, swallowed, croak-ily joked about hay fever. The tears would not stop leaking through.”

This troubled house harbored another writer, David Updike, now 25, who has had three stories published in The New Yorker. One, called Apples (1978), poignantly portrays the edginess of an absent father’s weekend visits: “He always leaves suddenly, catching us with a bite of dessert left on our plates or a swig of coffee in our mouths, and my mother asking, invariably, why so soon. I sympathize with him, though, and would like to hug him knowing somehow that his sudden departure is not out of any eagerness to return to his apartment in the city but out of the pain it causes him to stay.”

Updike took a two-room apartment in Boston in 1974. His writing during this period suggested considerable anguish. The two novels A Month of Sundays (1975) and Marry Me: A Romance (1976) were widely regarded as inferior Updike, self-indulgent and self-lacerating accounts of sex and guilt. Not everyone agrees with these judgments. (One of Updike’s virtues is his prolificity; he has produced enough books to fuel arguments of all kinds.) Judith Jones, his editor at Knopf, thinks A Month of Sundays one of his best, precisely because it was written “during the darkest part of Updike’s personal journey; it came out of his depressed feelings about the world at the time.”

In 1977 he married the recently divorced Martha Bernhard, a few years his junior and a former member of the Updikes’ social set in Ipswich. “I was due for a change,” he says now, “not only of wives but of setting, of life.” His sense of guilt has largely faded. “I still feel that by leaving I did the children a disservice,” he says. They are now grown and out on their own. Miranda, 21, works in the photography business in Boston. Michael, 23, is a college student in Wisconsin. Elizabeth, 27, has received a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. The author encourages David’s literary ambitions: “His writing is gentle and sensitive. I’m sure it can’t be easy for someone like him to make his own way when he has the name he does.” The youngest of Martha’s three sons lives with her, an arrangement that pleases Updike: “I enjoyed being the father of young children. Kids are easier to please than adults.” Mary, his first wife, has remarried.

The change in Updike’s life, for all its attendant pain, was quickly reflected in his fiction. He startled nearly everyone with The Coup (1978), a far cry from the East Coast suburban adulteries that had dominated his novels a few years earlier. Its hero, Colonel Hakim Félix Ellellou is a beleaguered black dictator in an arid, impoverished and brilliantly imaginary African land called Kush. Then Rabbit reappeared, older and more interesting than ever, and now Bech.

Sequels can betray a lack of imagination.

Authors who fall back on old characters may desperately hope that an old formula will work once again. Updike’s work is an exception to that rule. He endows his heroes with so many specific characteristics, gives them such tangible environments and geography, that they naturally seem to go on living after their books are closed. Updike wrote Rabbit Redux (1971) after growing tired of answering questions about what the ex-basketball star was up to now. Bech may or may not reappear, but Rabbit probably will. Says Updike: “I figure I only have one more to go with that man.”

Rabbit has evolved into a quintessentially American character, full of restless optimism and energy, not yet ready to believe dark rumors of his own mortality. Similarly, his creator has carried on a long, attentive affair with his native country. Living temporarily in London some years ago, he concluded a poem: “Don’t read your reviews/ A*M*E*R*I*C*A:/ You are the only land.” He still feels the same way: “I’ve had a pretty good run as an American writer, and I know a number of other writers who have too.” He displays the Stars and Stripes on a flagpole in his backyard, overlooking the ocean. The house he grew up in in Shillington also had a flagpole. Says Updike: “Life in this country is, despite its obvious flaws, as good as can be. People run down, and they confuse their condition with the world’s.”

Updike’s view from middle age is optimistic. He has no regrets about his books: “I’m sure that if I reread any of them, I could find opportunities to make them better. But there’s a point beyond which any chance of improvement is small.” He has heard the charges, from feminist critics and others, that his women characters are reflected in the mirrors of a man’s world. “In many respects,” he says, “I think they’re right. I’m trying to learn. I’ve given women a rather large place in my fictional universe. But I admit that I was raised with some thoughts that are, at least by today’s standards, sexist. I was glad that I was a boy and not a girl.” He is still glad and boyish: “I’ve had a generous share of the good things, money, prizes. I lack for nothing. What I would like to do in the time I have left is deliver my best self.”

That does not include slowing down.

Updike has begun a novel that is “at too delicate a stage” to discuss. He wants to put together another collection of poetry. He is also interested in assembling three or four “longish” ruminative essays in the “Thoreauvian-Em-ersonian tradition.” He has in recent years become a diligent student of America’s literary past. He has written lengthy articles on the careers of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. In a poem called “Authors’ Residences,” he recalls visiting the Hartford, Conn., homes of Mark Twain and Wallace Stevens and concludes: “Writers, know your place/ Before it gets too modest to be known.” / am informed by the driver that our little engine difficulty has been cured and that we can now proceed up the hill to Mr. Updike’s residence . . .

When Updike leaves his writing quarters, it is often to play golf, which he does as often as he can, scoring in the 80s on his best days. (“You know instantly how badly you’re doing. It’s not like writing or being a husband.”) He and Martha go to movies about once a week, although he complains that films now “seem more and more to be pitched toward audiences of which I am not a member.”

Social life includes some entertaining at home (“My wife is a good cook”) and evenings out with friends in Boston, members of a literary set that includes Biographer Justin Kaplan and his wife, the novelist Anne Bernays. Throughout his career, Updike has chosen to live in snug corners, well away from the intrigues, gossip and power struggles that invariably ensue when the literati mingle.

He is proud of his work and enjoys recognition and praise as much as anyone, but in small doses that he can control: “I think what’s most disturbing about success is that it’s very hazardous to your health, as well as to your daily routine. Not only are there intrusions on your time, but there is a kind of corrosion of your own humility and sense of necessary workmanship. You get the idea that anything you do is in some way marvelous.”

Here at last. And look, look quickly, behind that outcropping of rocks by the driveway. That tallish man, trying to hide. It’s him. Isn’t he marvelous? Why is he moving away from us? Look at how he runs. Ah: runs. Runs. —By Paul Gray.

Reported by Peter Stoler/Boston

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