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Nonfiction ‘Updike’ shows how the writer’s life and work intersect

  • Published Saturday, June 14, 2014, at 8:21 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, June 14, 2014, at 8:21 p.m.

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“Updike” by Adam Begley (Harper, 558 pages, $29.99)

While some may consider this too big a book to read, Adam Begley has actually packed a lot into its 500-plus pages, given that Updike is considered a preeminent American writer and published almost 70 books, including novels, short stories, poetry, criticism and memoir.

I will confess up front that I’ve long admired Updike’s work. In fact, I’ve read most of his oeuvre.

Begley covers both Updike’s work and his life and shows how much the two coincide. “The more Updike one reads,” he writes, “and the more one learns about his life, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that he was enthralled by the details of his own experience.”

Updike said much the same in an essay: “We must write where we stand; wherever we do stand, there is life; and an imitation of the life we know, however narrow, is our only ground.”

Anyone who has read the dust jacket of an Updike book knows the outline of his biography. He was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pa., graduated from Harvard College in 1954, spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, then worked on the staff of The New Yorker from 1955 to 1957.

Then he made a pivotal move to Ipswich, Mass., where he raised his family as a freelance writer and where he became a best-selling novelist. His biggest-selling book, “Couples,” got him on the cover of Time Magazine.

Shillington became the setting for many of Updike’s early stories, and it continued to play the role of inspiration and nostalgia for him. Begley notes that “almost every word [Updike] wrote about his ‘beloved’ hometown was a hymn of praise,” and he quotes Updike: “My deepest sense of self has to do with Shillington.”

When he was 13, he and his parents moved to his mother’s farmhouse in Plowville, though he continued to go to school in Shillington, where his father taught in the high school. Updike hated this move and continued to long for his happy boyhood in Shillington.

His mother, Linda, who later in life published fiction, though her son continued to call her “a would-be writer,” pushed her son to get out their small town and become a writer in the wider world. She even convinced John to break up with his girlfriend in high school before leaving for Harvard, afraid she might keep her son from fulfilling his destiny.

Updike wrote about needing to escape from her hovering influence. He met his first wife, Mary Pennington, in his sophomore year in college, and was eager to marry. “The prospect of sealing his escape from Lind surely spurred him on,” Begley writes.

Updike’s “Of the Farm” focuses on the relationship of a man and his mother when the son visits the farmhouse where he grew up. Begley calls it “one of Updike’s best books, a small, quiet triumph.”

Earlier, he wrote “The Centaur,” which Updike thought of as “his most autobiographical novel—especially because the motivating force behind it was the wish to ‘make a record’ of his father.” It won the National Book Award of 1964.

After Updike’s move to Ipswich, his stories increasingly concern a married couple, Richard and Joan Maple, who move from New York City to Tarbox, and their experiences closely reflect Updike’s own experiences with his wife and children.

Begley recounts how the adulteries Updike wrote about in much of his fiction can be traced to his own. He and Mary both carried on affairs and nearly separated in the early 1960s. They finally did separate in 1974, and Updike moved to Boston.

His short story “Separating” is a powerful retelling of Richard Maple telling his children that he was leaving their mother.

At the time he was having an affair with Martha Bernhard, whom he married in 1977.

Throughout all this time, he wrote constantly, publishing at least one book per year. He once said he could write faster than he could read. His older son, David, said that his father “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people.”

Updike was not a recluse, however. He enjoyed parties, traveled around the world and never backed out of a speaking engagement.

He went to his study each weekday and wrote. “In truth,” Begley writes, “he never tired of writing, never tired of ‘creation’s giddy bliss.’”

He continued to write up until his last few weeks of life. He died in January 2009 from lung cancer.

Begley has performed a masterful feat of capturing both the life and work of John Updike. He points out his faults as well as his positive traits. He acknowledges his less-successful books as well as his finer work, including his Rabbit tetralogy: “Rabbit Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest.”

Begley includes critical assessment of Updike’s work, as well as the charge of misogyny and the trouble he encountered for not opposing the Vietnam War. He provides information gleaned from prodigious research.

He discusses Updike’s faith, which, he says, whether shaky or solid, “was essential to him.” He writes that at work, Updike “remained an outsider (a teenager with a special destiny; a hick among sophisticates; a poor boy among the rich; a churchgoer among the faithless).”

Begley notes that Mary, Updike’s first wife, was especially helpful, and he calls her “an inspiration.” Martha, on the other hand, who was protective of her husband’s time so that he could write while he was alive, was not available for interviews.

This is an enjoyable book for any Updike aficionado or anyone interested in literature. It offers many insights into Updike’s work and in the writing process. It looks particularly at how life and art often intersect.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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