A masterful, much-anticipated biography of one of the most celebrated figures in American literature: Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike - a candid, intimate, and richly detailed look at his life and work.
In this magisterial biography, Adam Begley offers an illuminating portrait of John Updike, the acclaimed novelist, poet, short-story writer, and critic who saw himself as a literary spy in small-town and suburban America, who dedicated himself to the task of transcribing "middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities."
Updike explores the stages of the writer's pilgrim's progress: his beloved home turf of Berks County, Pennsylvania; his escape to Harvard; his brief, busy working life as the golden boy at the New Yorker; his family years in suburban Ipswich, Massachusetts; his extensive travel abroad; and his retreat to another Massachusetts town, Beverly Farms, where he remained until his death in 2009. Drawing from in-depth research as well as interviews with the writer's colleagues, friends, and family, Begley explores how Updike's fiction was shaped by his tumultuous personal life - including his enduring religious faith, his two marriages, and his firsthand experience of the "adulterous society" he was credited with exposing in the best-selling Couples.
With a sharp critical sensibility that lends depth and originality to his analysis, Begley probes Updike's best-loved works - from Pigeon Feathers to The Witches of Eastwick to the Rabbit tetralogy - and reveals a surprising and deeply complex character fraught with contradictions: a kind man with a vicious wit, a gregarious charmer who was ruthlessly competitive, a private person compelled to spill his secrets on the printed page. Updike offers an admiring yet balanced look at this national treasure, a master whose writing continues to resonate like no one else's.
©2014 Adam Begley (P)2014 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Classics,contemporary fiction, Politics, Philosophy, Economics - a weekly eye on The New Yorker & The Guardian and dense word style/play.
This is an extremely well put together literary biography, entirely in keeping with the way in which John Updike himself created and committed his life to the written word. Initially, its important to ensure that a life-long enjoyment of John Updike’s fiction is not simply put to the test of John Updike’s fact. Reassuringly, the question marks are explicated before the method is laid out. Updike’s reserve and modest hesitance has to be a mask, hasn’t it? Well, it was and wasn’t.
Similarly, the whiff of the misogynist odors the œuvre, meaning that an unquestioning, unstinting admiration for the middle-cycle, middle class novels can’t really be good form - can it?
What is the real excitement early on is the revelation that biography is the salt and pepper of all of short stories, novels and countless light verse and longer poems that Updike wrote. With a masterly knowledge of all of the works, Adam Begley is able to weave the biography into a detailed review of each of the works - with both aspects given equal weight and delivered with unqualified success.
In then surveying the whole - life and work - Begley is admirably non-judgmental, but left me with enough of the facts on which to make up my own mind. I’m sure that this will also be the case for anyone who attempts to follow the full course of Begley’s work. A novel approach to the literary biography and the best that I’ve read since Richard Ellmann’s ‘James Joyce.’
In reconnecting with John Updike’s fiction, I felt that my reading of this biography benefitted enormously from the early work put in on the Rabbit books, all of which I borrowed from the public library in Stradbally, Co. Waterford and read contemporaneously on holiday prior to the publication of Rabbit is Rich (1981) and then Rabbit at Rest (1990). Forgotten sojourns in Roger’s Theory (1986) and S (1988) came flooding back and a more orderly reading of the short stories which I soldiered through academically was rounded off by a more recent familiarity with the many New Yorker articles and Seek My Face. It was helpful to have this as the departure point - although, I’m not sure that any reader who is not already an enthusiast would pick up Updike.
I’ve always found Updike’s prosaic spirituality something that I was happy to find reflection in. He asserted, near death, that most individuals find their experience of earthly paradise is gifted in the earliest years, not something that they have grafted on as a result of time spent achieving - and I’ve found that to be confirmed by those around people in my life who have passed.
Rather satirist than misogynist, emphasising family in the face of bald adultery, self-serving whilst a little too anxious to please, defensive in the face of received uninformed opinions - all holes in the hagiography are threaded and bared with the biographer’s skill. What remains is substantial and worthy - long may he rest.
A must read for Updike fans. Adam Begley has done a fine job of a biography of a man who documented his own life compulsively. It's a fair and clear eyed appraisal of Updike, full of close readings of his work and of the effect his writing had on his own family. It is best about the first half of Updike's life - it seems his second wife guarded access to him for the last 25 years or so. It seems fair on his shortcomings whilst defending him from some unfair criticism. Begley is particularly good at deconstructing the public 'man of letters' persona to give an insight to the man himself. Makes me want to re-read the novels. Looking forward to listening to the Rabbit series this August.
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