The talent of John Updike is so profound that it speaks to each of us in a highly personal way. I love two things about him: his critical voice, and his awe of women.
His literary criticism had effortless authority about it. He had no doubt about the duty of the critical voice to illuminate and elucidate the strengths and weaknesses of writing, from fiction to biography to poetry. I really was thrilled whenever I saw his name on the New Yorker contents page. He brought to the task that startling intellect, a frightening amount of sheer knowledge of things A to Z (from the old days, before the Internet!), and a sensitive understanding about the human condition, from religion to sex.
Much of his work ponders the mystery of women and sex. He is extremely conscious that it is all such a mystery. I love how he articulated the emotional life of his male characters-—I believe that he could express what many men feel but can’t explain.
He had an unflinching eye and passion for the whole spectrum of passion. His male characters are tormented, liberated, enthralled, baffled, jazzed by the drive of the life force that drives them into the arms of women---wives, girlfriends, mistresses---all in the shadow of their own mother’s arms. Ah, there’s the rub.
When this life force turns violent, we enter the ugly reality of rape, and that’s where Updike faced much criticism himself. Since he mostly wrote from the POV of men, there was much in this part of his writing and his stories to deplore.
But that was one small part of an admirable, impressive life’s work. I focus on the truth and tenderness of his stories instead:
“His wife was fair, with pale eyelashes and hair containing, when freshly shampooed, reddish lights. His mistress was as black-and-white as a drawing in ink: her breasts always shocked him with their electric silken pallor, and the contrast with the dark nipples and aureoles. In the summer, she tanned; his wife freckled. His wife had the more delicate mind, but his mistress, having suffered more, knew more that he didn’t know.”
No candidate for husband of the year, but it’s exquisite, engaging writing of experience.
My whole life John Updike has been the man of letters. He was an important part of the fabric of “life making sense” for me. It is a sad day for the whole literary world, now that the “most self-consciously Protestant” writer, as Cynthia Ozick once deemed him, has returned to his God.