The death of John Updike at the age of 76 represents an irreplaceable loss to American letters. Indeed, Updike was an old fashioned man of letters. An accomplished novelist, gifted short story writer, occasional poet and superb critic, his death leaves a void in American literature.
His gifts may have emerged most vividly in his short stories. He certainly wrote quite a few great ones. His stories about the Maples (first collected in 1980 in Too Far to Go), for example, represent only a small part of his work in the form, but they can stand as representative of his accomplishment. In those stories he explored marriage and divorce with a kind of depth and intimacy that one would have thought impossible in a short story.
Updike also wrote enough stories to fill three small volumes about Henry Bech, his fictional Jewish alter ego. Despite the fact that it was Updike’s gift with the language for which he was usually either praised or damned, in the Bech stories Updike wrote in a comic or satiric mode that displayed several other facets of his genius.
When Bech wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in the story “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden,” Updike posits the headline reporting the news in the New York Daily News: “BECH? WHODAT???” The thought was at the same time self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing. Updike was foremost among those who deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature in the past 25 years and failed to receive it.
In “Bech in Czech,” Bech is sent to Czechoslovakia on a cultural exchange program through the United States government in 1986, while the country is still Communist. Bech attends a party of dissident writers, one of whom had been jailed. Bech reflects:
Jail! One of the guests at the party had spent nearly ten years in prison. He was dapper, like the cafe habitues in George Grosz drawings, with a scarred, small face and shining black eyes. He spoke so softly Bech could hardly hear him, though he bent his ear close. The man’s hands twisted under Bech’s eyes, as if in the throes of torture. Bech noticed that the fingers had in fact bent, broken. How would he, the American author asked himself, stand up to having his fingernails pulled? He could think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.
That paragraph, buried in the middle of the story, was the product of a deeply humane sensibility. I can’t think of another American man of letters who could have written it in the course of a story devoted to the ghosts of recent history.
When Updike’s stories through 1975 were collected a few years ago, Cynthia Ozick reviewed the book in “‘The Early Stories’: Prodigious Updike.” In her conclusion Ozick called on an earlier Bech story to pay tribute to Updike in terms that were both familiar and warranted:
Updike is assuredly rich in language (its dazzle is tempered by colloquial rushes of dialogue), and if his fictive world is poor in the sorrows of history, if the only conflagrations his characters must witness are picnic fires, it is no wonder, and mainly a pleasure, that he turns to the elaborations of imagery. Henry Bech, Updike’s alter ego in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” remarks to an enchanting woman fettered by Communism — the closest this collection comes to a tyrannical age — “It is a matter of earnest regret for me that you and I must live on opposite sides of the world.” In light of the imperial craft of Updike’s ambitious 20’s and 30’s, it must be, rather, a matter of felicitous relief. The America of these early stories may be the mostly untrammeled land we remember; but language in all its fecundity is Updike’s native country, and he is its patriot.
UPDATE: The novelist Thomas Mallon adds a personal note and observes that “[t]he Rabbit books, taken together, are the great American novel of the second half of the twentieth century.”