to give the mundane its beautiful due

Updike460

Hearing of John Updike’s death in January of this year, I had two immediate, ordinary reactions. The first was a protest—”But I thought we had him for another ten years”; the second, a feeling of disappointment that Stockholm had never given him the nod. The latter was a wish for him, and for American literature, the former a wish for me, for us, for Updikeans around the world. Though it was not as if he hadn’t left us enough to read. For years now his lifelong publishers at Knopf have been giving back-flap approximations. In the mid-1990s, in a cute philoprogenitive linking, he was “the father of four children and the author of more than forty books.” By the time of The Early Stories (2003) they had him, in a hands-in-the-air sort of way, as “the author of fifty-odd previous books.” Now, with Endpoint, they award him “more than sixty books.” Why ask for another ten years, and probably ten books, when even devoted Updikeans have probably only read half or two thirds of the corpus? Nicholson Baker’s act of homage, U and I (1991), was impudently predicated on the fact that he hadn’t by any means read all of Updike, or fully remembered what he had read—and no, he wasn’t going to do any extra homework before paying his tribute. It was a quirky approach, with which fellow Updikeans would sympathize; even if it did dangerously invite the act of imitation. I enjoyed Baker’s book, without feeling obliged to read it all.

more from Julian Barnes at the NYRB here.

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