Updike Agonistes

I haven’t read much of John Updike‘s recent work—the shallowness of Terrorist, combined with the middling-to-scathing reviews of many of his other recent books, has sent me in other directions. But I still root for the man, partly because his Rabbit novels had such a strong pull on me as a teenage reader. Partly inspired by Rod Liddle‘s recent praise for 1968’s Couples, I’m hunkering down with it now for real, and very much enjoying it—I’d forgotten that Updike had (has?) an experimental streak as a counterweight to those foursquare, WASP-y people and plots, and the stream-of-consciousness passages in Couples get deep into the way his main character, Piet Hanema, wrestles with the abstracted mess of morality and need that’s attached to his infidelity.

All of which is to say that, despite all the chatter about his declining talents, it’s a little sad to see Updike himself somewhat copping to them. In an interview with the McClatchy Papers, he discusses writing at age 76, which for him means stubborn persistence in the face of a few new infirmities:

I notice some signs of mental deterioration. My memory isn’t as good; I can’t think of words. I might forget what one character’s eyes are. Maybe each novel might be the last — but no, I’m not quite ready yet. There’s still the illusion that I’m still learning this curious trade, for whichwhere’s very little coherent instruction. I never once believed in writing schools; this is very much an amateurish endeavor, so that the chance of growing in it is still there for a 76-year-old.

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