Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Alas, dead at 76. I never loved his novels, but I've read and re-read the Henry Bech stories with great enjoyment, and have long been a fan of the essays and reviews. I honestly have no idea what history will have to say about him; I suspect he'll be remembered as the author of the Rabbit Angstrom books. I don't know how well these will age--perhaps not that well. (I'm accustomed to this being a minority opinion.) But his short stories, I hope, especially the early ones, may rally, and come to form his legacy. The best book about him, on the other hand, is easy: Nicholson Baker's hilarious U and I.

I met him once, and told him I'd used a quote from a fanciful essay of his as the epigram for Mailman. He didn't know what the hell I was talking about--not only my book, which it was clear he hadn't heard of, but the essay of his I used, of which he had no recollection. All I can say is, may I live so long, and write so much, that I can't remember the half of it. Sad to see him go.


Pale Ramón said...

I wasn't a big fan of his either, but the man definitely belongs on a stamp. I'll give the Bech stories a try.

Anonymous said...

It's very strange that he's gone--such a standby. He could always be counted on to be smart.

The Bech stuff is really funny! It's literary insider comedy...the one where he starts murdering his critics is terrific.

rmellis said...

I stood there for a while with my mouth hanging open when I heard this. I'm in the middle of The Witches of Eastwick -- he was so present and part of the writing world. It just never occurred to me that he was mortal. Weird!

He definitely belongs on a stamp.

We're running very low on Old Guard.

Anonymous said...

OK, so who is now being sworn in as the New Updike? Not, like, to be like him, but to be the person who is inevitable and everywhere and prolific and consistent, and everybody knows who he/she is, even people who don't really read?

I suppose there is nobody. T. C. Boyle? Joyce Carol Oates could do it, but she's already got a job being herself.

rmellis said...

There are plenty of writers out there, but not many who have a cultural place anymore. That's the problem. Writers, bookstore clerks, and serious readers have heard of TC Boyle, but that's it.

I think by losing Updike, we've lost not just Updike, but the idea of an Updike.

ed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ed said...

Updike outlived "Updike" by about twenty years, I think. Rabbit at Rest was published when I was a senior in college, and I was struck by how much he seemed to be acknowledging, in the book and in his interviews at the time, that whatever he (Rabbit, Updike, Novelist)had meant, it no longer meant.

His poem "A Scarf of Birds" was on my ACT or SAT test, as part of the reading comprehension portion. The author's name was omitted; years later I found in a book of his poems. Updike's influence on me: a lower score, as I took time away from the other questions to reread it, because I liked it, and still to, and here is it:

The Great Scarf of Birds -- John Updike

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October,
I saw something to remember.

Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron fillings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the tress
the liquid and hesitant drift.

Come nearer, it became less marvelous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.

The rise of the fairway above was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
Had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great

grumpy said...

I did love the Rabbit novels. Bech, too. Shame that his satiric digs at the Nobel Prize may have prevented his ever winning it.

A great loss.

Pale Ramón said...


Are you lamenting the absence of an "all-around man of letters" or that of a public intellectual? (I'm thinking of Updike's video interview with Sam Tanenhaus just prior to the November election.) I can't think of a U.S. author who matches either definition, but in Latin America and Spain Mario Vargas Llosa (Perú) is consulted on everything from the latest literary trend to La Chingada to how the changing U.S. political climate will affect economies in South America. And all the while he continues to produce a steady stream of essays, plays, reviews, criticism, and, of course, the novels that have made him famous. My guess is that even the illiterate know of Vargas Llosa's opinions, he is such a prominent cultural figure.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of the all-around man of letters, but now that you mention it, we could use some public intellectuals. I think that, in the current American climate, intellectuals of any stripe are considered elitists, and have no sway at all over the general population. It would be nice to see that change.

John said...

Thanks for the post about Updike. Interesting to see how the posts turned toward wo/men of letters and public intellectuals.

This article in _The Chronicle of Higher Education_ gives a few things to think about, too: the relationship of public intellectuals to technology, the disciplines in which most contemporary public intellectuals are trained (by some estimates, more in econ and the social sciences now than in the humanities).

Here's the article link:


(If you're interested but the URL doesn't work, you can Google "Public Intellectual 2.0.")

Andrew said...

Updike may no longer be around, but people continue to write Updike stories.

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