Wednesday, February 04, 2009

An Indian fan of American writer John Updike

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the morning of January 28, when I went to the gate of my house at Kochi to collect the milk and the newspapers, my eyes accidentally fell on a news item, ‘John Updike dead,’ and my heart stopped beating. Suddenly I could no longer inhale the cool fresh air or feel the slight chill or hear the chirping of the birds.

A friend had died even though I have never met him. How could Updike pass away like this, in the midst of so much of productivity?

At last count, he had published 61 books, which included novels, short stories, essays, art criticism, poetry, a memoir and a play. And more books were on the way. He had been an enduring presence on the world literary stage. And in my life too.

I began reading Updike when I was in college in Kolkata and never stopped. The great attraction about Updike, apart from his wonderfully descriptive language and philosophical musings, was his frank writings about sex.

Growing up before the sexual revolution hit India it was a secret thrill to read about wife swapping and rampant sex in novels like ‘Couples’. And there was admiration at his productivity.

The British writer Martin Amis wrote: ‘Updike has four studies in his house so we can imagine him writing a poem in one of his studies before breakfast, then in the next study writing a hundred pages of a novel, then in the afternoon he writes a long and brilliant essay for the ‘New Yorker’, and then in the fourth study he blurts out a couple of poems.’

And, amazingly, what he wrote was usually brilliant. Again, here is the late John Cheever, a master writer himself, paying tribute: “Updike is peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating — to millions of strangers — his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence, and erudition.”

At the American Centre library in Kolkata, where I was a regular visitor there would always be a row of Updike books. And I knew by rote the first line of the author profile that appeared on the inside back flap in all his books: ‘John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania’.

As soon as a new title came out I would turn to the left-hand page after the copyright notice and count the number of books he had written so far. All the titles were published in a chronological order and the list was so long!

He was one of the ‘rarest of rare’ persons on this planet: a full-time writer who earned his living by his creative work. However, I am sure he would have been disappointed that in all these years of reading him, I put the cash down for only one book: ‘Rabbit is rich.’ The rest I read as a library member.

For a person like me, who has writing dreams, but lacks the imaginative gift, watching Updike’s career produced a peculiar mix of thrill and envy.

I would read up often about him, stare at his photographs – in his later years he became a pleasant, avuncular sort of guy with a mop of silver hair and a long-toothed smile – and listen to video interviews where, apart from being intelligent and erudite, he smiled so sincerely that his eyes crinkled up. I enjoyed looking at his long, artistic fingers with a gold ring on his left hand.

What I also liked about him was his graciousness towards other writers. He described Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ as ‘a Tiger Woodsian debut’ and was a fan of R.K. Narayan.

But in the midst of all this hero-worship, there was a shiver of envy that he had been blessed with such a powerful writing gift. God gives this boon to a few, although many are called. Updike, clearly, was one of the chosen ones.

If there is one enduring regret I have about this double Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, apart from his unexpected death at 76 from lung cancer, it is echoed by writer Thomas McGuane: “I had a spell of indignation as I thought of the non-entities who won the Nobel Prize, while Updike was eligible through being alive. Now he’s disqualified! Terrible.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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