The Magazine

Updike’s Story

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Begley concurs with most readers’ admiration for the superb reach and particularity, much of it comic, of Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), completing the long work christened Rabbit Angstrom. As for the stories, he discusses with penetration some of Updike’s best, such as “The Happiest I’ve Been,” the four-part sequence beginning with “Packed Dirt,” and “Separating,” but also takes time to direct us to ones it has been possible to overlook, like “Toward Evening,” “Plumbing,” “The Gun Shop,” and the consummate tribute to his mother, “A Sandstone Farmhouse.” Begley also makes good connections between the Bech stories, some of which are situated abroad, and Updike’s increasing travel to many countries.

In 1969, after the financial bonanza of movie rights for Couples, Updike was a millionaire. Five years later, when he and Mary separated, he moved to Boston, then to Georgetown, Massachusetts, with the woman he married in 1977, Martha Bernhard. (He joked that if he should marry a third time it would have to be to Lazarus.) Since Begley did not interview Martha Updike, his treatment of her is somewhat problematic. But there is no doubt that, her husband having perfected, as Begley puts it, a “convincing, engaging impersonation of an eminent man of letters,” Martha became, with his cooperation, “gatekeeper” to his unstoppable literary production. 

With too many people wanting the writer to do too many things, Martha’s vigilant supervision was unstinting. In 1982 the couple purchased a large property, Haven Hill, a secluded, grand house in Beverly Farms with views of Massachusetts Bay. In the 27 years Updike spent there until his death, he wrote 13 novels, 100 stories, over 250 poems, and some 300 reviews. 

More than once in this biography, Begley says, in more or less these words, that Updike couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t help himself, for example, from returning, in the very last two months of his life, to his boyhood home in Shillington, which presented, in some lines from his moving sequence of poems, Endpoint,

.  .  . all a writer needs,

all there in Shillington, its trolley cars

and little factories, cornfields and trees,

leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.

.  .  . Perhaps

we meet our heaven at the start and not

the end of life.

When he published his late novel Villages (2004), in which the first village is a stand-in for Shillington, he must have known that more than one reader would say something like Well, there he goes again, he just can’t help himself. The seven novels that succeeded Rabbit at Rest, Begley says, correctly, were “more likely to be met with polite indifference than with hostility,” although David Foster Wallace’s intemperate attack on the writer and James Wood’s steady disapproval were exceptions. Yet, whatever the verdict on his late novels, the stories, essays, and reviews were as good as anything he had written earlier.

The prolonged and extended “intimacy with the author” this biography produces is, of course, a bittersweet experience. Or so I found it to be, reading about his late years, living with his wife at Haven Hill with a calendar of limited social engagements, an increasing list of grandchildren to be visited and admired, and the never-ceasing piling-up of words. “The Lonely Post,” as Begley titles his penultimate chapter, is occasionally broken in upon—in one instance, for a weekend visit from the English novelist Ian McEwan (he would write a fine posthumous tribute to Updike) of which we are given a play-by-play account. Yet the visit was not allowed to disrupt the daily three-hour writing stint, and McEwan was impressed by Martha’s “protectiveness,” declaring that “she made a very good writing environment for him, and he clearly valued that.”

The final, brief chapter, “Endpoint,” much the shortest in the book, may be thought of as appropriate to the suddenness and mortal finality of the lung cancer that killed Updike. In November 2008, he suffered from a cough that wouldn’t go away; two months later he was dead. There is a particularly affecting and painful account of a short visit paid him by Mary and his youngest daughter, Miranda. In Begley’s words, prompted by Mary’s remembrance of the sickroom: 

Updike tried to look cheerful buried under the covers, trying to keep warm, but the effect, as far as Mary was concerned, was miserable. “I felt I shouldn’t touch him,” she remembered, “except for his feet, so I was massaging his feet, and that seemed to be all right.” 

Out of the blue comes a remark from the sick man: “Now remember Aunt Polly,” a reference to Mary’s aunt who lived into her 90s, which Mary took as Updike’s hope that she should live a similarly long time. He was finally moved to a hospice in nearby Danvers and died 48 hours later, leaving behind, along with a final book of short stories, the magnificent sequence “Endpoint,” the centerpiece of his final book of poems, which contains, most poignantly, the ones he wrote about his illness. 

Remembering that, 40 years previous, he had published a long, autobiographical poem called “Midpoint” brings home to us the remarkable but typically Updikean determination to finish the story his life and works had made. As lines from “Endpoint” have it, No piece was easy, but each fell finished, / In its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. In some further words from his essay on biography, Updike wrote that reading about an author’s life “allows us to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love.” 

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.