Madeleine Kunin  @  ChelseaGreen

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Saying Goodbye to John Updike

Posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 12:54 pm by Madeleine Kunin

All day I've been thinking about the death of John Updike. He was a year older than I am; perhaps that's why I identified with him.  Or maybe it was that one summer I saw him walking on the pier at Menemsha on Nantucket, strolling with his children, or perhaps it was the time I heard him speak to a small group of Nieman fellows at Harvard.  I felt I knew him, and in an odd way, that he knew me.

It started with "Rabbit Run" published in 1960, the year I was married. My shelf now holds sixteen of his books. Some got lost in the process of putting them in and taking them out of boxes as we moved from one place to another.  I had not realized until I read his obituary in The New York Times today that he had published 60 books, fiction and non-fiction.

I was drawn to him because he seemed to describe the world in which I lived, the world in which I wished I could have lived, and the world I dared not enter.  He was, for our time, on the cutting edge, describing the conflicting feelings of married couples, of restless marriages, of numerous affairs.

The main character of the Rabbit book quartet, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, experienced a restless search for meaning, for some evidence of his existence—a feeling he had once experienced as a high school star athlete and never recaptured. We understood that malaise, and yet, Updike was not a dark writer.  He focused on the domestic details of life with the exquisite precision of a Vermeer. His writing is breathtaking and a pure joy to read.

Strangely, I was not alienated from Updike by his treatment of women. I should have been.  He did not treat them kindly.  The feminist movement was a culture shock he could not comfortably absorb, even though he tried a few times with "The Witches of Eastwick," and more recently,"The Widows of Eastwick."

I think I was simply seduced by his writing.  I related to the parts of his novels that I could relate to, whether they were male or female. I understood the reactions of his characters to one another. When reading a novel, the reader is often tempted to speculate, how much of this is autobiographical and how much is fiction? With Updike, it was impossible to tell.  He told us so much about himself, and the world he observed and interpreted for us so that we saw and felt it, as if for the first time.

I shall miss him.

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