John Updike: March 18,1932-January 27, 2009

January 29, 2009 at 4:37 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Remembrance)

When I heard the news, I went to my bookshelf and drew out The Afterlife and Other Stories. I turned to “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” where I had marked several passages. Here’s the first, barely three pages in:

“He remembered swinging the great stones out the attic window, he and his grandfather pushing, trying not to pinch their fingers, while his father, his face white with the effort, held the rope of a makeshift pulley rigged over a rafter. Once clear of  the sill, the heavy stones fell with a strange slowness, seen from above, and accumulated into a kind of mountain it became Joey’s sumer job to clear away. He learned a valuable lesson that first summer on the farm, while he turned fourteen: even if you manage to wrestle only one stone into the wheelbarrow and sweatily, staggeringly trundle it down to the swampy area this side of the springhouse, eventually the entire mountain will be taken away. On the same principle, an invisible giant, removing only one day at a time, will eventually dispose of an entire life.

Joey’s youthful memories are inextricably bound up with life at the sandstone farmhouse. Now in his fifties and living in an apartment in Manhattan, he is called upon to return once more to the farm in Pennsylvania. His mother, who still lives there, is old and ailing and steadily retreating behind a wall of fear and obduracy.

“Each day she spent in the hospital, the little sandstone house pulled  at her harder. ‘Get me home,’ she begged Joey.

‘And then what?’

‘Then we’ll take what comes.’ Her eyes widened, watching his, and her mouth as it clamped shut over ‘what comes’ was very like a child’s, stubborn in its fright. For, however close their consultations, however fervent their agreements, both were aware that she was the star and he merely the prompter: though his turn would come, the spotlight burned upon her. She was center stage, in this drama whose climax everyone knows.

Not a single wasted word or superfluous sentiment. Updike does not go in for verbal pyrotechnics; his writing embodies  the simple art of truth telling, rendered with grace and an unblinking eye.

John Updike’s short stories show in distilled form his superb craftsmanship and mastery of the art of storytelling. My favorite is probably “The Music School.”  With its laserlike focus on the vagaries of the human condition, this story seems to contain the entire world – or several worlds, come to that.

“The Music School” is about eight pages in length.


I was happy to see that The Washington Post placed the news of Updike’s passing on its front page. Here he is on why we need fiction:

“‘We read fiction because it makes us feel less lonely about being a human being….We read about what other human beings feel – what they’re driven to do, how often they work for their own destruction, how they’re in the grip of appetites that are beyond them and they can’t control or harness.’

In 2006, Updike defined the act of reading as an “encounter, in silence, of two minds.”

Also yesterday, the Post featured  a lengthy appreciation of Updike, in the paper’s Style section. And today’s editorial page brings “Renegade Updike,” by critic and reviewer Marie Arana. (The title in the print version is “Moments with Updike.”)

afterlife due looking early rabbit

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And now – at this juncture, I just have to say this – there is no small irony in the Post’s homage to one of America’s greatest men of letters. The paper has just announced that as of next month, the Sunday Post’s Book World will no longer exist as a separate section. The book reviews will be parceled out to two other existing sections, Outlook and Style & Arts. We are assured that Book World’s current embodiment will still exist in an expanded form online; in addition, weekday reviews will still appear regularly.

We are assured by editor Rachel Shea that “…it’s not worth gnashing our teeth about too much.” Sorry, Ms Shea, but here at Books to the Ceiling there is plenty of gnashing going on, accompanied by howls of dismay!



  1. coffee said,

    the loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it’s losing such great writers

  2. The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, with an accompanying query as to whether the ranks of the great writers are being replenished « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] tedious but mostly terrific novel. Then, shortly after I posted my thoughts on the passing of John Updike, a reader left this comment: “The loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] In the interest of full disclosure, there are three books on the above list that I have not yet finished reading. I only recently got my hands on The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, and I am loath to rush through it -it is so deliciously Henry Jamesian, and so gorgeously written. I feel the same way about My Father’s Tears, the final story collection from the late, greatly missed John Updike. […]

  4. Gleanings from the Sunday papers « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] New York Times.  What really caught my eye on this occasion, though, was this picture: . It was John Updike in his youth. I’d know him […]

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