Prolific John Updike Still Finds Things to Say About Life, Sex and Religion

<i> Stephen lives in London</i>

John Updike’s strikingly majestic New England home looks out onto the distant Atlantic from the top of a hill, elevating him above his neighbors on the outskirts of this rich and wooded village north of Boston.

The house--square, solid, imposing--is painted an intense, almost Melvillean white. “My God, it’s awfully white,” Updike said, casting an eye toward the paint work from his seat on a wicker sofa in the shade of a side porch. “On a sunny day, it’s almost blinding.”

At 54, Updike has earned an equally imposing stance on the literary landscape, earning virtually every American literary award, repeated best-sellerdom and the near-royal status of the American author-celebrity. In the vigorous, poetic prose of his many novels, he has made life in the American suburbs the universe of his concern, focusing with a particularly modern telescopic fascination on the frequently adulterous sex lives of his characters.


Rapturous Descriptions

Updike is a great describer: His depictions of his mis en scene of life in mid-20th-Century America--from dishwashers, to cars, to his sometimes rapturous descriptions of billboard-infested landscapes--may well be where future generations turn to discover what it was like to live in such a bountiful, confusing time and place.

But Updike is not just a superb novelist. He is widely regarded as the most astute non-academic critic in the United States. He has written poetry and he still produces short stories for the New Yorker that would, on their own, be enough to justify a literary reputation.

A tall, thin man, Updike leaned back on the wicker sofa and absent-mindedly nibbled a bit of pretzel that he’d taken out of his jacket pocket. He is low-key, free from obvious self-importance, willing to talk.

But if he appears casual, he is far from complacent about what he has accomplished. With almost 30 books in print, he still feels he has a lot to do, and that he has yet to write his masterpiece. “I like to think that’s still ahead of me,” he said.

Updike’s most recent novel, “Roger’s Version” (Andre Deutsch), breaks new fictional ground for him and is perhaps a step nearer to that masterpiece. “I’ve been accused of writing novels without ideas, so I thought I’d write a book with a few ideas in it,” he remarked with New England understatement.

In “Roger’s Version,” Updike has launched into a quest for answers to questions beyond the usual concerns of his suburbanites. In the course of the novel, he attempts nothing less than a discovery of a union of new scientific theory about the structure of the universe and the hopes of Christian theology: A tweed-jacketed professor of theology, Roger Lambert, chews his pipe over a mildly disappointed conviction that God is unknowable, while an obnoxiously clever perpetual student named Dale Kohler embarks simultaneously on an affair with Lambert’s wife and a project to prove the existence of God via computer.


A Lifelong Church-Goer

“I was sitting at my word processor one day, and I noticed this scramble of numbers that it throws up. The notion of there being a magical secret in that code of numbers occurred to me, being a superstitious sort of person,” Updike said.

The provableness of God is a subject Updike may have mused upon during the many Sunday mornings he has spent in church. Updike is a lifelong church-goer. He was raised a Lutheran, became a Congregationalist during his first marriage, and has recently joined the Episcopal church.

“I don’t see anything else around really addressing one’s basic sense of dread and strangeness other than the Christian church for me,” he said.

“I’ve written maybe all too much about religion here and there. But there have been times when I read a lot of theology. The year I spent in England (after graduation from Harvard) I was very nervous and frightened, standing more or less on the threshold of my adult life and career, if any. One of the ways I assuaged my anxiety was to read a lot of (G. K.) Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, some Kierkegaard, and when I moved to New England, I read a lot of Karl Barth. My intensive theology reading extends from about the

age of 22 to, say, 30. I get great pleasure out of reading theology. Barth is always bracing and interesting. (Paul) Tillich, I’ve had a long tussle with. He is a fellow Lutheran after all.

“I must have a certain amount of hostility, too, toward organized religion,” he said. “I notice when I write about it that it comes out kind of acid. It is basically an amazing phenomenon among us. You could give a reason, I suppose, for the existence of gas stations. But it would be very hard to explain to a Martian what all these churches are doing. They’re a little like books, in a way; a little like fiction. It would be very hard to explain to a Martian why novels exist.”


If Updike readers are afraid that the concerns of religion are sweeping away the Updike they have known and loved so long, they need not worry. For as ever, in strenuous detail, in “Roger’s Version,” John Updike has been willing and eager to write about what may be his favorite subject: sex. “I don’t know why I write about sex. It’s sort of a weakness,” he admitted. “You’re stuck with what interests you as a writer and you have to keep writing about that instead of what should interest you or what interests other people.”

“Roger’s Version” is the second novel Updike has patterned after what he calls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “strange little fable,” “The Scarlet Letter.” The first was a novel published in the mid-1970s called “A Month of Sundays,” narrated from the point of view of the adulterous minister. This time, Updike has chosen to tell the story from the viewpoint of the betrayed husband.

‘More to Say’

“There always seems to me to be something more to say about sex, and when I feel I have nothing more to say about it, I will probably try to stop writing about it.

“Since prose fiction from its origin has seemed to me to be about our private lives, I feel I would be a poor novelist indeed if I avoided trying to say what I can about sex.”

Although his magnificent, gleaming white house, where he lives with his second wife, Martha, gives him the setting to play the almost aristocratic New England land owner, Updike says he is in many ways still more spiritually at home in the Pennsylvania of his origins.

Updike grew up the only child of a schoolteacher and a mother who encouraged her son’s artistic interests. The future novelist was in part formed during a period of intensive reading in adolescence after the family moved.


“I was moved when I was 13, from the small town where I was very content, to a farm where I didn’t have any friends and no siblings. So I read a great deal between the ages of 13 and 15.

“Adolescence is the time to really read. You’re able to immerse yourself so easily into a made-up world. Almost any world seems preferable when you’re an adolescent to the world you’re in. But I think that my writer’s duty to the unknown reader--my sense of the other side of the transaction--was formed in those early years. I try to create verbal engines that will in some way amuse and transport somebody as much as I was amused and transported.

“I read a funny bunch of not very high-class writers, although they seemed very high class to me. The Reading, Penn., Public Library had a shelf and a half of P. G. Wodehouse, about 60 books. I must have read most of them with great delight. I was able to get into this artificial English world, maybe because it was artificial, with great ease and pleasure. I read about, among other things, golf for the first time in his many stories. I read a lot of Agatha Christie. So you can see a lot of my early reading was English. I’m almost an English novelist manque.”

He continues, more seriously as Updike, the critic: “A lot of English fiction--not to slam the English--you do feel a kind of contentment with a certain form, and a certain view of society that’s been arrived at, and they continue to produce documents out of this. There are a lot of unexamined assumptions about society that make it, in the end, a little smaller than it should be.”

An English Influence

Updike does admire the outlook of British writers about their work, and partly attributes his own large output to this influence. “I’ve modeled myself, in some ways, on English writers who have a much more sensible and down-to-earth attitude about their trade than Americans do. There’s something about being a writer in America in the post-war era that makes them think they have to be prophets or priests or politicians or something. There’s a kind of grandeur in our ambitions which maybe does produce grand results now and then, but it also maims a lot of careers, I think. I prefer to think of sensible, hard-working guys like (Hilaire) Belloc and Chesterton and V. S. Pritchett, plying their trade in the morning and that way accumulating a certain shelf of books.”

With few exceptions, Updike’s novels are divided into those books about the world of his past that has become a “largely imagined” Pennsylvania, and the world of his present: wealthy, suburban New England. “I understand the semi-poor the best, the social group I grew up in. I think their struggles are more authentic in a way.”


In the minds of many critics, Updike’s trilogy of novels-- “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux” and “Rabbit Is Rich”--set in rural Pennsylvania about the ex-basketball star, Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, is his best work.

‘Sort of Irresponsible’

“I’ve always been sort of attracted to rabbits in literature, from Peter Rabbit on. I was trying to write about that thing within us, which is rabbit-like: which is sort of irresponsible, and darts, and is timid.”

Of his work, Updike said, “I’m not terribly self-critical. That may be one of my problems. I tend to do the best I can with the books and they sort of go their own ways and develop a certain independence. Some seem happier than others or make me happier when I’m writing. None are totally easy.

“I’m fond of a book called ‘The Coup’ and a book called ‘The Centaur,’ books that I wrote along somewhat eccentric lines to please myself. But I don’t want to stand in judgment on my own novels. Each one was the best I could do at the time.”

Updike--still practicing the Puritan work ethic--takes the future seriously and has already planned what his next two novels will be.

He plans to retell “The Scarlet Letter” story once again, this time from the point of view of the woman, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. He also intends to write a final novel in the Rabbit series. And he is looking forward to the release of a movie now being made in New England of his recent novel, “The Witches of Eastwick.”


When Updike finishes his two planned novels, he will be almost 60, and will then consider taking a year off. “I think it might do me some good,” he says.

A Success Story

His career is an American success story, but an unusual one in that, so far, he has not been carried away by it. He has had fame; he’s had money; he’s had great praise; and increasingly it appears that literary history will judge him deserving of it all. Though critics might balk at calling him “the best” in America today, they would be hard-pressed to name anyone who is, with any consistency, better.

“I try to think about money as little as possible,” he said, “because in the end there’s a certain smell that a novel with money anxiety gives off, and I think it turns people off. People look to a novel to be in some way pure and to be honest, an intimate conversation with the author.

“The sheer number of books I’ve written by now--they each bring in their few little crumbs. So it’s like a little procession of ants, bringing in their little royalties. But my crazy impulse is to write more because I still feel I have something more to say or do.”

Updike indicated he has said enough for one afternoon. He got up and began to show the way down a path toward the road. He looked out onto the Atlantic, a safe distance away. “My wife and I didn’t want to be too close to the ocean,” he said. “We’re both afraid of tidal waves.”