Reading Updike on a Rainy Friday Night

I was dusting bookshelves today and as I went past my row of books by John Updike I had to pull a few off and look into them.

I really liked Updike’s stories and novels. My wife and I used to read the books together every summer for a number of years. I also admired Updike’s three pages per day writing requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and he published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like his “A&P.” I was a high school boy and immediately identified with Updike’s boy working at the checkout counter in an A&P supermarket when three young pretty girls walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically.

In my freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples novel when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

I heard an interview he did at the time of his fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which chronicles the end of Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry in his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson, and his wife, Janice, and an 1989 America that is a post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize. What interests me in the interview and book is his own thoughts about death. (He died of lung cancer in January 2009.)

I found a video that has John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David was (is?) a teacher and also a writer and I have enjoyed reading his work. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good. It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike if you wanted to be a writer. I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father. But I think even some of those who are not fans concede that his prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. This “found poem” is about what it means to be dead as seen by teenage David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave. As I said, his prose is so often poetic, that it is easy to hear the sentences as lines in a poem.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them
but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

Scarlet Letters

I had to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school. I didn’t enjoy it. The premise sounded interesting and a bit sexy but the novel didn’t hit me in either way. I wasn’t ready for it. (There were several TV and movie versions of the novel. One starred Demi Moore as Hester. That might be the version I was hoping for in high school.

I read it again in a college course and it made more sense.  It is a truly American novel. It has strong men and women characters. Even if you never read it, you might know the basic story. It is set in Puritan Boston in 1642-1649 and tells the story of Hester Prynne. She had an affair and got pregnant and has to wear the scarlet letter A to show she is an adulterer. That situation still doesn’t sit well with American society but in the 17th century, it was almost inconceivably unacceptable. Lots of sin and guilt.

One of my favorite novelists is John Updike. He wrote a kind of trilogy of novels that bring aspects of The Scarlet Letter into modern times.

His A Month of Sundays is about a clergyman gone bad. Reverend Tom Marshfield is a Puritan Arthur Dimmesdale who is sexually disgraced and gets sent away from his parish to a desert retreat for some spiritual renewal.

The novel is a collection of his weekly journal entries about a variety of topics including his wife (the daughter of his ethics professor) and the organist he had an affair with at the parish. While in the desert, he finds himself desiring the woman who runs the retreat –  Ms. Prynne.

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered
as to which may be the true.”  –  Hawthorne

In Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, Roger Lambert is a middle-aged dignity. professor of divinity and Roger’s version of the story is a modern version of Roger Chillingworth’s version of the love triangle from Hawthorne.

Roger, the modern cuckold, is battling a computer scientist named Dale who believes he is gathering evidence of God’s existence. Professor Roger debates Dale and is determined to disprove Dale’s evidence.

Being it is an Updike novel and related to Hawthorne, Roger’s much younger wife, Esther, ends up having an affair with Dale.

Like A Month of Sundays, there is humor and allegory here and a battle of faith and reason with a shot of revenge,

HawthorneBefore I get to Updike’s third novel, you need a bit of background. In 1841, Hawthorne became a charter member of Brook Farm, an agricultural collective founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley. It was near Boston and Hawthorne thought this farm life would give him some inspiration and time to write. It didn’t work out that way.

This transcendental sort-of-utopian commune had him cutting straw, milking cows, and shoveling manure. He left after just a few months, but he did use the experience in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.

Updike’s comparable version is simply called S. He plays off both Hester’s story and some of the idealism of Blithedale which falls apart as egos clash and the idyll proves unsatisfying.

The “S”  is Sarah Worth. She is a descendent of Hester and a native New Englander.  Sarah leaves her husband and children and heads to a commune of Buddhists led by a mystic called the Arhat. At this ashram in Arizona, she tries to find salvation.

Updike’s form for the novel is Sarah’s letters and tapes that she sends to her husband, daughter, brother, dentist, hairdresser, and psychiatrist.

Updike completes his trilogy with this Hester Prynne version of the story. I liked this book but I wasn’t happy with the parodies of the spiritual pilgrims, Buddhists and enlightenment. Then again, Hawthorne also satirized the people of Blithedale, so I suppose it fits.

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

Daily Rituals

Ritual: noun – religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order;  Adjective of, relating to, or done as a religious or solemn rite.

And then there are those daily rituals we all perform that have no religious basis and might not even be what could be described as solemn.

Franz Kafka, frustrated with his job, his apartment and his life wrote in a letter that he “must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.” He is one of the writers, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians that Mason Currey describes in his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

Currey started writing about these people and rituals on a blog and discovered that these artists did subtly maneuver obstacles (some of which they had created themselves) and created daily rituals to get their work done.

Some rituals are harmless, even healthy, like daily walks. But others cause some damage along with art.

Jean-Paul Sartre took Corydrane tablets (amphetamine and aspirin) at ten times the recommended dosage. But Descartes just stayed in bed and let his mind wander in and out of sleep.

A number of writers set themselves requirements. Anthony Trollope set the number at three thousand words in three hours before he went off to his day job at the postal service. That worked. He had the job for 33 years and in that time he wrote more than two dozen books. John Updike kept an office away from home so that he had to “go to work” and set a quota before he was allowed to go to lunch.

Frank Lloyd WrightMason Currey points out that many artists have strange work and sleep rituals. Frank Lloyd Wright spent his days doing the business side of his work but worked on his ideas and drawings between 4 and 7 am. “I go to sleep promptly when I go to bed. Then I wake up around 4 and can’t sleep,” he told a friend. “But my mind’s clear, so I get up and work for three or four hours. Then I go to bed for another nap.”

In fact, in reading Daily Rituals, about a third of the artists had a ritual of waking up early.

Of course, there were also those who worked at night and into the early morning hours . Painter Toulouse-Lautrec was one night owl who was out sketching at night in cabarets and Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Johnson, Flaubert, Proust and George Sand were ritual night writers.

Kafka started to work about 11 pm and worked for 3 or 4 hours and that ritual was about the same for Thomas Wolfe and is the same for Bob Dylan and Michael Chabon. These are not just some sleepless nights. Chabon says he writes from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m., five nights a week. It’s a job. It’s a ritual.

I find some hope that Currey’s book originally was a blog on the website and became a book.  The book still feels like a collection of posts with some bridging material between the tales. Sometimes two stories are linked but are studies in contrast rather than similar.

Still, there are some rituals that run through much of the book. For example, using stimulants is very common and, thankfully, coffee is the most common one. Daily Rituals is a good advertisement for caffeine (there are some tea drinkers in there too). Beethoven, Proust, Glenn Gould, Francis Bacon, Sartre and Mahler all drank lots of coffee to sharpen their focus and attention, beat sleepiness and power ideas.

coffeeBalzac wrote very grandly that “Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion. One’s ideas advance in column of route like battalions of the Grande Armée. Memories come up at the double, bearing the standards which will lead the troops into battle. The light cavalry deploys at the gallop. The artillery of logic thunders along with its supply wagons and shells. Brilliant notions join in the combat as sharpshooters. The characters don their costumes, the paper is covered with ink, the battle has started, and ends with an outpouring of black fluid like a real battlefield enveloped in swaths of black smoke from the expended gunpowder. Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”

Balzac was a binge writer working in (as described in one biography) in “orgies of work punctuated by orgies of relaxation and pleasure” powered by as many as 50 cups of coffee a day.

Yes, there are those who used drugs. And we all know at least one story of an artist who used a lot of alcohol. But Currey says that his research found that while many artists did drink a lot, very few mixed alcohol with their working hours.

Hemingway famously said, “Write drunk; edit sober,” because the booze made the writing come easier, but he couldn’t judge the work or edit unless he was sober. Get it on the page and clean it up later.

I have written here before that you shouldn’t need a cabin in the woods to write, but it’s a setting that leads to some writing rituals.

The composer Tchaikovsky rented a cottage in a small village away from Moscow after years of wandering Europe when he was 45. “What a joy to be in my own home!” he wrote to his patroness. “What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.”

His walks – 45 minutes in the morning before working and another longer one after lunch – became absolutes to him regardless of the weather and the ritual aspect took hold. His brother wrote, “Somewhere at sometime he had discovered that a man needs a two-hour walk for his health, and his observance of this rule was pedantic and superstitious, as though if he returned five minutes early he would fall ill, and unbelievable misfortunes of some sort would ensue.”

Composers really seem to like the walking. Beethoven walked after lunch with pencil and paper in his pocket, and Mahler did 3 or 4 hours of walking after lunch joined by his notebook and his wife.


One of my favorites – for his music and his odd life – is the French composer Erik Satie. Every morning he walked from his suburban home six miles to  Paris’ Montmartre district.

He visited friends, worked on his compositions in cafés, had  dinner, went drinking and, if he missed the last train home, he walked back again. He often went to bed at sunrise and only slept a few hours.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard got most of his best ideas during his daily walks, and would rush home and begin to write some days without even taking off his coat and while standing at his desk.

Are you a creative type? Then there is probably someone in the book who validates your own creative rituals.  Do you like a good nap? You have a good number of creative types who agree. Thomas Edison had a bed in his office for naps. Miró practiced a 5 minute post-lunch nap which he called “Mediterranean yoga.”

Writer Thomas Mann’s ritual was an hour-long nap at 4 pm.

I don’t know how caffeine-fueled Balzac pulled it off, but those “orgies of work” were broken up with a 90-minute nap.

Night owl Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had a nap after lunch and before he began painting.

Some insomniacs made up for sleepless nights with daytime naps. Franz Liszt tried to get in at least 2 hours in the afternoon, and Kafka planned for 4 hours in the late afternoon.

I’m not sure that I even consider some of these sleep breaks to be naps. Frank Lloyd Wright woke at 4 a.m., worked for three hours, then went back to bed for a “nap” even though he often took another short nap in the afternoon. He did nap on a thinly padded wooden bench or stone ledge because he believed that lack of comfort prevented him from oversleeping.

If you looking for the overall creative takeaway from all the stories of rituals, it might be this: get up early , make coffee, get to work and don’t quit until there are some results. Then have some lunch, go for a walk, take a nap and enjoy the other parts of your life.  If you are more nocturnal, you can follow the same rituals – just start at 11 pm instead of 7 am.