Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Giving the Mundane its Beautiful Due

The writer must face the fact that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that the novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is usually an escapist plot, that aesthetically the ordinary, the banal, is what you must deal with. So I tried to make interesting narratives out of ordinary life by obscure and average Americans.
One of America's greatest authors has passed away yesterday, aged 76, after battling lung cancer.

John Updike was that rare animal - a best-selling author who enjoyed literary acclaim winning the Pulitzer twice. His novels include the four novels in the Rabbit series, featuring onetime basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom who becomes a car dealer in a small town.

Perhaps though his most widely known novel was The Witches of Eastwick which was turned into a film. His most recent novel is a sequel : The Widows of Eastwick, which came out last year. A collection of short fiction My Father's Tears and Other Stories is due out in June.

The BBC has a list of Updike quotations (from which I took the one above), and here's another lovely one about being a writer:
There's a kind of confessional impulse that not every literate, intelligent person has. A crazy belief that you have some exciting news about being alive, and I guess that more than talent is what separates those who do it from those who think they'd like to do it. That your witness to the universe can't be duplicated, that only you can provide it, and that it's worth providing.
Meanwhile, the tributes flow in.

Mitchiko Kakutani in The New York Times calls him :
... arguably this country’s one true all-around man of letters. He moved fluently from fiction to criticism, from light verse to short stories to the long-distance form of the novel ... a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words.... (But) It is as a novelist who opened a big picture window on the American middle class in the second half of the 20th century, however, that he will be best remembered. In his most resonant work, Mr. Updike gave “the mundane its beautiful due,” as he once put it, memorializing the everyday mysteries of love and faith and domesticity with extraordinary nuance and precision. In Kodachrome-sharp snapshots, he gave us the 50’s and early 60’s of suburban adultery, big cars and wide lawns, radios and hi-fi sets, and he charted the changing landscape of the 70’s and 80’s, as malls and subdivisions swallowed up small towns and sexual and social mores underwent a bewildering metamorphosis.
I'll put in links to other interesting pieces as I find them.

Postscript :

The Guardian has Updike's life in pictures and a whole list of authors including Richard Ford and Toni Morisson pay tribute. I like what Zadie Smith says :
Updike's example seemed the model of a real writer's life, in that this was an existence spent not in talking about writing, promising to write, boasting of having written or telling other people how they should write, but simply in the act of writing, every day, for decades.
There's another piece here by Martin Amis - and I impressed to learn that Updike had four studies in his house, each for a different type of writing! John Mulland and John Sutherland suggest the best titles to begin with, if you're embarking on your own voyage of Updike discovery.

The Telegraph has an interview with the author from last year.


Nikkos Sharapov said...

Let's pray for the repose of his soul. His body may have died but his soul remains in his works.


Amir said...

The New Yorker will not be the same again! He invariably had a book review or story or poem in there. But perhaps he had completed a few more before his death, so we will continue to receive Tupac-like missives from beyond...

Anonymous said...

My favourite part of the original NYT obituary (it's been edited and this part no longer appears online) was this:

"I really don't think I'm alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first 18 years of their life," he told The Paris Review. "Nothing that happens to us after 20 is as free from self-consciousness, because by then we have the vocation to write," he continued. "At the point where you get your writerly vocation, you diminish your receptivity to experience."

Only because I can relate completely. I don't think *all* writers would agree with the quotation above, but it definitely matches up with my own experience. I think I need to steal it for the next person who asks me incredulously why I still write about Malaysia even though "you haven't lived there for so long," or the next person who suggests that I write about America/France/Burkina Faso/Patagonia.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

Preeta -

You write about Malaysia because you know something about it, and because it's still exotic to a lot of people. I don't suppose where you stay right now is really fun to write about anyway. It's very penny lane-ish I would presume :P

There are songs about ordinary boring everyday life though, I wonder if someone could actually write a book about it.

He's right though, you look at people and immediately you know how their stories go. It gets boring.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

I agree with Preeta, mostly what I've written about (and little has been published as of yet, except by Sharon in Collateral Damage and also in SF5) is from my childhood or the landscape from my childhood neighborhoods (of which there were many!) back in America, and not here in "exotic" Malaysia.

But I strongly disagree with Anon about that last part. You may think the ordinary person is boring, but, oh, it's what you don't know or what they have been concealing in their so-called ordinariness! I remember a quote from I'm not sure who, but it goes like this: "It's extraordinary how extraordinary the ordinary person is." And there lies our stories, to dig past the ordinariness, the cliches, and get to the extraordinary. I look at my mother, an ordinary person on the surface and for the majority of her life, but oh, she had some extraordinary secrets from her past that haunt her to this day, and perhaps haunts me too. This is why I write. To capture, such stories.

The sad part about this is that now John Updike, who has been in the running for the last 20 or 30 years, will never win the Nobel.

bibliobibuli said...

he wrote a novel about a character who did though Robert!

love that quote about being extraordinary in ordinariness. look at yiyun li's stories for another example of how the great writer illuminates the ordinariness we take for granted when we haven't got our writer's eyes on. (can't wait for her first novel which is out soon!!!)

preeta - thanks for picking out that quote too. my goodness but isn't he one of the most quotable authors on writing?

Anonymous said...

Will miss his essays. He was everywhere..Here's a poem of his I saw in the Times. - rajan


It came to me the other day:

Were I to die, no one would say,

“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full

Of promise — depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes

Will greet my overdue demise;

The wide response will be, I know,

“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,

And death is real, and dark, and huge.

The shock of it will register

Nowhere but where it will occur.


This poem is taken from John Updike’s forthcoming collection, “Endpoint and Other Poems.”

Anonymous said...

Isn't this exactly like Shakespeare's "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech?

bibliobibuli said...

love the poem, Rajan. thanks so much for posting it. it's so true, isn't it? i felt the same thing when my mum died ... the world doesn't mourn the elderly passing on anywhere near as it does the young, yet each death IS as huge.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous -- are you trying to tell me that you know me better than I know myself? :-)

I know "something" about lots of places, and there are plenty of "exotic" stories I could tell. Being the only non-white person for miles in rural France is a pretty exotic tale, too, but I'm not planning to write about it.

-- Preeta

Yusuf Martin said...

My own writing has much to thank John Updike for.

He will be missed.

Witches of Eastwick is just incredible - the book that is.

Anonymous said...

Preeta -

France does not appear an exotic location to most :)

Yusuf Martin said...

Preeta the exotic is very much in the mind of the beholder. The Other is exotic in its difference to the I.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Yusuf.

Oh really, Anonymous? Wonder why Peter Mayle's books have sold so many copies, then, if what people *really* want to read about is Malaysia and that's why I write about it. In the interest of empirical enquiry, Peter Mayle should write a new book called "A Year in Perlis." Then we'll compare sales, and see which one readers find more intriguing.

-- Preeta

Damyanti said...

France seems pretty exotic from where I'm looking :)

Anonymous said...

Preeta -

I feel sure he might have sold more had he written "A Year in Perlis" :)

Yes, let's email him shall we ? :)

Damyanti -

From this end of the world maybe. Just as life here.. anyway Yusuf Martin (saw your articles :)) is probably right about the exoticness of anything.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

France was pretty exotic when I was there. I'm sure it hasn't changed all that much. Some people can be bored anywhere. Others are excited no matter where they are. Yeah, it's all in the mind; it's what we make it, and what we choose to see and to write about.

Preeta write what you want and I just bought your book as a reward for my MPH workshop (had 36 people who managed to squeeze in and otherts had to be turned away!)
Sharon recommended it back in July so I've had my eye on it for a while, so now I got it. Now I'm looking forward to reading it. Is it true Malaysia is exotic? For me, yes, but for Malaysians? It's home, but it also depends on who you are. Everywhere is exotic if we choose to make it as such, and as writers we can; it's all a matter of the details and description that we choose to use (and not use)...So for 2009, let's all be exotic and make our lives even more exotic!

Anonymous said...

Oh, hearty congrats on the success of the workshop, BEW! Excellent.

Thanks for buying my book. And I do write what I want. Always.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...


LOL... yea! Malaysians can be exotic. On some forums, they appear to speak English, but I have absolutely no idea what they mean. They talk about entertainers I've never heard of, places I've never heard of, been and done things I'd never think of doing, and they live here, same as me :)

weird :)

I haven't been to that many other countries, but is there a lot of favoritism there as well?

Is there such a thing as an objective human?