Book review: Updike, by Adam Begley

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 7:07pm

by Adam Begley
4 stars

Blake Morrison

As Adam Begley puts it in this fine biography, John Updike "was enthralled by the detail of his own experience", and the magic rubbed off on those around him.

It helped that the novelist's early years as a cherished only child were so idyllic. His first ambition was to be a cartoonist, ideally the next Walt Disney. Even after Harvard, he persevered with his drawing, spending a year in Oxford at the Ruskin School of Art. By then The New Yorker magazine had already accepted several of his stories, and when he returned to the US, he joined the staff. Thanks to the magazine's lucrative sponsorship, he never had to worry about money again.

Updike was already a father at this point: his wife, Mary, whom he'd married at 21, gave birth to their first child in Britain. Still only 25, he fled the bright lights for the small pond of Ipswich, near Boston. He would remain a New Yorker fixture until he died, but he never lived in New York again.

In Ipswich he settled into the daily routine that he kept up for the next 50 years: a minimum of three pages written in the morning, then reading, correspondence, recreation and practical tasks (not least carpentry) about the house. Over time, he became dangerously fluent, joking that he wrote more quickly than he read. He never had an agent; he took care of all publishing matters himself. Meanwhile, Ipswich was turning out to be not a quiet backwater but a rowdy adult playground. To protect their privacy, Begley declines to name the women with whom Updike had casual affairs and sticks to the only two of real significance. The affair with Joyce Harrington in 1962 narrowly avoided ending Updike's marriage.

The second, with Martha Bernhard, did end his marriage, in 1977. Torn between his wife and mistress, reluctant to abandon his children but convinced that "the obligation to live … must be defended against the claims even of virtue", he finally divorced Mary and married Martha, remaining with her, in seclusive affluence, until his death more than 30 years later.

Begley's relationship with his subject goes way back: Updike was a college classmate of his father's. He's admiring without being over-protective, and is particularly good on Updike's contradictions.

Mary and their four children co-operated with Begley, and offered some poignant insights, but Martha is conspicuously absent in the acknowledgments. If there's an injustice in that, future biographies will have to put it right.

Meanwhile, this one paints a portrait Updike would have recognised and even, for the most part, approved.

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