A new biography just published by Adam Begley on John Updike, who claimed that he wrote faster than he read, brought back scintillating memories of my encounter with him in 1989.
I particularly wanted to interview him since, in my view, he was the American writer of his generation with the most distinguished and prolific output, who had dissected the suburban sexual mores of small-town America. The snag was that he then rarely gave interviews.
As André Deutsch was his publisher in Britain, I asked him if he thought he could persuade Updike to meet me. André said he would do what he could but could promise nothing. Eventually he came back and said Updike would be willing to see me in Boston, but had stipulated that the interview must be restricted to forty-five minutes.
I naturally gibbed at this impossibly meagre concession, but André said, well, it was either that or nothing.
I flew to Boston specially and Updike came to my hotel room as arranged. Once he got going, our conversation went on for almost two hours. In his own memoirs he had described himself as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. This did not really match the public perception of him, I suggested.
I think anybody who knows me would agree with all those adjectives. I was an only child who never had to compete with a sibling, and my parents were both, in their way, very loving and indulgent. Just the fact that I had the presumption to become an artist is rather ridiculous, isn’t it, with no qualifications except that I felt treasured as a child.
When my mother died, among the things in the attic was a scrapbook containing many of my drawings done when I was three or four. Not every child gets that kind of attention. The good side of it is that I have a certain confidence, and by and large I’ve acted confidently in my life and had good results. The bad side is that I like to be the centre of attention.
As for being malicious, I think I am more than unusually malicious. That joy, that schadenfreude we take in other people’s misfortunes, is highly developed in me, although I try to repress it. I detect within myself a certain sadism, a certain pleasure in the misfortunes of others. I don’t know whether I’m average in this or whether it’s exceptional, but I’m interested to a degree in the question of sadism. People who are sadistic are very sensitive to pain, and it’s a way of exorcizing the demon of pain.
I’m so aware of my enviousness that I try not to review books by contemporary Americans. I’m not sure that I would really give an honest opinion, and that’s sneaky. People who are cowardly and don’t especially enjoy confrontation or battle tend to be sneaky.
In this unflattering self-characterization, though, I was no doubt just doing my Christian duty of confessing sins. Human nature is mightily mixed, but surely all these malicious and cruel aspects are there along with everything else.
I then raised the question of a reviewer of his novel Couples calling him ‘the pornographer of marriage’. Did he resent this tag, I asked.
Not too much. I wasn’t trying to be pornographic. I was trying to describe sexual behaviour among people, and the effect was probably the opposite of pornographic. Pornography creates a world without consequences, where women don’t get pregnant, nobody gets venereal disease and no one gets tired.
In Couples I was trying, to the limits of my own knowledge, to describe sexual situations and show them with consequences. Without resenting that phrase, I don’t think it describes very well what I was trying to do…
I think Couples was certainly of its time, just in the fact that it spans very specific years and refers to a lot of historical events. In a funny way, the book is about the Kennedy assassination. It’s also about the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the fact that the danger of getting pregnant was almost entirely removed and that a certain amount of promiscuity resulted directly from this technology.
It also turns out that it was the pre-AIDS, pre-herpes paradise, so it was a moment that’s gone, a moment of liberation which broke not upon a bunch of San Francisco hippies, but upon middle-aged couples, yet it was a revolution of a kind. It is very much of its historic moment.
I thought his confessions were unbelievably stark and more soul baring than one would expect from a great writer of his standing.
In many ways, he was a troubled thinker whose horizons stretched beyond the familiar boundaries of a perceptive novelist of great flair and feeling – a prodigious one, perhaps?
(My next blog post will be after Easter, on Wednesday 23rd April. Happy Easter everyone.)