Editorial: In praise of ... John Updike

Editorial: In short stories as well as novels he made familiar the melancholy, sometimes the terror, of ordinary lives

Oddly, many British readers will think of the death of John Updike as a loss to English Literature. In part it was his unabashed literariness, his connoisseur's taste for style, evidenced by his easy brilliance as a reviewer. His sentences seemed old world. American contemporaries sought to break the bounds of the Novel, he was content with beautifully-made suburban realism.

In short stories as well as novels he made familiar the melancholy, sometimes the terror, of ordinary lives. He was a chronicler of specifically American discontents too. His four Rabbit novels, narrating the misdeeds and the good fortune of a suburban American male over three decades, constitute a small national epic.

His novels featuring the moderately successful writer Henry Bech turn an American author's life into a living illustration of human vanities. He was admirable for being prolific, willing to risk a failed experiment or two, without worrying unduly what that might do to his literary reputation. His formal conservatism, his attachment to psychological observation and stylistic grace, allowed him a special audacity.

In one respect Updike was unlike most British novelists: he wrote well and vividly about sex. Notoriously, his novel Couples, published in 1968, introduced readers to an ordinary bourgeois world where infidelity and sexual obsession seemed the norm. The content made it a succès de scandale, but what has made it last is something more unusual, which characterises his writing: the elegance of his sentences.


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