Friday, January 30, 2009
In Part VI of our series, Professor N.S.R. Ayengar writes:
30th Jan 09
John Updike, the most vociferous spokesman of the American ‘culture-war’ of the sixties, regrettably passed away on the 27th Jan at the age of 76. With his passing America has lost a luminous star from its literary firmament. Whatever his detractors may say about his obsessive depiction of sex – the unmitigated, lurid details of sex, especially that of female, his description of marital infidelity (which of course are the mainstay of majority of his novels as well as that of the famous five Rabbit novels), one cannot deny that he was one of America’s greatest prose stylists. He created a style which was effortlessly fluent, polished and mellifluous, almost bordering on poetry. Much of his obscenities get glossed over by his immaculate prose style and that also explains why his readers have tolerated him. But for his stylistic excellence, his books, perhaps, would have degenerated into cheap pornography.
Updike is often dubbed as the chronicler of “suburban adultery” – a fact which he never made any secret about. He once wrote that it was ‘a subject which if I have not exhausted , has exhausted me’. Yet on occasions he shunned his familiar territory and explored pastures green in such novels as: The witch of Eastwick(1984), The Coup(1978)- (about a fictional cold war - era African dictatorship), which were best sellers and showed the author at his Nobokovian best. In 2000 he wrote a carefully crafted and researched post- modernist novel on the story of Hamlet- Gertrude and Claudius. His other works like The Centaur,(the winner of National Book Award 1963) Couples(1968) and Roger’s version(1968) were extremely popular so much so that they won the author a place on the cover page of Time Magazine and brought him fortune.
Updike celebrated the ordinary American. He was the champion of the middle class. In an interview to Time Magazine(1966) he said “my subject is American protestant small- town middle class”. Yet he so admirably transformed the ordinary into something artistic by his supreme artistry.
In most of his novels one can detect an unconscious and unstated theme i.e the irrefutable correlation between unbridled promiscuity(unrestrained sex) and death. Therefore, though Updike inundates the readers by a hypertrophy of sexual imagination, the readers know where to stop. This need not preclude us from appreciating his greatness as an artist.