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By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 11 August 2014

The American writer John Updike died of lung cancer in 2009. For my wife this precipitated a dilemma as to what to give me for Christmas, for so many years the latest Updike novel. I have been immersed in Updike since buying a new edition of his short stories published in a two volume boxed set by The American Library and the recently released biography by Adam Begley (Harper Collins). Perhaps never before has the soul of an author been laid so bare and so extensively in his own writing. Updike's earlier work was largely autobiographical, particularly the Maple stories and many of his short stories published in the New Yorker from 1954 to 2008. Indeed many stories were so transparently autobiographical that they had to be put in the New Yorker's "Shadow Bank" until they could be published without risk of legal action.

Updike served up his immediate experience; all was grist for his mill. So much so that after telling his children that he was leaving the family of his first marriage, a painful episode for all, he published, soon after, an episode in the Maple stories, "Separating" that was drawn with little disguise from the event. One wonders at the facility of a writer who could do such painful things to his family and then serve it all up in a short story sold to the New Yorker for a fairly large amount of money. One wonders about his facility for detachment! For Updike all of experience was fodder for his literature. He could be called the Vermeer (one of Updike's favourite artists) of American letters, so intent was he on the gravity and beauty of the everyday. The glory of the small town of Shillington where he grew up was often celebrated in his short stories as if it were the centre of the universe.

The sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies was described in the book that made him a million dollars and his literary reputation: Couples. Begley's biography does not deal with Couples at length, which I think is a pity since it is the most theological of all his books. The central character is Piet Hanema, the earth-man and he is a creature caught between heaven and earth, between his wife Angela who is divine in bed and out but detached and his mistress Foxy who is of the earth and whose underwear is not always that fresh. In a game of naming the most wonderful thing Angela chooses the stars while Foxy chooses the Eucharist, the sign of incarnation. The battle between the two is resolved in Foxy's favour, the earth man is incarnate and needs an incarnate mate.


The setting for Couples is the "post pill paradise", the Vietnam War, the assassination of John Kennedy and American affluence. Underlying this there is angst aplenty:

Horribly awake, Piet tried to pray. His up-pouring thoughts touched nothing. An onyx dust of gas above his face. Something solid once was atomized. Thou shalt not covet, Whosever lusteth in his heart.…Forgive me. Reach down and touch. He had patronized his faith and lost it. God will not be used. Death stretched endless under him….He needed to touch Foxy, her nipples, her belly, in oblique moonlight.

Similar expressions of dread can be found in the short stories. This from the story "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car."

I was a condemned man. My brain in its calcium vault shouted about injustice, thundered accusations into the lustreless and tranquil homogeneity of air. Each second that my protest went unanswered justified it more certainly: the God who permitted me this fear was unworthy of existence. Each instant that my terror was extended amplified God's non-existence….

Updike was a churchgoer all his life. He studied some divinity at Harvard and read Karl Barth. He said the Lord's Prayer with his children at bedtime. However, his Christianity did not seem to comfort him or rein in his adulterous behaviour. One wonders at the possible connection between falling in love out of marriage and the Kierkegaardian dread that he and his characters experienced. In his autobiography he confessed that his cure for such desperation was to read Karl Barth and fall in love with other men's wives. The man in love was saved from the pit of existential despair. "He battled death with God and romance."

Updike's early writing did not fall far from his own experience. An affair threatened his marriage twelve years in and another ended it after twenty. His wife also had affairs. In their group in the town of Ipswich (read Tarbox in Couples) bed hopping was common. The sadness is that the participants thought that they could get away with it and marriages did not crumble immediately. However as the years proceeded the town was littered with broken homes spilling their children into a "universe of loss." The sexual revolution proved to be an example of rational overreach; the "why not?" led many into damaging acts.


We must remember that this was the era of Death of God theology and it may be that such an idea set the scene for libertarianism because "there was not enough left of the old morality to hold us in." Or as Begley writes:

Updike was surely aware that he could break a vow spoken at the altar without being struck dead or ejecting God from the heavens – without, indeed disturbing the universe in any way.

The new sexual freedom was heady and exciting and perhaps did keep dread at bay for a time. What we failed to understand is that transgression against the marital vows, even when well hidden, will always out and weaken the marriage, sometimes irrevocably.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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