Going Home With John Updike

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at Britain's Labour Party conference in Manchester, England, Wednesday Sept. 27, 2006. Clinton has been in the news lately after a contentious Fox News interview where he spoke about his and the Bush administration's efforts to fight al Qaeda.
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John Updike doesn't visit Shillington, Pa., much any more, not since his mother died in 1989. And when he does, he tends to see what was there once, not what is there now.

"There's hardly a store here that's the same," he said on a recent visit. "Everything's different," he said. "Trees are down, you know, and so on."

"So that (your) childhood becomes something of which you are purely the custodian, nobody else," he added.

In his custody, his childhood in Shillington became his subject. First, there were the short stories that launched his long career with The New Yorker magazine.

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Then came books, great armloads of books, 50 of them and counting: novels, story collections, essays, and poems, including one with the title "Shillington," which reads in part: "Returning, we find our snapshots inexact."

"Perhaps the condition of being alive is that the clothes which, setting out, we packed with love, no longer fit when we arrive," he wrote.

"It used to feel very weird and strange to look down at the sidewalk," the author observed. "My childish footsteps used to walk on that," he would think.

"And it was all kind of charged with my old identity," he added.

His grandfather's home, where he lived until age 13, now houses an ad agency.

"I felt loved not just by the people in the family, but by the whole street, in a way," he recalled. "I'm not sure I was so loved, but that was my feeling," he said. "I saw Shillington as quite benevolent."

Shillington is really a suburb of Reading, Pa., now. But some people still remember Updike's father, who taught at the high school. To the writer, his hometown bequeathed "a kind of respect for middle class, ordinary life,...a belief that there was somethin worth saying about it,...that there was struggle and morals to be gained, that there was beauty in it."

Updike was invited back by the Reading Junior League. The Berks County boy is now one of the best-known writers in the world and winner of every major literary award except the Nobel Prize.

In the audience were old friends, classmates and relatives, who know that Brewer is Updike's fictionalized version of Shillington. That's the town of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Updike's most famous creation, a former high school basketball star who can't quite face the rest of his life.

Rabbit books have appeared every 10 years, much like snapshots of succeeding decades. Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest won Pulitzer prizes.

"It was only when I went back 10 years later and wrote Rabbit Redux, basically about the turmoil and excitement of the late '60s, that it became a kind of record of America in any conscious sense," he observed.

Rabbit, like so many of Updike's characters, gets himself in trouble with other men's wives.

"I guess I'm a religious writer," Updike said. "I try to show people stuck with this kind of yearning."

"It makes them restless," he said. "It makes them bad citizens," he said.

On the one hand, he depicts the moral and religious search of humanity. On the other hand, he has written a great deal about sex.

"Well, sex is one of the means - maybe the foremost means - whereby the search is conducted," he explained. "Sex is ecstasy," he added. "Sex is transcendence."

"Sexual greed and spiritual greed are perhaps closely allied," Updike observed.

Novels like Couples have earned him the nickname, "the poet laureate of modern adultery." He takes on the subject again in his latest novel, Gertrude and Claudius. (Gertrude was Hamlet's mother; Claudius, her husband's brother.)

"The two lovers don't get much of a fair shake in Shakespeare's version, so I tried to give them this version," said the author. "And I have a history, of sorts, of writing about couples. I thought I might be qualified to write the story of their adulterous love."

The closest thing he has written to an autobiography is called Self-Consciousness; whole chapters are devoted to his physical afflictions: asthma, stuttering and psoriasis.

He wrote that his creativity was "My relentless need to produce, but a parody of my skin's embarrassing overproduction."

Said Updike, "This need for another self, a superior, a public self is, I guess, very deep for me."

"Maybe I wasn't satisfied with the self I had," he said. "I wanted to construct a better one."

"And when you write books, you can," he said. "You do just that....If you speak haltingly, you can write smoothly."

Equally important to Updike: A book will outlast its author.

He said he has attemted to make beautiful books, "books that are in some way beautiful, that are models of how to use the language, models of honest feeling, models of care."

His next (No. 51), a story collection titled Licks of Love, is due out in the fall. The centerpiece story is "Rabbit Remembered." But spend any time with Updike and you'll hear hints that, at 68, he is winding down.

"I can't think of anything that I haven't already touched on or said," he said. "Each topic I pulled from myself,...it occurs to me, 'I wrote that 30 years ago.'"