My Conversation with John Updike
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning author talks about Harvard, the wars, his writings, religion, Nixon and politics.
On a cool summer afternoon in Boston, John Updike and I met at the Ritz; it had been my idea to meet there. I had flown up from New York to interview him, and he had driven to Boston from his home in Beverly Farms. John Updike didn't seem, at least that day, to like being in the Ritz, so, at his suggestion, we went across the street to the Boston Public Gardens. We sat together on a bench and watched the swans in the lake and talked. I felt embarrassed at paying so much attention to my Sony recording machine; I kept shoving it in his direction. I was afraid that the shrieks coming from a group of noisy children near us mixed with the street noises and birds chirping would prevent his voice from being properly picked up; he spoke in a low voice, and kept his head turned away from the machine. I looked at him. He was no longer the gawky student I had met in my living room, he had become a writer whose thick gray hair fell in the right way on his face, he had a nice way of moving his hands and his clothes hung on his body in the right way and he wore good shoes. Though he complained about his problems with skin allergies, his face looked right too; he had grown into looking like the writer he had from the beginning wanted to be. A touch of his idol Fred Astaire, a touch of Harvard Yard.
“I was really a small town boy who wanted to get out and become Fred Astaire.”
Solomon: Has Harvard and your undergraduate life there in the early '50s always been central to your definition of yourself?
Updike: For many years I had begrudged Harvard the place it had in my life. I was delighted that they had accepted me. Because my mother had figured out that it was the place for writers to go. And so it was. It was a very literary place. It also was a very snobby place. I was so innocent about the various social levels that I didn't know what the finer clubs were. I didn't realize that in part they were an engine for perpetuating the Brahmin class of New England. I liked my courses and I liked that I did well in them. Everything worked out wonderfully, but I remained sort of sullen inside—I wanted to remain a Pennsylvania farm boy. But I married a Radcliffe girl and after a few years in New York moved back to within an hour of Harvard. And I've never really left. I lived within an hour of Harvard for the last thirty-five years. Not that I go there often, but I like knowing that it is there.
So Harvard was your chosen identity?
Yes. I can't imagine my life if I had gone to Cornell as I nearly did. I'd be a different person. Harvard still had potent literary ghosts around in those days. I wasn't smart enough to be one of the young modernist writers—in those days I sent the Lampoon funny stuff, or would-be funny stuff—but nevertheless there was a sense of confidence—a sense of hands on. T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens came and read. E.E. Cummings gave the Norton lecture.
In one of your essays you remarked "Harvard loves all its sons including the German aviators in World War I that died." Do you remember what I am referring to?
That was in an article on New England churches. One of the churches I discuss is Mem Chapel, which has that little quite moving plaque over the corner commemorating the Harvard German graduates who fought on the wrong side in World War ll. It was lovely. Harvard had not forgotten its sons. Non oblita est.
Was it World War II or World War I?
World War II. I don't know where the World War I memorials are. Some other place.
I was struck by your reference to the German soldiers—in re-reading your work a certain music filters through. First you were a Pennsylvania farm boy, and after that you adopted a Harvard style. And you seem very drawn to certain kinds of European writers—you've written four essays on Knut Hamsun and you have also written on C‚line. I am wondering about the German part of your heritage—it was on your mother's side?
How did it affect you? I felt that you seemed to mind that the First World War ended just before your father, who was in the infantry, could be shipped overseas and that you were very mea culpa about sitting out the Korean war on a student exemption and then not being drafted because of your bad skin.
I thought being a 4-F was a kind of weaselly thing to do, but I couldn't control that. But then I didn't try to sneak around and enlist anyway. I accepted the 4-F and I made a nice little life for myself.
Yet you refer to these things almost as though a sin was involved. And I am thinking, did the German part bother you? Growing up so soon after the Second World War? What is the sin?
Who knows? My mother's maiden name was Hoyer. They came here shortly after the Revolutions, so they weren't new German. And my mother never really admitted to being German, she always said that her father was Swiss and her mother Arab. She was rather fanciful about her past. When Europeans come to Brooks County, or Lancaster County, they say it reminds them of Europe. So maybe that makes me interested in European writers. Or ask me if I'm interested in my fellow Americans, who all suggest a prairie to me. And their books are like prairies. Whereas German fiction and European fiction is sort of like a European landscape. It's tight and kind of green, and packed in. It's kind of fun. One of the reasons I've reviewed so many Europeans is to avoid sitting in judgment on my fellow Americans. I've reviewed Bellow and Vonnegut, but I basically have tried to avoid it. Once you get to know the writers it becomes harder to know what you think as opposed to what you want to think. So the Europeans, being distant, are comfortable and dead. That's doubly nice.
But you could have picked the British—you are definitely more in line with Europe than Britain.
With some exceptions the British novel is a tame thing. Talky. It doesn't get off the ground or into any other realm. I like the French. They do it with their heads. And the Latins. The Spanish and the Spanish-Americans do it with something more. It's exciting to see that happen. They are really trying to find a frontier in fiction. Whereas the British are content to work the old plot.
I'm particularly fond of your novel A Month of Sundays. It has that kind of European passion and central drive. It's Nabokovian in a way.
I kind of loved that book when I was writing it. I described somewhere that after Couples I spent an awful lot of time researching James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States, and I found a historical novel a very resistant form. Time was going by, I wasn't getting any younger, and I thought I must send a novel down to Knopf. The easiest way to write one fast is to have a man writing a kind of a journal. I took two writing days for each day in his journal. So he writes twice as quickly as I do. But it was my fastest novel. And also one where I could let go. Have some fun. Use what was in my upstairs.
I felt that you had some fun with the religious things.
U. I was very interested at that time in events between Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. The book is about a Barthian who becomes more Tillichean at the end. I was sort of frantic at the time.
You seemed to be arguing with yourself. After all it would hardly be Barthian to suggest, as A Month of Sundays does, that Christ just represented another mystery cult and was a megalomaniac.
No, Karl Barth would not say that. The novel kind of laid an egg when it came out. One reviewer said are we any the better for knowing the Reverend Tom Marshfield. It struck me as an interesting idea, that the reader should be any the better for knowing a literary character. As you said, it is Nabokovian in a way. It is tricky. It is even trickier in the first version. I wanted the last chapter to be to be a blank page. But it was hard to tell that was what I was intending. So I had to put in a few words. The book was full of secrets. Ins and outs.
You mentioned Bellow earlier and you have written about what you consider the professorial element in his novels. But you, too, are known as a writer with a thinky mind. Do you think, by writing so many essays, you can keep the thinky part out of your fiction? Is this what you mean to do?
I don't have Bellow's passion for abstract thought. Or for European thought. He really is obsessed by it. It's in The Adventures of Augie March and continues in his later books. So I can't pretend to care as deeply as Bellow does about great ideas, but what interest I do have in them is vented in the reviews. With The New Yorker’s permission I'm able to make little essays. If I have something to say about civilization I can do it there, so I feel free not to have to do it in the novels.
So you do the intimate moment, that American moment, in the novel, and get rid of all these other ideas in your essays?
In the novel you are basically trying to represent things, the same as events, and not judge them. It's like finding hieroglyphs in oneself and then tracing underwater. You're not trying to communicate like a professor or politician. You are trying to make a thing. There is a thingyness about a novel which we should respect.
Okay. As in Flaubert. But you have at times raised the question of politics and it seems to me that you view politics , the idea of politics, also as a sort of sin. As in your essay On Not Being a Dove. Almost as if you have a phobic repulsion toward it. In that essay, I find about ten different Updikean voices. If you merely had wanted to write about was why you were not part of the hysterical somewhat propagandist l960s it seemed to me it would have been stated in a different way. Most people who were in favor of our involvement in the Viet Nam war didn't question whether they were patriots or not, which you anguished about. They took it for granted that they were. I'm not discussing one's point of view regarding that war. But it does strike me, much in the way that some writers overly resist seeing the sexual in a situation, which is not your problem, the political, in any form, seems to mean something very special to you. Something very sinful and dark.
Well, you certainly are right. That was a very squirmy piece.
I didn't say squirmy—
Well, I say squirmy because most people in the sixties took the attitude that the men who were leading us—LBJ and Nixon were kind of insane killers... and I thought they were certain kinds of men caught in the predicament of being president. And so I was a little more sympathetic to their basic situation. On the other hand I think I do bring some of my childhood experience of local politics, and Harvard in the early fifties, and I do look upon politics as something dirty and silly, and I can't imagine why anybody first rate would want to get mixed up in it. I think that is a prejudice which I am now confessing. We loved that in Adali Stevenson. Because he did seem to be wonderful. He was like us—better than us. Bigger.
I feel when I read you that you sound like someone who as a kid who had been hit over the head by politics. And so I think—where does this trauma come from? I'm not making a commentary about the point of view you expressed in that book, because most people, who had that point of view expressed it without fear. Look, my father was a Republican—but he wasn't traumatized by his views.
I was traumatized because I was raised as a Democrat, I had always been a liberal. You're asking why did I make so much of this?
Yes—why was it expressed by you as a trauma, rather than, saying, I simply disagree with these people?
I felt very traumatized by it, because by trying to see our full war position, I seem to be condoning this war, with dead on all sides, and when you find yourself defending war it is very uncomfortable if you are a guy who can't step on an ant. To suddenly seem to be cheering on the bombers in Hanoi while you are so squeamish in your own life seemed to me to be a way into my own insides. A very unpleasant way. But I thought being a writer I shouldn't flinch from the unpleasantness of it and, yes, I wrote that essay. For which I got very little thanks. It's done me nothing but harm—people have forgotten what I thought and who cares really? I care, apparently.
But you wrote it as though you had no awareness that other intelligent people might share some of your views?
No, I didn't know that. Were there some? I'd love to believe that.
Sure. That's what struck me. You wrote it like you were a man alone in the wilderness.
I felt alone. I felt alone with my kind of small town patriotism in an age that couldn't care less. That spat on it. Yes, I did feel alone. I don't know why I felt alone. There are a lot of Republicans in Ipswich. But my wife was not among them. I've sort of erased the whole thing—I don't know why.
You wrote it like you were in shell-shock.
Yes, you're right. I don't feel so shell-shocked now that it has receded. And you can see now that the war must have been a mistake, or we would have won it. The results proved that the Doves were right. I don't know why I got so heated about it—even now I get sort of hot about it. Because I'm cool about most things.
You felt about the Viet Nam war that you took an outsider's position—as though you were, so to speak, on the wrong side of history. I do feel that you confuse politics and history, they are not the same thing. It even crept into your essay about Proust and Céline.
I have to reread the essay. It's been quite a few years since I wrote it. As I remember it—I am not a great Céline reader—I suspect he is one of those writers who greatly benefits from knowing French. George Steiner is constantly telling us that. Steiner is constantly moved by the spectacle of men whose politics he can't fathom but whose style he admires. These European anti-semites... and I was just going by what his book said, which showed that in addition to not just zany but murderous views there seemed to be also a kind of a sweet doctor. Is that true? Or untrue?
Well I don't think he was sweet, or not sweet. And I didn't agree with your analogy to him and Proust—because you said Proust was anti-Semitic. What he wrote about Bloch. And I thought Proust was doing no more than when you call Christianity a scandal, in your book A Month of Sundays. Proust, after all, was a fervent Dreyfusard, and there's where I began to feel that the political in some ways is so traumatic to you.
I think what I was trying to say is that there aren't any anti-Semitic portraits in Céline as deadly as Bloch in Proust. I may be wrong. But Céline’s views didn’t seem to carry over into his art. He didn't bother to give us caricatures of Jewish people
This is taking things out of context. You would have to add to your statements that Proust became a Dreyfusard and that Céline—
Updike shifted his legs and gazed at the swans, and at the park. “Céline would not have become a Dreyfusard?”
I too gazed at the swans. But I didn’t want to pursue the subject. I sensed that Updike felt constrained by the cassette machines—the interviewer has the unfair advantage of being able with a change of a comma, or inflection, to win all arguments, so to speak have the last word, and that sort of winning is a mug’s game. I wondered if Updike thought of me as a wandering reconnoiterer from the New York Jewish intellectual set to which he felt somewhat alien. I wondered if he comprehended that a girl, even a Jewish girl, growing up in Manhattan could have been as ill-equipped to deal with the snarls and smart heat of the “New York intellectuals”, and as innocent as a small-town boy from Pennsylvania. Well, like Updike, like Proust, I had had childhood asthma. A bond. I wondered whether I should mumble that I had been raised by a German Lutheran. Whether it was relevant. Then I didn’t. I decided to switch tacks.
This is interesting. The place of politics and history is something that you push away from. Just like Cheever maybe pushed away from certain aspects of sex.
Well, it could be. This is almost psychotherapy.
We could talk about something else—Art.
No, it's fine—I'm just trying to think about it. You had mentioned Knut Hamsun, who is another great writer who disgraced himself, and who I felt obliged to review repeatedly.
Yes, that's a lot of Hamsun. Because I became interested in his style. He has a kind style that I don't have but that I like. Very dry, precise, sort of magical—what Donald Barthelme used to call the little nut hard word. I seem to like that. I did seem to get a couple of angry letters from Jewish fellow Americans that I would have anything good to say about Hamsen. I was surprised that after all these years they still noticed... I was shocked , again, because you don't want to be in a position of seeming to condone Hitler, of coming out on his side.
No, no. I didn't think that. What interested me is that kind of interest, whether it's from Jews or non-Jews, usually comes from Europeans. Because they've been on every side they get enmeshed with the guy who ended up on the wrong side. So I was trying to figure out why so much passion about being on the right or wrong side from this person who had been this boy in this rather innocent American town in which these things were not at issue.
Well, it must have been a kind of insecurity—right? Because if I had been more secure I would not have felt guilty about my patriotic reflexes.
Usually people have this kind of guilt over something like sex. It fascinated me because it seems to have come from nowhere.
It comes from my sense of myself as being a man who has chosen to be a certain way. I spoke of myself as being a farm boy, but actually we weren't that—I was really a small town boy who wanted to get out and become Fred Astaire or one of the Algonquin crowd or somebody like that. So that the sophisticated ideas were in my head from early on. So even then there was a kind of ambivalence. On one hand I was Johnny Updike in my knickers going down to the playground, and really having quite a lot of fun in my little environment. On the other hand I was starting to get out—in a way betray Chillington by getting out of it. And then I got a coating of Harvard on me and a coating of The New Yorker. I needed all these veneers to bring off my impersonation of a sophisticated knowledgeable person that I know down deep that I'm not. And the Vietnam War somehow found me out. It said the real you is a little killer back there, flattening tin cans and wanting to bomb those poor gooks over there. Maybe that's why I took it so hard. I was trying to write a book about me and trying to find ways of writing about myself that interested me. I guess I was needing to find ways of talking about it, and about that one terrible lapse of mine in not having the politically correct, and therefore dismissible, view. Then Norman Podhoretz ran what I wrote in Commentary. It was my great rapprochement with him, he had never had much use for me or my work.
Oh, because Commentary ran the Alfred Chester review?
Oh, you remember that? It was a most vicious review—how can anyone attack Pigeon Feathers? Bad reviews serve a good purpose. They alert you to the fact that life is not an ice cream stand. I was this small town kid. These small town bouquets must have irritated Chester—the Brooklyn kid, smart, probably kind of tough. But I was trying to say that this is kind of a life too. Most of my writing has been saying that. I write about Chillington or Cooks County as if these conflicts and issues matter as much as what happens in Manhattan.
I was rather glad you wrote some nice things about O'Hara.
O'Hara knew a lot more about the actual power struggles in Pottstown than I did about my environment. What I saw, to which I bore witness, was domestic strife and confusion whereas O'Hara saw really a class-ridden society. So his Pottstown is more mappable than my Brewer. But on the other hand O'Hara had what Wallace Stevens, a native of that part of the world, called a willingness to celebrate. He just has this terrible itch to tell, and everything is interesting. Just like Stevens, every line he put down in it is interesting. Maybe this is a Pennsylvania quality—I suspect I have it in my way too. This wish to celebrate, and if you don't say it the first ten times, say it maybe five, ten more. O'Hara has faded fast, but some of his best short stories are lode stars to me of what good fiction can do.
You are so interested in art—do you feel at this point that more of our twentieth century autobiography is in art rather than fiction?
It's been more glamorous. And its avant gardism is much easier to trace. You can see things happening, can't you? If you've been to a couple of rooms in a modern museum you can see things that all the people are pushing a little harder against. Representation. Yes, I think it's the art of this century. Fiction takes too long to absorb, and people really don't have the time—the patience that it took to really read novels.
I feel envy. I feel envy towards the artist.
Of course very few become artists at the order we are thinking—of the order of Picasso and Matisse. You don't want to become a Jackson Pollock—that kind of a symbol. Also it seems to be more fun to paint rather than setting at the typewriter. All the smells and the gooeyness of it all, and just the materiality of it is exciting. So I found museums, which I have written about, very consoling, inspiring places. Something you have seen there maybe you can do in words.
Would you have liked to have written on Balthus?
The guy who does adolescent girls in semi-masturbatory positions? Uh, I could do it if I had a room full of them to look at, but he's not some one who greatly moves me.
The way Ryder did?
Ryder sort of did. Certainly all that crust and crud on his painting was exciting. I'm sort of a fraud as an art critic as well as other things, but I like the challenge in trying to write about a painter. And Ryder was interesting to me because he is a sort of an American. He is such an American mystic, that kind of reaching, that wish to go beyond, even though he doesn't have the tools. He still is working for something in a way that Europeans in that era weren't.
What I meant by envy, is that when I think of what I am, of my journey and this place, then I think of art, or the movies, not fiction. They have expressed my autobiography, they have expressed my reality. And that makes me angry. Because I think of writing as what I chose to do, and yet I realize my head is somewhere else.
The other things are much easier and they kind of blast you, but I'm not sorry that I'm a writer. I can do a lot more with it than I ever could as a painter. In writing there is always more to do. More to say. More to try.
It strikes me that when you write about women—you are doing your painting.
Really? Painting the women. A bit, maybe. How to make them... attractive and poignant, yes.
You seem to do the painting with the women, and your theology with the men.
That may be a limitation of my world view.
I didn't say it was a limitation. I just wondered if you see how much you paint when it comes to women.
No. Probably not, but I'll look for that now. Yes, it makes sense. Although I've tried to write from the insides of women now and then, in part because it's been pointed out to me that I don't do it much. And one should. But I suppose I'm male enough to be more excited by the outsides of women than their insides. I don't know. My mother was a very eloquent woman who was constantly offering to share her thoughts with me, and maybe I got an overdose of female thought early. There's a kind of a heat about female confidences, this tremendous female heat, and you sort of run backwards and try to find some guys to play a little softball with. But, oh, there's this sense of women being almost too much, too wonderful, too sensitive, and yet somehow wounded—wounded I suppose by their disadvantage within the society.
I wondered when I read your story The Rumour whether you were now trying to achieve that sense of art, of painting a portrait, they way you do with women, in writing about men?
Well, I was trying to do something a little different and it was fun to write about that gallery. I was trying to make use of something which did happen. There was a rumor that I had eloped with a young man. I don't know how many people it reached, but it reached me by several routes, and, uh, my wife looked at me. Was I really here? Which was she to believe? Me, or the rumor? There's some sort of idea there for a story, which I tried to use. And if you hear a thing often enough you begin to believe it, don't you? You begin to think Jojo isn't so bad, is he? He's sort of touching, Jojo, and that little scar. And there were John Cheever's journals. Having known John before we knew he was a homosexual and then to read how homosexual he was has been for me kind of mind blowing. I didn't know him tremendously well, and I'm a pretty innocent guy, as we've established, but I began to get a glimmer in some of his late stories. There's one in which two men begin to roll around with their scratchy bald heads and their scratchy chins, and the guy says, "this isn't so bad". And I began to feel, well maybe there's something revealing here; but that was fairly late. It's—God, those journals! How do you feel about those? Oh no, you're interviewing me.
You can ask me anything you want, John—this is a conversation.
I was going to ask you how you feel about those journals appearing in The New Yorker in such bulk.
Well, I was very taken with them, and I also felt very sad. I felt it's hard to capture now that this is the way Americans lived then—we are living in such a different society, where this wouldn't happen in this way. I mean Cheever in a later period could have had an open life as a homosexual. It moved me because I thought, hey, we've forgotten that even Tennessee Williams didn't overtly write much in the early phase about homosexuals. We've forgotten our history in that sense. I felt the fact that Cheever did it that way is part of our history, our emotional baggage. I think that's what you said when you mentioned I Thought of Daisy or Memoirs of Hecate County, how moved—or not how moved, how sexy you remembered Edmund Wilson's "two little nothing sentences"—I think it was a mention of a pubic hair—
It was very short—it didn't even have that, but yes, Wilson was franker than anything you get in Hemingway—
You said the Hemingway didn't talk below the waist.
Right. It wasn't below the waist.
But Memoirs of Hecate County blew our minds, right? I was struck by your bringing that up because it was so true for our generation. So when you ask me how did I feel about Cheever, about his journals I think it was just hard for him and I feel sad.
I felt sad for him, that he wasn't having more fun out of his life because at that time, many thought, he was the best short story writer in the country. I thought he had it made. And everything was wrong with his life as he saw it. Not enough money, not enough wife love, not enough. The journals are a miserable document about the condition of a man's soul. I guess it's justified by the quality of the prose—some of those old Cheever paragraphs.
He liked the way you wrote. He was a sort of mentor?
I never knew quite what he made of me. He put himself on record as having reservations about all those sexual nuts and bolts of mine. Well, maybe he had a point. And I felt we were together in the fall of 1964 in Russia that I was rubbing him the wrong way without meaning to, or at least it emerged from some letters he wrote at the time that he found me a bit of a pill. But I imagine that we got fonder of each other, and he put me up for things. So it's hard to know. I don't think there was an awful lot of room in John for admiration of other writers. I think his attention was so skittery that it's hard to picture him reading too many books, or if he did read them he read them very fast. He was an impatient man in the way I think alcoholics often are—they're really thinking about the next drink all the time. I was so innocent I was shocked by those Cheever stories of the late forties and fifties, that people could behave in this decadent, drunken way. I remember being shocked not by the explicit carnality but by the confusion and hanky-panky, and the unhappiness. Oh, some of those New York stories, when you read them now, are so unhappy, aren't they?
Yes, they are.
The grayness, and picking up kids at school, and being in love with some other kid's mother, and going to little rooms above restaurants. It's all very New York, and very period, in a way. Men wore hats still.
You have a very nice short story that I thought about recently which is about a couple and their problems. And they go to the analysts.
“The Fairy Godfathers.” Right.
And when the analysts leave they take the interesting part of their patients, of their patients' lives, with them. When I read the newspaper accounts about Ann Sexton and her problematic analyst, I thought of your story. Isn't that, in a way, what you were trying to say—that the analysts can become over fascinated with their patients?
It's not about seduction, but it is about the way in which an analyst, a good analyst, seems to possess a larger part of ourselves than we ourselves do. The couple quarrel, and as they discuss their adulterous romantic plight, the analyst becomes more interesting to them than one another. But we're lonely. We have a terrible need to make contact Katherine Mansfield said somewhere. We'll put up with almost anything to make contact. We'll pay a hundred dollars an hour to sit in a creaky chair. We'll get battered. People are hungry for other people. It puts us in a lot of fixes, but how else could you do it? How else could you organize the human race? I only went to one... I didn't go for very long, but you do get the illusion that this person loves you. If he said "sleep with me" you probably would think twice before you'd say no. I don't know if I'd say no if it was a woman. I don't know how you'd get around it. I've seen it said that Ann Sexton actually was never healthier mentally than when she was sleeping with her psychiatrist, which goes against all of the principles of the Psychiatric Association. She was a very needy woman. Have you read her letters?
No. She once stayed at my house.
Oh, well, then—
No, I didn't really know her. I think I was part of the scenery. She arrived with the poet Caroline Kizer and all her pills in an orange evening dress. It was all so far out of my ken I just watched.
I think she looks pretty good now, looking back on the poets of that era. She wasn't as subtle as some, or as striking as Plath, but in a way there's more human stuff there. I'm sorry she had sunken so much she had to do away with herself.
I also think that being "crazy" then was sort of more stylish than it is now. It's a bad word, crazy, but—
No, it's okay. You're not as aware of crazy writers now as you were then, are you? There were lots—Roethke, Plath, Lowell, Berryman.
But do you notice how it suddenly stopped.
Yes, it stopped. What do we have instead? A lot of dull healthy people who write too much. That other generation were terribly modernist, weren't they? Terribly passionate about what they were doing. They had the sense that this is the boat to immortality. This is the way to Valhalla, to write wonderfully well. It makes you frantic if you think about that day and night.
It did make them frantic.
It made them frantic.
But that's not what is going on now.
No. I don't know what is going on now in poetry. A lot of women are telling how it feels, and that's good. We need to know that. Not too many men, although there was a very good column in The New Yorker last week. It's a poem by the English poet John Ash, and it ends with the image of the century as a battered wife who comes into a bar. A battered woman. And says that she did it falling down stairs. And the bum asked, "How could you do that falling down stairs. Somebody did to you. Who?"
I laughed. John was getting hoarse, so was I. Over an hour had passed—we had been talking non stop. The summer light in the park was getting less harsh. "It does seem to me that in your deepest self, the territory you use is Chekhovian. Well, not quite Chekhovian, but it that Chekhovian moment of intimacy that just sort of wafts away. I don't know how to quite say it. I'm just not a very coherent person.
How could you be more coherent? You'd be too coherent if you were anymore coherent. What gives me satisfaction when I look into my own short stories is the little moments when there's kind of a lock, and you really get a sense of a space, of a little complicated space, like inside a lock, that I've done with words, that shows the quality of the moment or a relationship. Yes, I'm after the little moments which add up.
You always write great last paragraphs about men and women and love and nostalgia. I think, when I read you hey, that's what happened to me in that kitchen—why didn't I write about it? That's what I think you are essentially about.
Updike got up and stretched. He stared at the swans, at the children playing near the pond. "I'll buy that. I'll buy that. That sounds nice. It's a nice way to think of me. A fine way to think of myself. That's the way I think of myself, probably. I think it is." He paused. "I probably ought to get my body into that car before the rush begins." He stretched again. "Can you stand up?"
I stood up and packed up my two cassette machines and I watched him as he walked taking long steps in the direction of his car; he was heading back home to Beverly Farms. Then I went to a Boston Hertz office and rented a car and drove to Cape Cod for the weekend.