I woke up this morning and had John Updike and Philip Roth on my mind. They are the writers I grew up admiring the most and I’ve made a point of that repeatedly in these pages. So why am I now dreaming of them in the half light of dawn, both now gone? The answer came as I was exercising in our pool this morning (one of the few pluses of being self quarantined in Florida): the pandemic of course.
I’ve discussed their attitudes towards death in past entries, almost as if being a dress rehearsal, and aren’t we all more acutely aware of our own fragile existence during these times? Roth’s preoccupation with death gathers momentum in his later works while Updike’s is less transparent, although Rabbit at Rest is fairly unambiguous, not to mention poems like “Perfection Wasted.”
Their demise leaves a void in serious American fiction. Imagine what they would have to write today. I mostly read fiction to understand our world, not to hear a “swell” story. There are other forms of entertainment for that. Navigating COVID-19 without those heartfelt companions is almost like performing on a tight-rope without a net, such as the image from Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me:” the “bear” (the body) “howls in his sleep because the tight-rope / trembles and shows the darkness beneath.”
This sudden longing for Updike and Roth made me curious about the progress Blake Bailey has made with the biography Roth authorized before his death, giving Bailey extensive interviews and documents. Updike’s workman like biography was written by Adam Begley and published some six years ago.
But alas, after Googling the matter, Bailey (who I thought would write the Updike biography after writing magnificent ones of John Cheever and Richard Yates) is still working on the Roth biography and it is tentatively scheduled for publication in April 2021.
However, there was an unexpected bonus in doing this research and that is coming across an absolutely breathtaking article by Charles McGrath who, as a former writer and editor for The New Yorker, knew both Philip Roth and John Updike. His article, succinctly entitled “Roth/Updike” and published in the Autumn 2019 issue of The Hudson Review sheds a floodlight on their commonalities and clandestine competitiveness. An abstract of this well written and impassioned article cannot do it justice, so here is a link. Suffice it to say these two leading American writers will be remembered and studied for centuries to come. No wonder they are on my mind.