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Novelist John Updike Dies


This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. American literature has lost one of its greatest voices. John Updike died this morning. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author died from lung cancer at a hospice near his Massachusetts home. He was 76. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY: John Updike was the type of man who decided to write a book a year and surpassed that goal easily. He produced some 60 volumes, novels, criticism, essays, poems, even an opera libretto, and he was nothing short of an idol to younger writers. Nicholson Baker wrote an entire book about his Updike fandome.

Mr. NICHOLSON BAKER (Author): It's just shocking when a very intelligent person is no longer looking out at the same world that you are.

ULABY: Updike's world was one of carefully manicured suburbs in briny New England villages.

(Soundbite of poem "An Oddly Lovely Day")

Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author): (Reading) The kids went off to school, the wife to the hairdresser, or so she said, in Boston. He takes forever. Bye.

ULABY: That's Updike reading from his 1979 poem "An Oddly Lovely Day."

(Soundbite of poem "An Oddly Lovely Day")

Mr. UPDIKE: (Reading) I read a book, doing my job. Around 11, the rat man came, our man from pest control, though our rats have long since died.

ULABY: Updike was educated at Harvard where he edited The Lampoon. He fearlessly wrote his way into unfamiliar terrain ranging from terrorist cells, a Marxist kingdom in Africa, to the world of computer programming. But Updike is surely best known for his four "Rabbit" novels. They track the passage through life of Harry Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school athletic star who never again achieves that level of success. The first Rabbit book was made into a film. So was "The Witches of Eastwick." It stars Jack Nicholson as a particularly frustrated devil.

(Soundbite of movie "The Witches of Eastwick")

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON: (As Daryl Van Horne) You deserted me. We had a deal.

CHER: (As Alexandra Medford) That's no reason.

Mr. NICHOLSON: (As Daryl Van Horne) Yes it is. You pissed me off. What was I supposed to do? Take it like a man? Christ, I gave you everything I got. I gave you more than anybody has ever given you, and what do I get in exchange? A little thank you, a little gratitude? I'll tell you what I get. I get screwed.

ULABY: Updike told NPR last year he was invited to consult on the film, but declined.

Mr. UPDIKE: I figured that a writer is really a moth lost in the bright lights of Hollywood, and I'd do better to try to write another book than to in any way advise or correct the movie. A movie has to be quite unlike the book.

ULABY: The book "The Witches of Eastwick" was intended as something of an apologia to feminist critics who found his portrayals of women to be consistently contrived.

Mr. UPDIKE: A writer can't really worry too much about their critics because there's no pleasing some of them and there's no displeasing others. But I was startled enough to be told that I was a misogynist to reflect and try to write "Witches," and I hope that would placate my critics, but it didn't.

ULABY: Fellow novelist Margaret Atwood was among the book's defenders. Updike became known for exploring America's shifting mores from gender roles to adultery, says John Irving. He is also a bestselling author whose novels are also often set in New England.

Mr. JOHN IRVING (Author): In the '60s when I was first being introduced to Updike, I was impressed by the humor that was in tandem with the explicitness of the sex.

ULABY: Made possible, Irving says, through the energy and grace of Updike's language. Author Nicholson Baker says Updike could wrap language around an idea better than practically anyone.

Mr. BAKER: What you've got to hold on to with Updike is that he was an old-fashioned - not a pro stylist, but I don't know, a violist or something. He was somebody who could really conduct and make the words work together.

ULABY: Updike developed his melodic English at the New Yorker. His career began there, and he continued at the magazine for much of the rest of his life. His book reviews gleamed with the same observational acumen he brought to his novels.

Mr. UPDIKE: I do think the big problem in a way for a fiction writer is how do you deal with ordinary life that is not extraordinary, that does not involve heroism, that does not involve a crisis really? But the way in which we are alive is meaningful and it does have a certain radiance.

ULABY: The beauty of the actual, as John Updike put it, and he held a literary lens to that beauty with an anthropologist's curiosity and a statesman's nobility. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.

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