John Updike: The Shy Man And Great Writer Two time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike died Tuesday of lung cancer. Updike is best known for his series of novels about Rabbitt Angstrom. Madeleine Brand talks with Updike's friend and colleague Robert Silvers, the long time editor and founder of The New York Review of Books.
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John Updike: The Shy Man And Great Writer

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John Updike: The Shy Man And Great Writer

John Updike: The Shy Man And Great Writer

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. The author John Updike has died at the age of 76. He wrote more than 50 books, novels like "Rabbit Run" and "The Witches of Eastwick," along with countless essays, reviews and poetry. Prolific in output and poetic in style, Updike was perhaps the most celebrated chronicler of post-war, suburban America. Here he is in an essay he recorded for NPR back in 2005.

(Soundbite of John Updike essay for NPR in 2005)

Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author): The story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience. In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark.

BRAND: John Updike, in an essay for NPR that he recorded back in 2005. Robert Silvers is on the line now; he's a longtime editor and co-founder of the New York Review of Books. The review published many articles from and about John Updike over the years. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT SILVERS (Editor, New York Review of Books): Thank you.

BRAND: When did you first meet John Updike?

Mr. SILVERS: Oh, I met him before the New York Review started in New York, when he was living in Greenwich Village. He was working on the New Yorker, actually, as a kind of talk-of-the-town writer. And he was also writing his very early books, "The Poorhouse Fair" and "Sundown." He was rather shy in certain ways, but over the years, after we started the New York Review, he became very important to us because he was one of our principal writers on art. He wrote over 70 pieces on art, on exhibitions, on paintings, from Piero della Francesca to Jackson Pollock and beyond. And we published, also, a number of essays by him. And we, of course, reviewed all his novels and particularly, the Rabbit series. One of our writers thought as - Paul Boeman(ph) - as, if you look at the series together, and they came out every 10 years, it's a kind of great American novel, a great single American novel about American life, starting in rather conventional '50s and going on to the hippie '60s, and on into the business-minded '80s and so on. And it is a kind of social as well as a personal portrait. And there, our writer made a rather strong case to see this as one large and great American novel.

BRAND: The entire Rabbit series.

Mr. SILVERS: That's it. In grave contrast was his book about Bech, the New York Jewish intellectual who was visiting Eastern Europe. And how John could get into the mind of such very different people in such a convincing way was remarkable.

BRAND: And that's the character that actually won a Nobel Prize, even though John Updike never did.

Mr. SILVERS: That's the point. It was Bech, Bech did somehow swing it, and John never did.

BRAND: What was it, do you think, about his writing that so accurately captured the post-World War II generation?

Mr. SILVERS: Well, I think he was one of the - in our - of our novelists in the last century, perhaps the most precisely and cooly observant, the most elegant in the way he could evoke very different kinds of people. He had a way of getting into people's minds and, in some way, by selection of details, fantasies, short statements, give a quick picture of him. And that was a mark of his genius.

BRAND: He was not universally loved by the critics, and some of them called him a misogynist.

Mr. SILVERS: I know that. And of course, there are many different opinions about his views, about women and about sex, and of course, it was terribly important in all his writing. There was the sexual obsession - this sexual experience. It is interesting - I mean, that two of the most brilliant modern women novelists, Diane Johnson and Alison Lurie, each reviewed the Eastwick books. Diane Johnson reviewed the "Witches of Eastwick" and Alison Lurie, the most recent "Widows of Eastwick." And they both admired, and both were able to say, that he had a particular gift for imagining the sensuous and the bodily life of women. And he has an extraordinary perception of what women felt. And there are almost minute-by-minute experiences. And I was struck by that.

BRAND: So how did he feel about that criticism?

Ms. SILVERS: He was quite happy about both of these reviews, actually. He was never loathe to express his opinion of the reviews we published. And some of them, he found quite sour and others, he found quite all right. He was very sensitive, actually, about criticism of his work.

BRAND: Do you have any personal remembrance of him that sticks out in your mind?

Mr. SILVERS: Well, I was - you see, published so many of these articles for us and he - and it was of something of a plot, what would he do? What work of art and what exhibition and what painter would he like to write on. And we would talk about that, and then he would pick something, often in New York. And that meant coming down to New York for the day, arriving in the morning, and intensely looking at the picture. And sometimes, I would go to the gallery to see the event showing myself. And I would walk around it with him. And he was very, very silent and intense about it, and often rather funny in a quick little comment. And then he would go back in the afternoon, and look at it once more. And then he would go back to Massachusetts that very day. But within three or four days at most, we would have an extremely elegantly written and finely observed and very knowledgeable essay about that exhibition or that work of art. So that was - to see him work in that way, which I must tell you, in contest there are great many other writers but it was a - one had a sense of a marvelously controlled performance.

BRAND: Very disciplined he must have been, to be so prolific - more than 50 novels, and everything else that he wrote. What do you think...

Mr. SILVERS: Thousand, thousands of pages of literary criticism in the New Yorker. Over 70 or 75 articles on art for us, dozens of novels -there's no other writer of our time who has been, at the same time, so prolific and so fine.

BRAND: Robert Silvers is editor and co-founder of the New York Review of Books. And we've been talking about the author John Updike. He died today at the age of 76. Mr. Silvers, thank you very much.

Mr. SILVERS: You are very welcome.

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