Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, RIP

In that category of public figures that you don't really know, but care about, I always find it particularly sad to say goodbye to writers. Their work, which has been such a pleasure and an education, is at an end. We can only re-read and savor what's left behind -- which is invaluable -- but never will there be anything new.

Even though Updike has never been one of my most-loved authors, he has always been a writer that I have admired for his lovingly crafted and poetic sentences and for an old-school, writerly work ethic. He's always seemed a throwback to writers like Dickens and Trollope in sheer volume, and like those other giants of Victorian letters -- the combined novelist, essayist, and critic who seemed to know everything and be capable of illuminating any subject.

I've read Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, and a smattering of essays and short stories, but personally, I like him best for Gertrude and Claudius. It takes a certain renegade quality and degree of confidence to take on something as canonical as Shakespeare's Hamlet and transform that story, without doing damage to the original, to something uniquely your own. And, of course, he will always remain memorable to me for the book that I started and couldn't finish. It was probably not a good choice, since I was bound to compare it with Garcia Marquez, but Brazil was a book that I could put down. However, his vivid comparison of yams to a certain part of the male anatomy has stuck in my mind. And the fact that I have never walked through the produce section quite the same person says something about the power of the image and the writer who created it.

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