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John Updike

His characters allow Updike to 'be free'

Web posted on: Monday, November 16, 1998 4:57:18 PM EST

By CNN Interactive Books Editor
Jonathan D. Austin

ATLANTA (CNN) -- With a 40-year-long string of successful books behind him, John Updike appears to enjoy standing before a crowd and shedding his white-bread, Protestant Pennsylvania upbringing.

And the perfect medium is Henry Bech, his fictional Jewish novelist-within-a-novel, a writer of minimal achievement who is "wrestling with the demands of his undiminished libido and flickering literary flame."

Begin reading "Bech At Bay"

"Through him I can leave behind my Christian baggage," Updike told an appreciative audience at the Seventh Annual Atlanta Jewish Community Center Book Festival. "I feel, in Bech's skin, free."

Featured in "Bech: A Book" (1970) and "Bech is Back" (1982), this alter ego of Updike's Babbit-like Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom has returned in 1998 in "Bech at Bay", five related short stories that show Bech traipsing from Franz Kafka's grave in Czechoslovakia to the gothic Gotham (with a sidekick nicknamed Robin) to the stunning announcement by the Swedish Academy that he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Soundbites from John Updike

On his character Henry Bech:
350k MPEG-3 or 640k WAV

On his character Rabbit:
255k MPEG-3 or 470k WAV

On the similarities between Rabbit and Sinclair Lewis' Babbit:
350k MPEG-3 or 640k WAV

A writer's fantasy

Updike himself has never received that early morning call from Stockholm, though many think it is overdue. Upon the announcement that he had won the 1997 "America" magazine's Campion Award, the magazine editorialized that Updike's absence from the Nobel laureate list is "the most stunning omission" in the present age.

Nonetheless, the prolific writer appears to enjoy the evening's spotlight in the small community center gymnasium, entertaining a crowd of more than 500 with anecdotes of a memorable (read cutting) review and with lengthy excerpts from his worlds of Bech.

The excerpt that gets even the author chuckling is from "Bech Noir", a short story which has the aging Bech hunting down and killing book critics, a storyline that would seem delicious to any veteran word smith.

Interviewed on "NewsStand: CNN & Time," Updike said the story allowed him to let off some steam. "I think you remember certain phrases from bad reviews," he said. "You don't remember all the bad reviews. So, yes, when I came to imagine being an author killing off critics, I didn't lack for the appropriate visceral feelings that would motivate murder."

Sex and 'Couples'

Updike is frequently asked about the sex in his novels. In 1968, Time magazine put him on its cover and said he captured "the adulterous society" in his breakthrough novel, "Couples."

"Sex was a little bit of a frontier" then, Updike told the Atlanta audience, and he happily described himself as "a singer of eros."

But times change, and what was ice-breaking then might be tame 30 years later. "Once everything goes, you must rethink a frontier position," he said.

Updike, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, spoke further about sex in literature during his "NewsStand" interview:

"'Rabbit, Run' was written in '59, and yes, it did run into some troubles. The publisher and their lawyers felt this was a little too rich, a little too detailed, and it was subtly toned down in fact for the first edition," he said.

"I've seen it said of my work that it's 'anti-aphrodisiac,' that it doesn't -- that my descriptions of sex doesn't turn you on. But they're not really meant to do that. I mean, sex described in detail is not a turn-on, as we've seen in the Monica Lewinsky report. It's a turn-off, in fact, in a funny way. You think, 'My, this is silly,' and, 'Why do we do this?'

"But ... you have to deal with the age you're in, and I think in this age, not to try to give us honest descriptions of sexual transactions is, well, now, my goodness, this is 30, 40 years after 'Rabbit, Run' ..."

But regardless of sexual content, the fact that fewer people are reading fiction -- or as Updike put it, living in "a culture somewhat less print focused" -- impacts on the success of younger writers.

"It's hard for a writer now to find an audience," he said. "There's not that mass appetite for fiction that even existed in my youth."

Nonetheless, "there's something magical, irresistible" about reading and writing. "There's something very reassuring ... about the written record," he said.

"The book will endure."

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