Adam Begley Quotes
“Blessed Man” is a tribute to Updike’s tenacious maternal grandmother, Katherine Hoyer, who died in 1955. Inspired by an heirloom, a silver thimble engraved with her initials, a keepsake Katherine gave to John and Mary as a wedding present (their best present, he told his mother), the story is an explicit attempt to bring her back to life (“O Lord, bless these poor paragraphs, that would do in their vile ignorance Your work of resurrection”), and a meditation on the extent to which it’s possible to recapture experience and preserve it through writing. The death of his grandparents diminished his family by two fifths and deprived him of a treasured part of his past, the sheltered years of his youth and childhood. Could he make his grandmother live again on the page? It’s certainly one of his finest prose portraits, tender, clear-eyed, wonderfully vivid. At one point the narrator remembers how, as a high-spirited teenager, he would scoop up his tiny grandmother, “lift her like a child, crooking one arm under her knees and cupping the other behind her back. Exultant in my height, my strength, I would lift that frail brittle body weighing perhaps a hundred pounds and twirl with it in my arms while the rest of the family watched with startled smiles of alarm.” When he adds, “I was giving my past a dance,” we hear the voice of John Updike exulting in his strength. Katherine takes center stage only after an account of the dramatic day of her husband’s death. John Hoyer died a few months after John and Mary were married, on the day both the newlyweds and Mary’s parents were due to arrive in Plowville. From this unfortunate coincidence, the Updike family managed to spin a pair of short stories. Six months before he wrote “Blessed Man,” Updike’s mother had her first story accepted by The New Yorker. For years her son had been doing his filial best to help get her work published—with no success. In college he sent out the manuscript of her novel about Ponce de León to the major Boston publishers, and when he landed at The New Yorker he made sure her stories were read by editors instead of languishing in the slush pile. These efforts finally bore fruit when an editor at the magazine named Rachel MacKenzie championed “Translation,” a portentous family saga featuring Linda’s version of her father’s demise. Maxwell assured Updike that his colleagues all thought his mother “immensely gifted”; if that sounds like tactful exaggeration, Maxwell’s idea that he could detect “the same quality of mind running through” mother and son is curious to say the least. Published in The New Yorker on March 11, 1961, “Translation” was signed Linda Grace Hoyer and narrated by a character named Linda—but it wasn’t likely to be mistaken for a memoir. The story is overstuffed with biblical allusion, psychodrama, and magical thinking, most of it Linda’s. She believes that her ninety-year-old father plans to be translated directly to heaven, ascending like Elijah in a whirlwind, with chariots of fire, and to pass his mantle to a new generation, again like Elijah. It’s not clear whether this grand design is his obsession, as she claims, or hers. As it happens, the whirlwind is only a tussle with his wife that lands the old folks on the floor beside the bed. Linda finds them there and says, “Of all things. . . . What are you two doing?” Her father answers, his voice “matter-of-fact and conversational”: “We are sitting on the floor.” Having spoken these words, he dies. Linda’s son Eric (a writer, of course) arrives on the scene almost immediately. When she tells him, “Grampy died,” he replies, “I know, Mother, I know. It happened as we turned off the turnpike. I felt”
“Even more than black death he dreaded the gaudy gate: the mask of sweet red rubber, the violet overhead lights, the rattling ride through washed corridors, the steaming, breathing, percolating apparatus, basins of pink sterilizer, the firm straps binding every limb, the sacred pure garb of the surgeons, their eyes alone showing, the cute knives and angled scissors, the beat of your own heart pounding through the burnished machinery, the green color of the surgeon’s enormous compassionate eyes, framed, his quick breath sucking and billowing the gauze of his mask as he carved.”
“golf, oddly, gave Updike a spiritual thrill; from the very beginning, he was acutely sensitive to what he called “the eerie religious latency” of the game; when he wrote about it, he invariably invoked the supernatural. “Intercession” set the pattern, ending with a curse and turning on a seeming miracle. On his second time around, long after his progress across the course has become “a jumbled rout,” Paul yearns for divine intervention: All he wanted was that his drive be perfect; it was very little to ask. If miracles, in this age of faint faith, could enter anywhere, it would be here, where the causal fabric was thinnest, in the quick collisions and abrupt deflections of a game. Paul drove high but crookedly over the treetops. It dismayed him to realize that the angle of a metal surface striking a rubber sphere counted for more with God than the keenest human hope.”
“Barth was possibly the less efficacious of the two remedies. A bracingly stringent Calvinist, he did supply Updike with one of the enduring tenets of his personal creed (the idea that God is “Wholly Other”: “We cannot reach Him, only He can reach us”), and he did become, in the sixties, Updike’s favorite theologian (“Ipswich belonged to Barth”)—but as Barth himself insisted, theology cannot protect faith from doubt. For Updike, it was one buttress in a system of reinforcements necessary to sustain belief.”
“White encouraged Updike’s equally scrupulous commitment. They bonded over dashes, colons, and commas—most amazingly in an exchange of letters in the last two months of 1954 concerning two poems, “The Sunflower” and “The Clan.” She wanted to make his punctuation consistent; he wanted to make his light verse flow in a manner pleasing to the ear and the eye. When he suggested changes to the proof of “Sunflower”—literally begging for a colon rather than a dash at the end of a particular line (“A colon is compact, firm, and balanced: a dash is sprawling, wishy-washy, and gawky. The colon suggests the Bible: the dash letters and memoirs of fashionable ladies”)—she replied with a three-page “treatise on punctuation” and a transcription of the relevant paragraph from H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (the standard reference at The New Yorker, thanks to Harold Ross, who always kept a copy handy). She urged him to “try to feel more kindly toward the dash”—and closed with characteristic graciousness: “I want to add that I am delighted to find anyone who cares as much as this about punctuation and who is as careful as you are about your verse. . . . And I thank you for a very interesting and amusing letter.”
“Linda wrote to her son from her hotel room opposite the Cambridge Common just hours after they parted, the first volley in an extraordinary correspondence that continued until the week of her death, nearly four decades later. During his freshman year, she wrote virtually every day—in other words, she appeared in his mailbox in the morning, a palpable, reassuring presence thanks to her remarkable skill as a letter writer.”
“With his “romantic weakness for gags”—inherited from his father, along with his talent for pratfalls—Updike was a willing participant in the Lampoon’s elaborately orchestrated “social frivolity.” During his Fools’ Week in February 1951, he starred in a stunt he remembered with what seems today somewhat misplaced pride; he called it his “one successful impersonation.” Disguised as a blind cripple selling pencils, he stationed himself in front of Widener Library; a couple of his fellow fools, dressed as priests, bought some pencils and then began to argue with him, claiming to have been shortchanged. The quarrel drew a crowd—whereupon the two “priests” pulled large codfish from under their cassocks and pelted him, in his blind”
“And, most ambitiously, Updike dreamed up an absurdist spectacle (not unlike the drama of the blind cripple and the priests) that drew a large and appreciative lunchtime crowd to a street adjacent to the Yard: a fool disguised as an old man driving an ancient jalopy was hit from behind by a car packed with fellow fools; the old man jumped out and swore at the others in Italian, whereupon they poured from their car carrying sledgehammers and crowbars and proceeded to utterly demolish the jalopy—then drove off lickety-split, leaving the ruined vehicle in the road. In addition to the pranks and the motley”
- Born: Boston, The United States.
- Description: Adam Begley was for twelve years the books editor of The New York Observer. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian, Financial Times, London Review of Books, and Times Literary Supplement. He lives with his wife in Cambridgeshire, England.