[7 January 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Stephen King has talked about it. The late Kurt Vonnegut actually did it, for the most part. John Updike has no intention of it.
The word is retire, and it’s just not Updike’s style. Despite his age, 76, and despite half a century on the American literary stage, he simply cannot imagine not writing.
“I don’t know what I’d do with my mornings if I didn’t write in them,” Updike says in a telephone interview from his home in Beverly, Mass. “There are pleasures to writing - you kind of get out a lot of your bad secretions. You can purge yourself of them through writing. And there’s still some market for what I have to say.
“On the other hand, I notice some signs of mental deterioration. My memory isn’t as good; I can’t think of words. I might forget what one character’s eyes are. Maybe each novel might be the last - but no, I’m not quite ready yet. There’s still the illusion that I’m still learning this curious trade, for which there’s very little coherent instruction. I never once believed in writing schools; this is very much an amateurish endeavor, so that the chance of growing in it is still there for a 76-year-old.”
Born in 1932, Updike made his book-length debut in 1958 with a collection of poetry called “The Carpentered Hen.” Since then he has produced work in nearly every conceivable form, from verse to novels, short stories to essays and criticism, even children’s books and a play (“Buchanan Dying”) and a memoir, “Self-Consciousness.”
Since that year of 1958, in fact - when the White House was occupied by President Dwight D. Eisenhower - the years in which Updike has not had a new book on the shelves are rarities. Only in 1961, 1967, 1973, 1980 and 1995 has that happened.
Updike marked 2008 with “The Widows of Eastwick,” a sequel to his 1984 novel, “The Witches of Eastwick.” Critics across the country found much to like about the new book, which revisits the sorceresses Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, and the spells - some good, some evil - they cast over a fictional Rhode Island village and its denizens.
It’s hardly the first time Updike has written a sequel. He produced a tetralogy of novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, as well as several books about the rather curmudgeonly writer Henry Bech. Angstrom and Bech, each in his way, can be read as the author’s alter egos, with Rabbit representing Updike’s citizenship side and Bech his creative element. But why re-examine the three witches?
“For lack of a better idea, basically. The first sequel to “Rabbit, Run” came about because I’d wasted a lot of time doing research on President James Buchanan and I owed the world, I came to feel, a novel. The best thing I could think of was, ‘I wonder how Harry Angstrom is doing now?’ ‘Rabbit, Run’ had been left up in the air. So there was an excuse there, and I discovered it’s fun to write a sequel. It gives you a grip on time as it possesses the characters. Also, there’s a certain layered richness that you rightly or wrongly imagine as you work on a sequel or even a sequel to a sequel. I never meant to write a sequel to ‘The Witches of Eastwick,’ but the book was more of a commercial success than my books usually are. It sold well enough, and they made a movie of it.”
The 1987 film, unfortunately, “basically distorted or ignored the book itself,” Updike laments. It’s a fair criticism. The efforts of a stellar cast - Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer - are wasted largely in what becomes a frothy dilution of the book’s wicked potion. For make no mistake: Updike did not intend “Witches” to be overly figurative; these are real witches casting real spells, some of them rooted in black magic.
“Their power is real and these spells do work to a degree. In this (new) book, they’re more into white magic than black magic, but in a larger way, we all would like to cast spells; we’d all like to eliminate our enemies and take vengeance on those who’ve offended us. So it’s no great psychological leap to imagine these things actually work.
“There are psychic forces. I was raised in a part of the country, eastern Pennsylvania, where witchcraft of a benign sort was actually practiced - spells, so-called hex signs. My grandmother, with whom I lived, firmly felt there were ghosts around, and I got from her this fear of ghosts and strange, clutching hands that would reach out from under the bed. For some reason I thought the whole area under the bed was very menacing. So I’m sort of a believer, or rather it wasn’t too hard to project witchery of a sort.”
“The Witches of Eastwick” displayed a palpable sexual energy. In the sequel the witches are indeed widowed, and they are senior citizens with a penchant for travel. Yet the novel reads as one of Updike’s most vigorous in years. Part of that surely is due to the vividness of the characters and perhaps to the fact that their creator can identify with the main challenges they face: aging and approaching mortality.
“I’m their age, more or less, so it was no great leap of imagination to try to write about the distinctly elderly. Although I don’t think Sukie is quite 70 yet. Alexandra’s the oldest, and she was always somehow the most benign but also the one who had the most magic; the other two, in a way, depended on Alexandra, and it’s still true that she’s the leader. It’s she who sets up the coven and tries to control it, run it like a schoolteacher running a little class. She always was the least bizarre of the three and the most humane. As I wrote along, though, I found myself depending quite heavily on the energies of the other two - the lingering sexual energy of Sukie but also the sardonic and naysaying energy of Jane.”
Updike also makes a choice with this book that he has not made very often in his career: In the course of these pages he kills off a principal character. One of the witches dies. Without giving it all away, she’s “the most witchy” of the three.
“You could say that she had it coming. I, as the god of this particular universe, thought she was the one who ought to be sacrificed.”
Her death also allows for a certain development in the relationship of the two others. Saying any more would give too much away and spoil the book for readers.
As its predecessor was, Widows also is an examination of the power of nature. That power can inspire awe but also trepidation, Updike thinks.
“All three witches are, in a sense, priestesses of the nature which we enjoy but also fear.”
As for their creator, he sounds, in his eighth decade, every bit as enthusiastic about life and his craft as he did in previous decades. He acknowledges that being a writer has afforded him a longevity he certainly never would have enjoyed had he chosen another occupation.
“It’s fun to be active. And it’s a wonderful profession, in that unlike being an athlete or an actress, you’re not really age-dependent. People don’t care - they’re as willing to review the book of an 80-year-old as they are that of a 20-year-old.”