Giants in the earth

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them…” Genesis 6:4

With the death of John Updike yesterday, the greatest American literary giant of the 20th Century has fallen. I don’t remember the first time I read Updike’s deathless prose, but I know that as soon as I did, I instantly realized that I could never be a real writer.

Pick up any Updike book and read any sentence at random. What you will find is the closest thing to literary perfection north of Gabriel García Márquez. Read another and another and soon you will be hooked. This man never wrote a bad sentence.

On my Facebook page I have listed “writing the great American Novel” as one of my hobbies. That is of course a lie. The Great American Novel has already been written and it is the Rabbit Quadrilogy: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and lets not forget the epilogue, Rabbit Remembered.

Although those were great, I actually preferred some of the lesser works, such as A Month of Sundays, The Coup, Memories of the Ford Administration and the hilarious Bech stories. Despite the horrible movie that shares its title, The Witches of Eastwyck is actually a good book, which is why I recently bought and read the sequel, which it now appears will be Updike’s final novel, The Widows of Eastwyck.

Perhaps the master did slip a peg or two at the end, but those perfect sentences were still there, polished like gems. To have someone of that much talent walking the earth seems impossible to grasp. It is only by reference to the quote above from the Book of Genesis that we can begin to understand.

It seems that the Giants of this earth are not mere mortals. Like Jesus, they were born with heavenly fathers of earthly mothers. There is no earthly explanation for so much talent to be possessed by one person.

John has gone back to dwell in the land of his Fathers. We will not soon see his like again.

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2 responses to “Giants in the earth

  1. Updike was, indeed a master and a giant. Because his early reading was primarily the mystery writing of contemporary authors (he hated dead authors), he arrived at Harvard “a tabula rasa.” (New York Times, July 4, 1965). His art was always deep within him and not “studied.” It was there, waiting. He no doubt caught up with the dead authors during his time at Harvard.
    I attended a writers’ workshop conducted by the late local novelist, John Gardner. At the start, he separated the wheat from the chaff. He provided those who had submitted manuscripts dripping with talent with the phone number of a publisher and sent them packing. The rest of us stayed to overreach ourselves. We were not “free and inspired writers,” we were studied copyists.
    That talent of Updike’s came from somewhere he himself probably could not pinpoint if asked to do so. When an interviewer once asked Woody Allen where his comedy came from, he answered simply: I have no idea – it just comes.
    So, friend Corrin, your own writing “just comes.” It is yours. Its value is in the eye of the beholder. Once it has left you, it belongs to all of us. You can rail against it but it is out there as it should be and you may not be the best judge of it You would do well to remember Updike’s own view of writing – in this case fiction:
    “Writing fiction, as those of us who do it know, is, beneath the anxious travail of it, a bliss, a healing, an elicitation of order from disorder, a praise of what is, a salvaging of otherwise overlookable truths from the ruthless sweep of generalization, a beating of daily dross into something shimmering and absolute.”
    If you truly love writing, there is no room for self consciousness in the face of a giant like Updike. The joy for you is in the process; the joy for us is in the reading. This is a fair exchange. You did some of your best work with the biographical sketch of your military ancestor. Perhaps you need to consider the great American biography rather than that novel.

  2. “Writing fiction, as those of us who do it know, is, beneath the anxious travail of it, a bliss, a healing, an elicitation of order from disorder, a praise of what is, a salvaging of otherwise overlookable truths from the ruthless sweep of generalization, a beating of daily dross into something shimmering and absolute.”

    I rest my case!

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