My history hero: John Updike (1932-2009)

Comedian and author David Baddiel chooses a brilliant American author

American novelist John Updike

This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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John Updike was an American novelist and short-story writer. Best known for his Rabbit series of books (1960–90), starting with Rabbit, Run, he is one of only three writers to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once. His novel The Witches of Eastwick was adapted for the big screen.

When did you first hear about John Updike?

When I was studying for an English degree at Cambridge, a lecturer mentioned Updike during a talk about sex, and as a lustful 18-year-old I was immediately drawn to his work! To be serious though, I was just as intrigued by the specificity of the language Updike used. His choice of words made the reader think anew about what was being described and it was that which really impressed me.

What kind of person was he?

Updike seems to have been a singularly nice man – charming, erudite, wise, softly-spoken and rather self-deprecating – very different to a lot of the more macho ‘Great American’ writers such as Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. Despite writing quite extensively about sex (in most of his books someone has an affair), unlike these other writers, in my opinion, Updike was not a misogynist. He was actually quite introverted, had a bit of a stammer and various nervous-related skin disorders.

What made Updike a hero?

The quality of the prose: he made every word count. A lot of great writers occasionally let a lazy or clichéd description pass by their pen, but not Updike. His descriptions forge the world anew. You find killer similes or metaphors on virtually every page. Unlike a lot of great postwar US authors, Updike also wrote about the ordinary man. And it was his unbelievable ability as a writer to make the most mundane, everyday subjects interesting that in my view makes him a greater writer than the likes of Philip Roth and Gore Vidal. His characterisation is also extraordinary.

What was Updike’s finest hour?

His brilliant sequence of Rabbit novels. In reality, the four-book series is one novel, just written over a very long period of time. It’s a chronicle of America but also of one everyman, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, who’s not a particularly good person – he’s just a mixture of good and bad, like most of us.

Is there anything you don’t admire about Updike?

His writing went off the boil a bit towards the end of his life and I don’t like The Widows of Eastwick (2008), his last novel and a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Almost none – he wasn’t a comedian or a Jewish atheist like me, and he didn’t know anything about football. The only similarity is that we both write. But I’d like to think we would have got on.

What do you think he would have made of your books?

I hope he would have liked them. My adult novels are very influenced by Updike. I actually keep his books next to mine in the hope that some of his greatness will rub off on me…

If you could meet Updike, what would you ask him?

I nearly did meet him. He gave a reading at the National Theatre and I’d hoped to get him to sign his latest novel, but the queue was just too long. I’d like to have asked him why he believed in God. As an atheist, I’m always interested in why intelligent people, like my friend Frank Skinner for that matter, believe in God.

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David Baddiel was talking to York Membery. Baddiel’s latest children’s novel, Birthday Boy, is out now and he discusses John Updike in an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03nt8bw