The most hopeless navigational advice usually comes from locals – people who have travelled a route too often to know what it looks like – and foreigners can be far more perceptive evaluators of fiction than insiders.
Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk is not any old foreign critic. He won the 2006 Nobel literature prize. Someone at The New York Times was brave enough – in a country not overly interested in the opinions of aliens – to invite him to review the first biography of John Updike, the work of Adam Begley. Twenty years ago, we bet a dinner guest that Updike’s Rabbit trilogy, and those novels alone, would earn him his place in posterity. He argued the merits of the scurrilous Henry Bech, another of the novelist’s creations and closer to his own segment of middle-class existence – also someone with whom we suspect our guest secretly identified. But we nearly always found Bech’s characterisation flat, rather flaccid, and not half as amusing as he found himself.
Pamuk, we were pleased to see, takes much the same view of the Rabbit books as we do, and for virtually the identical reasons. His comparison of the Updike oeuvre with some of its best-known competitors in 20th-century literature is just as rewarding:
[T]his talent and a reverence for the ordinary problems of ordinary people were obvious in the first Updike novel I ever read, “Rabbit, Run” (1960), published in Turkish translation in 1971. This was a completely different, less dramatic but more believable and more intensely felt America than the one inhabited by Steinbeck’s California fruit pickers or Hemingway’s war-loving and assertive heroes, far from Faulkner’s gothic atmospheres crumbling under the weight of the past and of problems of race. The dirty words and sexually explicit passages that were a problem for Knopf (and for the editor of the British edition) were less pronounced in the Turkish translation, but even from that distance, the reader could perceive that the latest news from America was all about the fragility and the fury of the individual, about sexual freedom, guilt and small-town life. If I consider “Rabbit, Run” and the three books that followed it in the Rabbit tetralogy — “Rabbit Redux” (1971), “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) — to be Updike’s biggest and most lasting achievements, this is due in no small part to the news-like quality of these novels. The adventures of Harry Angstrom are a very enjoyable chronicle in decennial installments of the lifestyles, emotions, politics and daily lives of America’s endlessly growing middle classes. Unlike historical novels that look back in time to events they describe, the Rabbit novels were about life as it unfolds; Rabbit’s adventures functioned as a social history of sorts, each installment a summary and a representation of the previous 10 years — as Updike himself wrote in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of the series, “a kind of running report on the state of my hero and his nation.” The fact that Rabbit is a demonic, ethically troubled but also entirely ordinary character, together with Updike’s signature richness of style and his use of the present tense (one of the peculiarities of the Rabbit series), all serve to steer these novels away from didacticism and banality, dangers that can plague chronicles and social novels. In the same introduction, Updike identifies these literary dangers in the United States: “The slot between the fantastic and the drab seems too narrow. . . . The puritanism and practicality of the early settlers imposed a certain enigmatic dullness, it may be, upon the nation’s affective life and social texture.” Updike thought previous generations of writers had avoided this dullness by chasing rootless and eccentric characters, thus writing masterpieces like “Moby-Dick.” Begley’s biography, though, shows that Updike’s writing and ultimately his entire life were shaped by his attachment to the ordinariness of his suburban middle-class life, and his desire to reach beyond its boundaries. In a way, what Melville did for whales, Updike did for upper-middle-class life in suburban America …