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Home Uncategorized The Snug Opaque Quotidian

The Snug Opaque Quotidian

Kevin Stevens
Updike, by Adam Begley, Harper, 576 pp, £17.00, ISBN: 978-0061896453 All literary biographers face the challenge of assessing the raw facts of a life, to the extent that they are discoverable, in light of the versioning of those facts in the subject’s work. All literary biographers must, like their subjects, contemplate the tangled, delicate relationship between art and experience, knowing that the artist has been there first, with more knowledge of his history than they can ever have, and with the unique advantage of his licence to alter, disguise, and transmute. And when all the research and writing is complete, the biographer must wrestle with the suspicion that the assembled collection of facts, chronologies, analysis, and historical context may fall short of the set task: to capture the truth of a life. As John Updike put it in his memoir Self-Consciousness, “What I have written here strains to be true but nevertheless is not true enough. Truth is anecdotes, narrative, the snug opaque quotidian.” Of course, Updike would say that. Though perhaps the most complete man of letters the American scene has produced in the last fifty years, he was first and foremost an artist. Fictional narrative was his coin of the realm. And Self-Consciousness, written nearly thirty years before his death in response to a rumour that someone was planning his biography, is slender and selective. Though brimming, as you would expect, with elegant observation and thoughtful insight, it is more a collection of essays on aspects of his character than autobiography. Yet leave it to Updike to put his finger on the shortcomings of a mode he nevertheless masters as he deprecates. As he observes in the preface to the book, with characteristic verve and apt metaphor, “Perspectives are altered by the fact of being drawn; description solidifies the past and creates a gravitational body that wasn’t there before. A background of dark matter – all that is not said – remains, buzzing.” And no better way to explore the resonant mystery of that dark matter, he implies, than through poetry and fiction. You would think that Updike’s relative reluctance to explore his past in nonfiction might leave the decks clear for a biographer. But Updike, the most prolific American fiction writer of his generation, mined his own experience so thoroughly that even the most casual reader feels he knows the personal history. Twenty-three novels and over two hundred short…



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