It was inevitable that a reading held at Housing Works this past Wednesday (just up today as an audio recording on the bookstore’s website) would have to touch on John Updike’s death, announced earlier that day. It was a reading sponsored by Granta , on the subject of fathers, featuring Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O’Neill — two writers, both 44, whose own fathers are part of Updike’s generation. So Updike the Father Figure was topic No. 1.
O’Neill noted that the UK paperback edition of his elegant and wistful New York novel, Netherland, comes with an appendix in which he names Updike as his favorite living writer. But it was Updike the critical father O’Neill described, a stern, sometimes scolding voice in his head: “I always wrote with the subconscious — or conscious — knowledge that who knows, Updike might read this. And I don’t think he’d approve of this bit, so I might have to rewrite that again.” (Maybe he was just afraid of a pan?)
Lethem praised his “titanic presence…daunting but also inspiring,” and then did what he’s famous for: told a Brooklyn story. He had never met Updike, but the closest he came was on September 11, when Lethem set off to give blood at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, only to see “John Updike, looking ashen, as I’m sure you would expect, but having had the same impulse at the exact same moment that I and my friends had had. It was impossible to break the spell of that moment and greet him.”
John Freeman, Granta’s young, new U.S. editor and the evening’s moderator, was the one who’d spent the most time with Updike; as a freelancer he’d interviewed him several times. On one memorable occasion, Freeman was woefully underdressed, in torn jeans, hung-over, and sleep-deprived, having just signed divorce papers. He apologized to Updike and explained the situation. Updike told him a little story and gave him some hard-earned advice — which Freeman neither recorded nor, he says, remembers. (“He said it was hell,” was all Freeman would tell us later.) “He was incredibly genial, a real gentleman, but also, he was out there experiencing things in front of you, much as fathers do. Except that there was this incredible, minutely detailed record of those experiences, so writers of your and my generation and younger lived vicariously through his fiction.”