words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

the master of shillington

John Updike, who died in late January, has been eulogised as the last of America’s leading men of letters. The phrase betrays something: what, after all, is a “man of letters”? In Updike’s case, it refers to the impressive range of his erudition and to his tireless work as a writer.

It also carries hints of an old-world gentleness (in a double sense of the term), a suggestion of nobility and, let’s face it, both whiteness and maleness. After all, Toni Morrison is seldom described as a “woman of letters.” But the “last” anything is a canard: in the past few years alone, writers celebrated as the “America’s last man of letters” have included Saul Bellow, William Styron and Norman Mailer.

There always seems to be a new “last” and the phrase is little more than a shorthand for a certain nostalgia—a complacent nostalgia for what was celebrated in American fiction in the third quarter of the 20th century.

Updike published some sixty books before his death, an astonishing number consisting of fiction, essay, memoir and poetry. His 1963 novel The Centaur was in my parent’s study when I was growing up. It was the story of a father and son in 1940s Pennsylvania, refracted through the lens of Greek myth.

I did not read the book in all those years—I was a mere boy, and the urbanity of the prose put me off—but it stuck in my mind, author and title, as something that held a significance which, I presumed, would eventually become clear. That it was there in the house was enough; it held promise.

Many years later, I discovered that The Centaur was actually unusual in Updike’s production. He wrote countless short stories and novels set in New England (where he lived in later adulthood) or around his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania. His imagination was insistently localised. Around 10 years ago, I took his memoir, Self-Consciousness, out from a library in New York.

It was thrillingly written, as powerful as the stories I had read in Pigeon Feathers, or the pages I recalled from Rabbit, Run and Bech at Bay. Updike’s strength was his ability to match the scintillating detail from the mundane world with its ecstatic prose equivalent. Like Vladimir Nabokov, he was a great noticer. I loved Self-Consciousness because the author was looking selectively into his own past, and discovering the alchemy of half-remembered stories and a self-questioning mind. To read Updike in this vein was to feel as alive as he did, walking down the sidewalk on a soft spring night in Shillington.

After reading Self-Consciousness, I returned it to the library. That was where the trouble began. A few months later, I got a note from the library saying they couldn’t find the book. I went there to look for it, knowing I had brought it back, but no luck; I reckoned it would turn up eventually.

For months, and in fact years, afterwards, I simply ignored the library’s mewling inquiries. When, finally, my borrowing privileges were suspended, the only way to restore them was to pay replacement costs and overdue fees for the book. How much was the damage? An absurd amount, a punishment that far exceeded the crime, a sum that would have been sufficient to buy the library four or five new Updike volumes.

I was incensed, but had to pay anyway. And thus did Self-Consciousness become the most expensive book I ever paid for—with the added injury that what I paid for, I didn’t own.

Still, when I saw Updike two or three years ago at a reading in New York, I noted his good-humoured public manner, and was pleased to put a face to the name. He was promoting his latest book Terrorist—a fictional account of a young half-Egyptian boy who grows up in New Jersey and decides to become an Islamic fundamentalist warrior.

It was a bad book, justly panned by critics. The passage Updike read aloud was beautifully written, like everything by him, but not illuminating. Nevertheless, it was a delight to see the legendary man on the podium, and to come close, and observe his ease and delight in sharing a story with a crowd.

It was to be my only sight of this “last American man of letters.” I remember now, though, another close encounter. I was invited to a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, for Thanksgiving dinner in the mid-1990s. The host was the friend of a friend.

After dinner, as we stood outside talking in the cold, and the glimmering lights of the small New England village began to appear one by one in the dusk like fireflies, my friend pointed out a house just at the end of the gravel drive, some forty metres away from us. She said, “John Updike lives there.”

The sudden closeness to well known name! At that moment, I had a momentary glimpse of the distance books could travel, from Ipswich to a humble house in the outskirts of Lagos.

In my book Every Day is for the Thief, I singled John Updike out as one whose talents exceeded the material available to him, and suggested that he would have won the Nobel Prize if he were writing about Lagos instead of Shillington. This wasn’t intended to be a harsh assessment. Good as it may be to work one tiny American patch, the world is bigger than that now and, as I’ve suggested before, that multifarious influence must be present in all our literatures. Nostalgia absolutely cannot help us now.

So, for as long as there are human beings who delight in the possibilities of language, there should be no suggestion that men and women of letters will ever vanish from the earth. In the meantime, through Updike’s deathless prose, a certain narrow slice of American life and experience will remain forever alive. And that, too, is part of the world’s story .


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