Recalling John Updike |

Recalling John Updike

Dear Editor:

John Updike became a staff writer for The New Yorker a few years before I did. The position of “staff writer” in those days was a very odd one. You signed an annual agreement which said in essence that if the magazine bought something from you they would pay at their usual rates ” whatever they were. But there were perks like health insurance. My guess is that Updike was still a staff writer, at least nominally, at the time of his death.

His immense fluidity as a writer made him a natural for the magazine. I remember a Talk of the Town piece he wrote about the clocks he could see on his way to lunch. After two years in New York he decided that it was too easy and that he wanted to write serious fiction, which he did for the rest of his life.

He also wrote a lot of what the magazine called “fact.” One of his pieces had to do with psoriasis from which he suffered. It was harrowing. He was always mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner but the people who decide these things never gave him one. They didn’t give one to Joyce, Nabokov or Borges, to name a few.

I never had a chance to talk to him although we did exchange a few letters on physics. He died of lung cancer, which he must have had for awhile. Much of his recent fiction had to do with old age and death. This puzzled me and now I know why.

Jeremy Bernstein


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