Updike’s Wager: Brilliance, Doubt, and the Miracle of Existence

Novelist John Updike excelled at his craft, seemingly without effort. But it is his extreme existential doubt and ultimate decision to believe in transcendence that makes Updike’s life and literature approachable.

Very few literary lives are comparable to that of John Updike. “We need a writer who desires both to be great and to be popular,” wrote Updike when he was in college, “an author who can see America as clearly as Sinclair Lewis, but, unlike Lewis, is willing to take it to his bosom.” Such a writer, Updike thought, could “produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic.” Very few writers achieve such feats, and even fewer live to see the fulfillment of such ambitions. But John Updike did.

His prodigiousness (his oeuvre encompasses sixty novels, several books of essays, a few volumes of poetry, and seemingly innumerable short-stories) transcended all of his contemporaries and has few parallels in literary history. Equally impressive was the seemingly preternatural ease with which he wrote. Shakespeare’s contemporaries remarked that the Bard penned a play as fluidly and easily as we mere mortals write to-do lists. No one doubted the care and attention that Shakespeare devoted to his craft; similarly, no one doubted the devotion that Updike lavished upon his writing. His work ethic was just as legendary as his prodigiousness. Nevertheless, perhaps no writer since Shakespeare has made it look so easy.

In his masterful new biography, Updike, Adam Begley goes to great lengths to ensure that we don’t walk away with the mistaken impression that Updike didn’t have to work extremely hard to achieve his eloquent, seemingly effortless writing. Oddly, this may be what makes Updike so unapproachable, so distant, and so foreign (despite being arguably the most “all-American” of writers). Something about him seems inhuman: he was a literary machine, and the times when he had to undergo some semblance of a struggle only make him seem more machine-like.

A Boring Brilliance?

Updike, despite occasional flourishes in his Rabbit novels, lacks the fierce passion that animated the life and literature of his great contemporary (and erstwhile rival) Philip Roth. One thing of which Roth could never be accused was being boring. Yet both Updike’s career and Begley’s extremely well-written book are, unfortunately, largely boring. They are boring in their brilliance, boring in their monotonous excellence, and boring in their clinical perfection of form. To read Updike—and to read about his life—is to observe an incessant stream of perfection and good fortune: perfectly placed word; perfect job placement; fluid story; unimpeachable novel; immaculately executed prose; novelist taking his place amongst the finest of the realist tradition. We yearn for Updike to be challenged, just as we exult in Rabbit Angstrom’s rare displays of tempestuous rage.

Why the lack of intense passion in Updike? Why does Harold Bloom’s stinging critique of Updike—“a minor novelist with a major style”—still retain its pique? Perhaps it was because Updike did not experience the deep suffering of many other literary geniuses. Updike was not forced to labor for a lifetime before achieving literary success, as George Eliot did. He did not face death threats (Salman Rushdie), outrage directed at him from his own ethnic group (Roth), devastating poverty (Edgar Allan Poe), crippling physical illness (Anton Chekhov), disabling mental illness (David Foster Wallace), relentless addiction (John Cheever), or a lifetime of being forced to conceal his gender (the Brontë sisters) or sexual orientation (E.M. Forster). Nor was he ever the tortured artist á la Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, or Virginia Woolf. Wallace was a prodigy, but the battles he waged with his personal demons rendered his career more compelling and, on a certain level, more approachable.

While Updike was not born into literary nobility, he did not exactly grow up in a culturally impoverished family. His mother was well-read and was herself an aspiring writer who encouraged John’s artistic pursuits. Nonetheless, Begley expends copious amounts of energy recounting Updike’s alleged “challenges” and “setbacks”: he got into Harvard quite easily, but was rejected by Princeton (boo-hoo); he had to move away from his hometown (who doesn’t?); some of his stories were rejected by The New Yorker. (Whose aren’t? Well, Updike’s, that’s whose. After sending many stories to The New Yorker during college, when he graduated, not only did his stories begin to be accepted by the storied magazine, but he was given a job at the magazine. No modern writer, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald, Begley admits, landed such a plum position so early in his life.)

Updike’s setbacks were not in the league of David Foster Wallace’s clinical depression, Roth’s hellish marriage, Cheever’s alcoholism, or Shakespeare’s loss of a son. Nor did Updike ever truly grapple with the classical writerly tortures: writers’ block, tortured artistry, failed ambitions, unpopularity in his lifetime, lack of critical success, or any sort of literary demons. Updike’s literary setbacks were those of a lottery winner who stubs his toe on the way to the bank and then has to wait in line before he can cash his check.

Yet, when compared to the aforementioned literary luminaries, Updike may be the most intellectually curious writer of them all (George Eliot excepted, of course). Updike’s interests encompassed nearly every facet of learning—history, art, languages, sports, cosmology, and perhaps most interestingly, theology. In fact, the one area in his life and literature in which Updike comes across as most human may be in the area of religion. Despite a classic Christian Sunday school education and the appearance of a comfortably faith-filled life, Updike was beset by profound existential doubts that belie the ease with which he professed his belief.

Religious Faith and Existential Exploration

It is his extreme existential angst that makes Updike’s life and literature approachable. For who among us does not wonder about the meaning of our lives, the value of religion, and the nature of the universe? This element of existential exploration imparts a compelling, fascinating dimension to his work.

If any American writer was ever great, popular, and religious, surely it was John Updike. Theological and religious motifs pepper his fiction. Updike seemed to view himself as a sort of literary missionary: his self-proclaimed mission was to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

Updike’s two great themes were theology and adultery—religion and sex. But even in his most sexually charged novel—and his one veritable succès de scandale—1968’s Couples, religion remains such a formidable force that it seems to overpower everything, even sex. In between their adulterous assignations, characters in Couples go to church, say their bedtime prayers, and quote from the Bible; the Jewish character can actually quote from the Bible in its original Hebrew. “I studied it for ten years,” he says. “We were conservative. . . . Summers I was sent to Camp Ramah.” Likewise, even in the early, infamous sex scene in Rabbit, Run, Rabbit and Ruth can’t help but talk theology:

He presses her. “Why don’t you believe anything?”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. Doesn’t it ever, at least for a second, seem obvious to you?”

“God, you mean? No. It seems obvious just the other way. All the time.”

“Well now if God doesn’t exist, why does anything?”

“Why? There’s no why to it. Things just are.” . . .

His believing in God grates against her.

After reading Begley’s highly informative, literarily astute, and beautifully written biography, readers will not be surprised to understand why Updike’s fiction is so heavily infused with religion.

Updike grew up attending Sunday school at a Lutheran church, and after grappling with an initial religious crisis upon moving away from his birthplace, he grew into a man for whom religion would remain a central concern. He “willed himself to believe,” Begley writes, and after making his peace with his faith, he was even able to draw upon it to the extent that “his faith gave him his artistic courage.”

Updike’s Wager

One of Updike’s heroes was Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French mathematician and Catholic proto-existentialist philosopher of “Pascal’s Wager.” Another was the Protestant Karl Barth (whose theology influenced Rabbit, Run and also plays an important narrative role in Updike’s Roger’s Version), the highly influential twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian. Updike shared Barth’s beliefs that the existence of God cannot be proven through scientific methods and that the mystery of existence cannot be comprehended with rationality alone.

While attending Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Updike sought to allay his theological doubt by reading G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, and C.S. Lewis, telling his mother he was “trying hard to be a Christian.” He read Kierkegaard during his early New Yorker days, and later described one of his characters, Harry Angstrom, as a “representative Kierkegaardian man: Man in a state of fear and trembling, separated from God, haunted by dread, twisted by the conflicting demands of his animal biology and human intelligence, of the social contract and the inner imperatives.” Even when Updike was not consciously engaged in reading about religion, it ineluctably surrounded him as water surrounds a fish in the sea. Updike’s first wife, Mary Pennington, was the daughter of a Harvard Divinity School-educated Unitarian minister with whom he argued about Unitarian theology.

And what, then, was Updike’s theology? Amidst an adult life marked by multiple extramarital affairs and perpetual religious doubt, the one constant in Updike’s life remained his Barthian conviction that God is “Wholly Other”: “We cannot reach Him, only He can reach us.” Although Updike found some solace in this theology, community eventually became more important to him than creed. He became an active member and regular attendee of the First Congregational Church in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and his social circle in New England became a cornerstone of his life. And, as far as his faith was concerned, though he read widely in theology, his belief was ultimately “internally generated”:

I decided . . . I would believe. . . . Religion enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life. . . . The choice seemed to come down to: believe or be frightened and depressed all the time.

In Begley’s words,

Religion gave [Updike] the strength to believe that his life was important, that one’s sense of oneself as being of infinite value is somewhere in the universe answered, that indeed one is of infinite value.

Questions, Doubts, and a Kind of Miracle

Despite his own religiosity, Updike’s fiction doesn’t shy away from pondering the possibilities of a Godless universe. In his novel Roger’s Version, Updike speculates about the possibility that the universe arose from a spontaneous creation unguided by any divine power. In one of his Henry Bech stories, Updike’s Bech—a pessimistic Jewish novelist who also functions as Updike’s literary alter-ego—wonders whether we would’ve been better off had we not been created at all.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) similarly recounts how for three years the sages debated whether humanity would have been better off had the world not been created. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court of antiquity) “ruled” that humanity would have been better off had the universe not been created, but now that we do exist, we should at least “examine our behavior” (i.e., now that we’re here, we might as well try to make the best of things). Updike’s Bech seems to reach a similar conclusion, absent the moralistic caveat: “the void should have been left unvexed, should have been spared this trouble of matter, of life, and worst, of consciousness.” The entire universe, Bech believes, is merely a “blot on nothingness.”

Yet that does not seem to have been Updike’s final conclusion. From the moment of his first spiritual crisis until his dying days, Updike was perennially perplexed by the classical theological and religious concerns of the ages—the nature of reality, the meaning of the cosmos, and the mystery of existence. Author Jim Holt records a fascinating conversation with Updike on these matters just a few months before his death. In the end, for all of his questioning, Updike was, in his own words, “of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle.”

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