Tuesday, March 18, 2014

John Updike's Curiosity About Faith & Resonance with J.D. Salinger

Copyright © 2014 Wendy Murray.

By Wendy Murray

John Updike was born on this day, March 18, in 1932 (d. Jan 27, 2009). He is best known for his "Rabbit" series in fiction, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Rabbit is Rich (1982) and Rabbit at Rest (1991).

Updike's Rabbit novels:
(1960) Rabbit, Run 
(1971) Rabbit Redux 
(1981) Rabbit Is Rich  
(1990) Rabbit At Rest 
(1995) Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels  
(2001) Rabbit Remembered (a novella in the collection Licks of Love)

I did not take to Updike's novels -- they seemed more a man's game. But I devoured his essays that New Yorker and elsewhere, particularly those he wrote late in his life when he explored spiritual themes.

In 1961 he wrote a review in the New York Times of his contemporary J.D. Salinger's, book Franny and Zooey. (Prior to its publication as a novel it had appeared as two short stories in the New Yorker.) Even at this ascending phase of Updike's career, he resonated with Salinger's religious exploration in the book embodied in the character of Franny. The story centers around her near- despair: “All I know is I’m losing my mind. I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting--it is, it is.” Her disenchantment incited her to want to pray, but she did not know how to pray. Then she latched onto a little book called the Philokalia, which emphasized the transformative value of repeating the “Jesus Prayer”: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, which Franny began to recite compulsively. The novel explores the shock this induced for those around her, as well as the change it affected in her own soul.

In his review of Salinger's book, Updike wrote:  "Let me say, I am glad he is hopeful. I am one of those -- to do some confessing of my own -- for whom Salinger's work dawned as something of a revelation. I expect that further revelations are to come."

(Salinger died the year to the day following Updike's death, January 27, 2010).

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