The passing of John Updike in late January brought no shortage of commentary on his literary accomplishments, but his most perceptive critic was always Updike himself. He once summed up his writing in this way: “I have from the start been wary of the fake, the automatic. I tried not to force my sense of life as many-layered and ambiguous, while keeping in mind some sense of transaction, of a bargain struck between me and the ideal reader.”
Over the course of his career, Updike published more than 50 books, among them more than 25 novels, a number of short story collections (containing some of the finest stories of the 20th century), prose collections of his essays and literary reviews, books for children and personal memoirs. His cultural criticism also appeared regularly in the nation’s most prestigious journals and newspapers.
When America honored Updike in 1997 with the Campion Award, given to a “distinguished Christian person of letters,” I noted in these pages that he was the most stunning of many omissions from the ranks of English-language authors who had won the Nobel Prize, because he was not only the finest writer in this nation but also the foremost English-speaking “Man of Letters.”
At the Campion Award ceremony, Updike offered a brief reflection on faith and the fiction writer, which we later published (“A Disconcerting Thing,” 10/4/97). He noted that “St. Augustine was not the first Christian writer nor the last to give us the human soul with its shadows, its Rembrandtesque blacks and whites, its chiaroscuro; this sense of ourselves, as creatures caught in the light, whose decisions and recognitions have a majestic significance, remains to haunt non-Christians as well, and to form, as far as I can see, the raison d’être of fiction.”
Updike’s attempt to express that chiaroscuro at the heart of the human endeavor was a central motif not only in his art but in his life. In an autumn 2007 note to him, I mentioned that I had just received a copy of his recently published Due Considerations, a hefty collection of his most recent essays, extended lectures and reviews of fiction and art. He wrote back shortly after and, to my surprise, alerted me to a longish essay within it, entitled “The Future of Faith,” especially to its closing paragraphs.
On reading that essay, I discovered that at age 75 Updike had recorded a period of intense spiritual disquiet, almost of cosmic despondency, only to have experienced a sudden intrusion of consolation, a grace-filled Christian epiphany that he wished to share with the rest of us.
So the setting: Updike is sleeping beside his beloved wife in Florence, and he suddenly awakes and feels “fearful and adrift, nearing my life’s end, a wide-awake mote in an alien, sleeping city.” The crucial paragraph follows:
But then, getting up to go to the bathroom, I became aware of noise, a rustling all around me, and then thunder’s blanketing boom, repeated. I went to the window. The room had a diagonal view of the Duomo—Brunelleschi’s engineering miracle, the hub of Florence, the crown of Santa Maria del Fiore, the fourth-largest church in Christendom. While I watched, the rain intensified, rattling on tile roofs near and far; it looked like rods of metal in the floodlight that illumined part of the great—the world’s greatest, pre-steel—red-tiled dome. Lightning. Hectic gusts. The rain was furious. I was not alone in the universe. The rippling rods of rain drove down upon the vertical beam of light at the base of the Duomo as if to demolish it; but the pillar of light burned on, and the hulking old church crouched like a stoic mute dragon, and the thick tiles and gurgling gutters around me withstood the soaking, the thunder, the shuddering flashes. I was filled with a glad sense of exterior activity. My burden of being was being shared. God was at work—at ease, even, in this nocturnal Florentine commotion, this heavenly wrath and architectural defiance, this Jacobean wrestle. My wife woke up, admired the solemn tempest with me, and went back to bed. I lay down beside her and fell asleep amid the comforting, busy, self-careless drumming. All this felt like a transaction, a rescue, an answered prayer.
May you sleep in peace, John Updike, and now may all your prayers be answered.