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Prolific John Updike Still Finds Things to Say About Life, Sex and Religion

January 04, 1987|KATHERINE STEPHEN | Stephen lives in London

BEVERLY FARMS, Mass. — John Updike's strikingly majestic New England home looks out onto the distant Atlantic from the top of a hill, elevating him above his neighbors on the outskirts of this rich and wooded village north of Boston.

The house--square, solid, imposing--is painted an intense, almost Melvillean white. "My God, it's awfully white," Updike said, casting an eye toward the paint work from his seat on a wicker sofa in the shade of a side porch. "On a sunny day, it's almost blinding."

At 54, Updike has earned an equally imposing stance on the literary landscape, earning virtually every American literary award, repeated best-sellerdom and the near-royal status of the American author-celebrity. In the vigorous, poetic prose of his many novels, he has made life in the American suburbs the universe of his concern, focusing with a particularly modern telescopic fascination on the frequently adulterous sex lives of his characters.

Rapturous Descriptions

Updike is a great describer: His depictions of his mis en scene of life in mid-20th-Century America--from dishwashers, to cars, to his sometimes rapturous descriptions of billboard-infested landscapes--may well be where future generations turn to discover what it was like to live in such a bountiful, confusing time and place.

But Updike is not just a superb novelist. He is widely regarded as the most astute non-academic critic in the United States. He has written poetry and he still produces short stories for the New Yorker that would, on their own, be enough to justify a literary reputation.

A tall, thin man, Updike leaned back on the wicker sofa and absent-mindedly nibbled a bit of pretzel that he'd taken out of his jacket pocket. He is low-key, free from obvious self-importance, willing to talk.

But if he appears casual, he is far from complacent about what he has accomplished. With almost 30 books in print, he still feels he has a lot to do, and that he has yet to write his masterpiece. "I like to think that's still ahead of me," he said.

Updike's most recent novel, "Roger's Version" (Andre Deutsch), breaks new fictional ground for him and is perhaps a step nearer to that masterpiece. "I've been accused of writing novels without ideas, so I thought I'd write a book with a few ideas in it," he remarked with New England understatement.

In "Roger's Version," Updike has launched into a quest for answers to questions beyond the usual concerns of his suburbanites. In the course of the novel, he attempts nothing less than a discovery of a union of new scientific theory about the structure of the universe and the hopes of Christian theology: A tweed-jacketed professor of theology, Roger Lambert, chews his pipe over a mildly disappointed conviction that God is unknowable, while an obnoxiously clever perpetual student named Dale Kohler embarks simultaneously on an affair with Lambert's wife and a project to prove the existence of God via computer.

A Lifelong Church-Goer

"I was sitting at my word processor one day, and I noticed this scramble of numbers that it throws up. The notion of there being a magical secret in that code of numbers occurred to me, being a superstitious sort of person," Updike said.

The provableness of God is a subject Updike may have mused upon during the many Sunday mornings he has spent in church. Updike is a lifelong church-goer. He was raised a Lutheran, became a Congregationalist during his first marriage, and has recently joined the Episcopal church.

"I don't see anything else around really addressing one's basic sense of dread and strangeness other than the Christian church for me," he said.

"I've written maybe all too much about religion here and there. But there have been times when I read a lot of theology. The year I spent in England (after graduation from Harvard) I was very nervous and frightened, standing more or less on the threshold of my adult life and career, if any. One of the ways I assuaged my anxiety was to read a lot of (G. K.) Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, some Kierkegaard, and when I moved to New England, I read a lot of Karl Barth. My intensive theology reading extends from about the

age of 22 to, say, 30. I get great pleasure out of reading theology. Barth is always bracing and interesting. (Paul) Tillich, I've had a long tussle with. He is a fellow Lutheran after all.

"I must have a certain amount of hostility, too, toward organized religion," he said. "I notice when I write about it that it comes out kind of acid. It is basically an amazing phenomenon among us. You could give a reason, I suppose, for the existence of gas stations. But it would be very hard to explain to a Martian what all these churches are doing. They're a little like books, in a way; a little like fiction. It would be very hard to explain to a Martian why novels exist."

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