John Updike

American novelist, poet (1932–2009)

John Hoyer Updike (18 March 193227 January 2009) was an American novelist, poet, critic and short-story writer.

The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.

Quotes edit

America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.
We take our bearings, daily, from others. To be sane is, to a great extent, to be sociable.
The inner spaces that a good story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion.
But for a few phrases from his letters and an odd line or two of his verse, the poet walks gagged through his own biography.
I secretly understood: the primitive appeal of the hearth. Television is — its irresistible charm — a fire.
Customs and convictions change; respectable people are the last to know, or to admit, the change, and the ones most offended by fresh reflections of the facts in the mirror of art.
Yes, there is a ton of information on the web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile.
  • I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages at a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen. The demons with which he wrestled — Hegel and his avatars — were unknown to me, so Kierkegaard at his desk seemed to me to be writhing in the clutches of phantoms, slapping at silent mosquitoes, twisting furiously to confront presences that were not there.
  • The city overwhelmed our expectations. The Kiplingesque grandeur of Waterloo Station, the Eliotic despondency of the brick row in Chelsea … the Dickensian nightmare of fog and sweating pavement and besmirched cornices.
    • On London, in “A Madman,” New Yorker (22 December 1962)
  • If men do not keep on speaking terms with children, they cease to be men, and become merely machines for eating and for earning money.
    • “A Foreword for Younger Readers,” Assorted Prose (1965)
  • One out of three hundred and twelve Americans is a bore, for instance, and a healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience.
    • “Confessions of a Wild Bore” in Assorted Prose (1965)
  • At last, small witches, goblins, hags,
    And pirates armed with paper bags,
    Their costumes hinged on safety pins,
    Go haunt a night of pumpkin grins.
    • October, A Child's Calendar (1965)
  • The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one's obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.
    • On J. D. Salinger, from a review of his Franny and Zooey, in Studies in J. D. Salinger : Reviews, Essays, and Critiques of The Catcher in the Rye and other Fiction (1963) edited by Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman, p. 231; also quoted in The Christian Science Monitor (August 26, 1965) and Updike's Assorted Prose (1965).
  • I would especially like to recourt the Muse of poetry, who ran off with the mailman four years ago, and drops me only a scribbled postcard from time to time.
    • On completing a long novel, New York Times (7 April 1968)
  • Suspect each moment, for it is a thief, tiptoeing away with more than it brings.
    • A Month of Sundays (1975)
  • When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.
  • The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.
    • The New Yorker (March 29, 1976)
  • Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled, to muster for another day's progress through the dazzling quicksand the marsh of blank paper.
    • “Marching through a Novel” in Tossing and Turning (1977)
  • I think “taste” is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.
    • Interview in New York Times Book Review (10 April 1977). later published in Conversations with John Updike (1994) edited by James Plath, p. 113
  • I love my government not least for the extent to which it leaves me alone.
    • Testimony given before the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Boston, Massachusetts (30 January 1978)
  • I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine than a small body of enlightened and responsible men administering public funds. I would rather chance my personal vision of truth striking home here and there in the chaos of publication that exists than attempt to filter it through a few sets of official, honorably public-spirited scruples.
    • Testimony given before the Subcommittee on Select Education of the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Boston (January 30, 1978)
  • America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.
    • “How to Love America and Leave it at the Same Time,” Problems and Other Stories (1979)
  • That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds.
  • We take our bearings, daily, from others. To be sane is, to a great extent, to be sociable.
    • Christian Science Monitor (5 March 1979)
  • I moved to New England partly because it has a real literary past. The ghosts of Hawthorne and Melville still sit on those green hills. The worship of Mammon is also somewhat lessened there by the spirit of irony. I don't get hay fever in New England either.
    • London Observer (25 March 1979)
  • Being naked approaches being revolutionary; going barefoot is mere populism.
    • “Going Barefoot,” On the Vineyard (1980)
  • Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone.
  • appeals to the idiot in us, and the child. … Just how childlike golf players become is proven by their frequent inability to count past five.
    • Essay The Bliss of Golf (1982), reprinted in Golf Dreams (1996)
  • Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.
    • Hugging the Shore, foreword (1983)
  • Bankruptcy is a sacred state, a condition beyond conditions, as theologians might say, and attempts to investigate it are necessarily obscene, like spiritualism. One knows only that he has passed into it and lives beyond us, in a condition not ours.
    • “The Bankrupt Man,” Hugging the Shore
  • A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.
    • Introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 1984 (1984)
  • The inner spaces that a good story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion.
    • Introduction to The Best American Short Stories of 1984 (1984)
  • Her sentences march under a harsh sun that bleaches color from them but bestows a peculiar, invigorating, Pascalian clarity.
  • He had a sensation of anxiety and shame, a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage, must record every touch of pain.
    • On Franz Kafka, quoted in report on Great Books discussion groups, New York Times (28 February 1985)
  • But for a few phrases from his letters and an odd line or two of his verse, the poet walks gagged through his own biography.
    • On T. S. Eliot (1984) by Peter Ackroyd, in which the Eliot estate forbade quotation from Eliot’s books and letters, The New Yorker (25 March 1985)
  • He skates saucily over great tracts of confessed ignorance.
    • On T S Matthews, and his biography of T. S. Eliot, Great Tom (1974), in The New Yorker (25 March 1985)
  • I secretly understood: the primitive appeal of the hearth. Television is — its irresistible charm — a fire.
    • On a child doing homework near the family’s television set, in Roger’s Version (1986)
  • There's a crystallization that goes on in a poem which the young man can bring off, but which the middle-aged man can't.
    • As quoted in “When Writers Turn to Brave New Forms” by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (24 March 1986)
  • We hope the "real" person behind the words will be revealed as ignominiously as a shapeless snail without its shapely shell.
    • On “consumeristic appetite for interviews,” New York Times (17 August 1986)
  • Four years was enough of Harvard. I still had a lot to learn, but had been given the liberating notion that now I could teach myself.
    • Life Magazine (September 1986)
  • It rots a writer’s brain, it cretinises you. You say the same thing again and again, and when you do that happily you’re well on the way to being a cretin. Or a politician.
    • Interview in London Observer (30 August 1987)
  • In asking forgiveness of women for our mythologizing of their bodies, for being unreal about them, we can only appeal to their own sexuality, which is different but not basically different, perhaps, from our own. For women, too, there seems to be that tangle of supplication and possessiveness, that descent toward infantile undifferentiation, that omnipotent helplessness, that merger with the cosmic mother-warmth, that flushed pulse- quickened leap into overestimation, projection, general mix-up.
    • “The Female Body,” Michigan Quarterly Review (1990)
  • For male and female alike, the bodies of the other sex are messages signaling what we must do — they are glowing signifiers of our own necessities.
    • “The Female Body,” Michigan Quarterly Review (1990)
  • Customs and convictions change; respectable people are the last to know, or to admit, the change, and the ones most offended by fresh reflections of the facts in the mirror of art.
    • The New Yorker (30 July 1990)
  • Now that I am sixty, I see why the idea of elder wisdom has passed from currency.
    • The New Yorker (November 1992)
  • The male sense of space must differ from that of the female, who has such interesting, active, and significant inner space. The space that interests men is outer. The fly ball high against the sky, the long pass spiraling overhead, the jet fighter like a scarcely visible pinpoint nozzle laying down its vapor trail at 40,000 feet, the gazelle haunch flickering just beyond arrow-reach, the uncountable stars sprinkled on their great black wheel, the horizon, the mountaintop, the quasar — these bring portents with them and awaken a sense of relation with the invisible, with the empty. The ideal male body is taut with lines of potential force, a diagram extending outward; the ideal female body curves around centers of repose.
    • “The Disposable Rocket,” Michigan Quarterly Review (Fall 1993)

Rabbit, Run (1960) edit

  • As if pity is, as he has been taught, not a helpless outcry but a powerful tide that could redeem the world...
  • He feels the truth: the thing that has left his life has left irrevocably; no search would recover it. No flight would reach it. It was here, beneath the town, in these smells and these voices, forever behind him. The fullness ends when we give Nature her ransom, when we make children for her. Then she is through with us, and we become, first inside, and then outside, junk. Flower stalks.
  • The difficulty with humorists is that they will mix what they believe with what they don't; whichever seems likelier to win an effect.
  • What held him back all day was the feeling that somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots and it's this feeling he tries to kill, right there on the bus; he grips the chrome bar and leans far over two women with white pleated blouses and laps of packages and closes his eyes and tries to kill it.
  • He had gone to church and brought back this little flame and had nowhere to put it on the dark damp walls of the apartment, so it had flickered and gone out. And he realised that he wouldn't always be able to produce this flame.
  • The houses, many of them no longer lived in by the people whose faces he all knew, are like the houses in a town you see from the train, their brick faces blank in posing the riddle, Why does anyone live here? Why was he set down here, why is this town, a dull suburb of a third-rate city, for him the center and index of a universe that contains immense prairies, mountains, deserts, forests, cities, seas? This childish mystery—the mystery of ‘any place,’ prelude to the ultimate, ‘Why am I me?’—ignites panic in his heart.
  • The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you're going before you go there.

The Centaur (1963) edit

I miss only, and then only a little, in the late afternoon, the sudden white laughter that like heat lightning bursts in an atmosphere where souls are trying to serve the impossible.
I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken.
  • The Founding Fathers in their wisdom decided that children were an unnatural strain on parents. So they provided jails called schools, equipped with tortures called an education. School is where you go between when your parents can’t take you and industry can’t take you.
    • Ch. 4
  • I miss only, and then only a little, in the late afternoon, the sudden white laughter that like heat lightning bursts in an atmosphere where souls are trying to serve the impossible. My father for all his mourning moved in the atmosphere of such laughter. He would have puzzled you. He puzzled me. His upper half was hidden from me, I knew best his legs.
  • Zeus had loved his old friend, and lifted him up, and set him among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius. Here, in the Zodiac, now above, now below the horizon, he assists in the regulation of our destinies, though in this latter time few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars.
  • I must go to Nature disarmed of perspective and stretch myself like a large transparent canvas upon her in the hope that, my submission being perfect, the imprint of a beautiful and useful truth would be taken.

Couples (1968) edit

  • Every marriage tends to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant. Of a teacher and a learner.
    • Ch. 1
  • An affair wants to spill, to share its glory with the world. No act is so private it does not seek applause.
    • Ch. 2
  • It is not difficult to deceive the first time, for the deceived possesses no antibodies; unvaccinated by suspicion, she overlooks latenesses, accepts absurd excuses, permits the flimsiest patchings to repair great rents in the quotidian.
    • Ch. 2
  • The first breath of adultery is the freest; after it, constraints aping marriage develop.
    • Ch. 5
  • Sex is like money; only too much is enough.
    • Ch. 5
  • By the time a partnership dissolves, it has dissolved.
    • Ch. 5

Rabbit Redux (1969) edit

  • Time is our element, not a mistaken invader.
  • Any decent kind of world, you wouldn't need all these rules.
  • His insides are beginning to feel sickly. The pain of the world is a crater all these syrups and pills a thousandfold would fail to fill.
  • All men are boys time is trying to outsmart.
  • Like water, blood must run or grow scum.
  • Freedom, that he always thought was outward motion, turns out to be this inward dwindling.
  • There was a beauty here, refined from country pastures, a game of solitariness, of waiting, waiting for the pitcher to complete his gaze toward first base and throw his lightning, a game whose very taste, of spit and dust and grass and sweat and leather and sun, was America.
  • Halfway isn't all the way, but it's better than no way.
  • "You are cynical."
"Just middle-aged. Ideas used to grab me too. It's not that you get better ideas, the old ones just get tired. After a while, you see that even dollars and cents are just an idea. Finally the only thing that matters is putting some turds in the toilet bowl once a day. They stay real, somehow. Somebody came up to me and said, 'I'm God,' I'd say, 'Show me your badge.'"
  • Thirty-six years old and he knows less than when he started. With the difference that now he knows how little he'll always know.

Bech, A Book (1970) edit

From infancy on, we are all spies; the shame is not this but that the secrets to be discovered are so paltry and few.
  • From infancy on, we are all spies; the shame is not this but that the secrets to be discovered are so paltry and few.
  • The artistic triumph of American Jewry lay, he thought, not in the novels of the 1950s but in the movies of the 1930s, those gargantuan, crass contraptions whereby Jewish brains projected Gentile stars upon a Gentile nation and out of their own immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.
  • It was one of history’s great love stories, the mutually profitable romance which Hollywood and bohunk America conducted almost in the dark, a tapping of fervent messages through the wall of the San Gabriel Range.

Buchanan Dying : A Play (1974) edit

Government is either organized benevolence or organized madness; its peculiar magnitude permits no shading.
  • Facts are generally overesteemed. For most practical purposes, a thing is what men think it is. When they judged the earth flat, it was flat. As long as men thought slavery tolerable, tolerable it was. We live down here among shadows, shadows among shadows.
    • Act I
  • There is no pleasing New Englanders, my dear, their soil is all rocks and their hearts are bloodless absolutes.
    • Act II
  • To be President of the United States, sir, is to act as advocate for a blind, venomous, and ungrateful client; still, one must make the best of the case, for the purposes of Providence.
    • Act II

Rabbit is Rich (1981) edit

  • "Look, Nelson. Maybe I haven't done everything right in my life. I know I haven't. But I haven't committed the greatest sin. I haven't laid down and died."
"Who says that's the greatest sin?"
"Everybody says it. The church, the government. It's against Nature, to give up, you've got to keep moving. That's the thing about you. You're not moving. You don't want to be here, selling old man Springer's jalopies. You want to be out there, learning something." He gestures toward the west. "How to hang glide, or run a computer, or whatever."
  • When Rabbit first began to drive the road was full of old fogeys going too slow and now it seems nothing but kids in a hell of a hurry, pushing. Let 'em by, is his motto. Maybe they'll kill themselves on a telephone pole in the next mile. He hopes so.
  • Women, once sex gets out in the open, they become monsters. You're a creep if you fuck them and a creep if you don't.
  • College is a rip-off, the professors are teaching you stuff because they’re getting paid to do it, not because it does you any good. They don’t give a fuck about geography or whatever any more than you do. It’s all phony, they’re there because parents don’t want their kids around the house past a certain age and sending them to college makes them look good. ‘My little Johnny’s at Haavahd.’
  • You don’t stop caring, champ. You still care about that little girl whose underpants you saw in kindergarten. Once you care, you always care. That’s how stupid we are.
  • He’s not that young, he’s turned twenty-three, and what makes him feel foolish among these people, he’s married. Nobody else here looks married. There is sure nobody else pregnant, that it shows. It makes him feel put on display, as a guy who didn’t know better.
  • "The past is the past," Harry goes on, "you got to live in the present. … It's the only way to think. When you're my age, you'll see it. At my age if you carried all the misery you've seen on your back you'd never get up in the morning."
  • The great thing about the dead, they make space.

Writers on Themselves (1986) edit

The New York Times (17 August 1986)
  • Until the 20th century it was generally assumed that a writer had said what he had to say in his works.
  • Writers take words seriously — perhaps the last professional class that does — and they struggle to steer their own through the crosswinds of meddling editors and careless typesetters and obtuse and malevolent reviewers into the lap of the ideal reader.
  • One of the satisfactions of fiction, or drama, or poetry from the perpetrator’s point of view is the selective order it imposes upon the confusion of a lived life; out of the daily welter of sensation and impression these few verbal artifacts, these narratives or poems, are salvaged and carefully presented.
  • The creative writer uses his life as well as being its victim; he can control, in his work, the self-presentation that in actuality is at the mercy of a thousand accidents.

Self-Consciousness : Memoirs (1989) edit

The essential self is innocent, and when it tastes its own innocence knows that it lives for ever.

  • Dreams come true; without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.
    • Ch. 3
  • Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity, the humanity (in the Harvard sense) of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?
    • Ch. 4
  • To say that war is madness is like saying that sex is madness: true enough, from the standpoint of a stateless eunuch, but merely a provocative epigram for those who must make their arrangements in the world as given.
    • Ch. 4
  • Looking foolish does the spirit good. The need not to look foolish is one of youth’s many burdens; as we get older we are exempted from more and more, and float upward in our heedlessness, singing Gratia Dei sum quod sum.
    • Ch. 6; Gratia Dei sum quod sum translates to ”Thanks be to God that I am what I am”
  • Truth should not be forced; it should simply manifest itself, like a woman who has in her privacy reflected and coolly decided to bestow herself upon a certain man.
    • Ch. 6
  • The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise for the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience.
    • Ch. 6
  • The guarantee that our self enjoys an intended relation to the outer world is most, if not all, we ask from religion. God is the self projected onto reality by our natural and necessary optimism. He is the not-me personified.
    • Ch. 6
  • Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being “somebody,” to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen.
    • Ch. 6
  • Existence itself does not feel horrible; it feels like an ecstasy, rather, which we have only to be still to experience.
    • Ch. 6
  • What more fiendish proof of cosmic irresponsibility than a Nature which, having invented sex as a way to mix genes, then permits to arise, amid all its perfumed and hypnotic inducements to mate, a tireless tribe of spirochetes and viruses that torture and kill us for following orders?
    • Ch. 6
  • When we try in good faith to believe in materialism, in the exclusive reality of the physical, we are asking our selves to step aside; we are disavowing the very realm where we exist and where all things precious are kept — the realm of emotion and conscience, of memory and intention and sensation.
    • Ch. 6
  • Religion enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life.
    • Ch. 6

Rabbit at Rest (1990) edit

  • This airport has been designed with big windows viewing the runways, so if there's a crash everybody can feast upon it with their own eyes. The fireball, the fuselage doing a slow skidding twirl, shedding its wings.
  • There had been a lot of death in the newspapers lately. [...] and then before Christmas that Pan Am Flight 103 ripping open like a rotten melon five miles above Scotland and dropping all these bodies and flaming wreckage all over the golf course and the streets of this little town like Glockamorra, what was its real name, Lockerbie. Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls-Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and a giant ripping noise and scattered screams this whole cozy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually feel still packed into the suitcases, stored in the unpressurised hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them. [...] Those bodies with hearts pumping tumbling down in the dark. How much did they know as they fell, through air dense like tepid water, tepid gray like this terminal where people blow through like dust in an air duct, to the airline we're all just numbers on the computer, one more or less, who cares? A blip on the screen, then no blip on the screen. Those bodies tumbling down like wet melon seeds.
  • "Whenever somebody tells me to do something my instinct's always to do the opposite. It's got me into a lot of trouble, but I've had a lot of fun."
  • When you're retired, you get into your routines and other people, even so-called loved ones, become a strain.
  • "Driving is boring," Rabbit pontificates, "but it's what we do. Most of American life is driving somewhere and then driving back wondering why the hell you went."
  • "...Cocaine. The stuff is everywhere."
"You wonder what people see in it," Rabbit says.
"What they see in it," Bernie says, [...] "is instant happiness." [...] "There are two routes to happiness," he continues, back at the wheel of the cart. "Work for it, day after day, like you and I did, or take a chemical shortcut. With the world the way it is, these kids take the shortcut. The long way looks too long."
"Yeah, well, it is long. And then when you've gone the distance, where's the happiness?"
"Behind you," the other man admits.
  • "...If you could ever get the poor to vote in this country, you'd have socialism. But people want to think rich. That's the genius of the capitalist system: either you're rich, or you want to be, or you think you ought to be."
  • "I mean," he says, "how the hell do you think it feels? Sitting there and having the plane explode?"
"Well, I bet it wakes you up," Ed says.
  • ...there ought to be a law that we change identities and families every ten years or so.
  • You don't know what you don't know.
  • Figure out where you're going before you go there: he was told that a long time ago.
  • He learned this much selling cars: offer the customer something he doesn't want, to make what he half-wants look better.
  • [Nelson] "...One nice thing about Florida, it makes Pennsylvania look unspoiled."
  • "Who wants to fish, if you're halfway civilised? Dangling some dead meat in front of some poor brainless thing and then pulling him up by a hook in the roof of his mouth? Cruellest thing people do is fish."
  • Your children's losing battle with time seems even sadder than your own.
  • [Re Florida] Just not being senile is considered great down here.
  • [Judy, 8, is watching TV] He tells Judy, "Better pack it in, sweetie. Another big day tomorrow: we're going to go to the beach and sailing." But his voice comes out listless, and perhaps that is the saddest loss time brings, the lessening of excitement about anything.
  • Rabbit feels as if the human race is a vast colourful jostling bristling parade in which he is limping and falling behind.
  • When she was a girl nobody had money but people had dreams.
  • She closes her eyes and wordlessly thinks of all the misery sex has caused the world...
  • When you feel irresistable, you're hard to resist.
  • "The papers exaggerate. They exaggerate everything, just to sell papers. The government exaggerates, to keep our minds off what morons they are."
  • [Nelson] "...I get none of the things a man's supposed to get from a wife."
"What are those?" Janice is truly interested; she has never heard a man spell it out.
He makes a cross evasive face. "You know – don't play naïve. Reassurance. Affection. Make the guy think he's great even if he isn't."
  • [at the hospital, Janice speaking to Dr Olman in Harry's presence in the ward] "What's wrong with his heart, exactly?" Janice asks.
"The usual thing, ma'am. It's tired and stiff and full of crud. It's a typical American heart, for his age and economic status et cetera."
  • His wife is, it occurs to Harry, a channel that can't be switched. The same slightly too-high forehead, the same dumb stubborn slot of a mouth, day after day, same time, same station.
  • He didn't have a worry in the world back then. He was in paradise and didn't know it.
  • [Harry, talking about the doctor who came to the ward and then went away.] "That guy has a thing about potato chips and hot dogs. If God didn't want us to eat salt and fat, why did He make them taste so good?"
  • [Nelson, to Harry] "...I keep feeling hassled."
"That's life, Nelson. Hassle."
"I suppose."
  • [about the past, and Mary Ann, before Harry went to do his two years in the army] Maybe she sensed something about him. A loser. Though at eighteen he looked like a winner.
  • [Thelma] "...You make your own punishments in life, I honest to God believe that. You get exactly what you deserve. God sees to it."
  • [Harry, to Thelma, about Janet] "She never really figured out how the world is put together but she's still working at it."
  • [Thelma] "...We're too old to keep being foolish."
  • You can't say anything honest to women, they have minds like the FBI.
  • He supposes they pretty much have the picture. Most people do, in life. People know more than they let on.
  • ...the Japanese interest him professionally. How do they and the Germans do it, when America's going down the tubes?
  • Charlie asks her for a Perrier with lime. She says that San Pellegrino is what they have. He says it's all the same to him. Fancy water is fancy water.
  • Charlie interrupts impatiently, "Pain is where it's at for punks. Mutilation, self-hatred, slam dancing. For these kids today, ugly is beautiful. That's their way of saying what a lousy world we're giving them. No more rain forests. Toxic waste. You know the drill."
  • [Dr Breit] "It's irrational, but so's the human species."
  • Now nuns have blended into everybody else or else faded away. Vocations drying up, nobody wants to be selfless any more, everybody wants their fun. No more nuns, no more rabbis. No more good people, waiting to have their fun in the afterlife. The thing about the afterlife, it kept this life within bounds somehow, like the Russians. Now there's just Japan, and technology, and the profit motive, and getting all you can while you can.
  • ..."That disease he has does an awful job on you. Your lungs fill up."
"Well, he should have kept his penis out of other men's bottoms then," Janice says, lowering her voice though, so the nurses and orderlies in the hall don't hear.
  • Life is a hill that gets steeper the more you climb.
  • Mim has hung up. She has a life to get on with.
  • ...he tries to view his life as a brick of sorts, set in place with a slap in 1933 and hardening ever since, just one life in rows and walls and blocks of lives.
  • [At news that Nelson got himself a counsellor] Harry feels a jealous, resentful pang. His boy is being taken over. His fatherhood hasn't been good enough. They're calling in the professionals.
  • ...a sense of defeat the years have brought back to him, after what seemed for a while to be triumphs.
  • Life is noise.
  • [A grandchild barely able to remember Harry's own mother] But can Ma be no more than that in this child's memory? Do we dwindle so fast to next to nothing?
  • Something about being helpless in bed, people hit you up for sympathy. They've got you where they want you.
  • Not his problem. Fewer and fewer things are.
  • [Pru] "...He's still trying to work out what you two did to him, as if you were the only parents in the world who didn't keep wiping their kid's ass until he was thirty. I tell him: Get real, Nelson. Lousy parents are par for the course. My God. Nothing's ideal."
  • [Pru, to Harry] She tells him, "You were one of the things I liked about Nelson. Maybe I thought Nelson would grow into somebody like you."
"Maybe he did. You don't get to see what a bastard I can be."
  • Women are actresses, tuning their part to each little audience.
  • A woman you've endured such a gnawing of desire for, you can't help bearing a little grudge against, when the ache is gone.
  • In show business you learn to let it slide off your back. You know, fuck 'em. Otherwise you'd kill yourself.
  • Late in the game as it is, you keep trying.
  • [Mr Shimada, a Toyota bigwig, visiting the lot] "Young people now most interesting," he decides to say. ""Not scared of starving as through most human history. Not scared of atom bomb as until recently. But scared of something – not happy. In Japan, too. Brue jeans, rock music not make happiness enough. In former times, in Japan, very simple things make men happy. Moonright on fish pond at certain moment. Cricket singing in bamboo grove. Very small things bring very great feering. Japan a rittle ireand country, must make do with very near nothing. Not rike endless China, not rike U.S. No oiru wells, no great spaces. We have only our people, their disciprine. Riving now five years in Carifornia, it disappoints me, the rack of disciprine in people of America. [...] In war, people need disciprine. Not just in war. Peace a kind of war also. We fight now not Americans and British but Nissan, Honda, Ford. Toyota agency must be a prace of disciprine, a prace of order.
..."In United States, is fascinating for me, struggle between order and freedom. Everybody mention freedom, all papers terevision anchor people everybody. Much rove and talk of freedom. Skateboarders want freedom to use beach boardwalks and knock down poor old people. Brack men with radios want freedom to self-express with super-jumbo noise. Men want freedom to have guns and shoot others on freeways in random sport. In Carifornia, dog shit much surprise me. Everywhere, dog shit, dogs must have important freedom to shit everywhere. Dog freedom more important than crean grass and cement pavement. In U.S., Toyota company hope to make ireands of order in ocean of freedom. Hope to strike proper barance between needs of outer world and needs of inner being, between what in Japan we call giri and ninjō."
  • "...Nelson'll be thirty-three in a couple of months." He thinks it would be a waste of breath, and maybe offensive, to explain to Mr Shimada that at that same age Jesus Christ was old enough to be crucified and redeem mankind.
  • [Mr Shimada] "Toyota does not enjoy bad games prayed with its ploduct."
  • "Things change," says Mr Shimada. "Is world's sad secret."
  • [Harry to Janice, about the financial situation] "...You're in real trouble."
"I know... But you have to have faith. You've taught me that."
"I have?" He is pleasantly surprised, to think that in thirty-three years he has taught her anything. "Faith in what?"
"In us. In life," she says.
  • [Harry having drawn at golf] The shape of his collapse clings to him. Who says the universe isn't soaked in disgrace?
  • [Harry, to Nelson] "Don't forget, there's a Depression coming."
"Who says?"
"I say; everybody says!"
"Why would we have a Depression?"
"Because we don't have any discipline! We're drowning in debt! We don't even own our own country any more!"
  • ...he feels a stifling uselessness in things, a kind of atomic decay whereby the precious glowing present turns, with each tick of the clock, into the leaden slag of history.
  • Weeds don't know they're weeds.
  • [re a woman on TV on 'Wheel of Fortune'] She makes you proud to be a two-legged mammal.
  • "...This is a hideous thing. None of us will ever be the same."
"We never are," he dares to say.
  • Hard to believe God is always listening, never gets bored.
  • There is very little thanks in history. Dog eat dog.
  • Women: you never know which side they want to dance on.
  • [re the human heart] That little electric twitch: without it we're so much rotting meat.
  • God's country. He could have made it smaller and still made the same point.
  • But the fast lane too gets to be a rut.
  • There's more to being a human being than having your own way.
  • This is the last night when he is nowhere. Tomorrow, life will find him again.
  • [Harry listening to car radio] ...he resents being made to realise, this late, that the songs of his life were as moronic as the rock the brainless kids now feed on, or the Sixties and Seventies stuff that Nelson gobbled up – all of it designed for empty heads and overheated hormones, an ocean white with foam, and listening to it now is like trying to eat a double banana split the way he used to. It's all disposable, cooked up to turn a quick profit. They lead us down the garden path, the music manufacturers, then turn around and lead the next generation down with a slightly different flavour of glop.
Rabbit feels betrayed. He was reared in a world where war was not strange but change was: the world stood still so you could grow up in it. He knows when the bottom fell out. When they closed down Kroll's, Kroll's that had stood in the centre of Brewer all those years, bigger than a church, older than a courthouse, right at the head of Weiser Square there,... [...] So when the system just upped one summer and decided to close Kroll's down, just because shoppers had stopped coming in because the downtown had become frightening to white people, Rabbit realised the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of money. You just passed through, and they milked you for what you were worth, mostly when you were young and gullible. If Kroll's could go, the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God himself.
  • Once when Harry asked Ed why they didn't go back to Toledo, Ed looked at him with that smartass squint and asked, "You ever been to Toledo?"
  • He could have gone over that night and faced the music but how much music is a man supposed to face?
  • One thing he knows is if he had to give parts of his life back the last thing he'd give back is the fucking.
  • The smell of good advice always makes Rabbit want to run the other way.
  • [coming away from the doctor's after a check-up] Get interested is the advice, but in truth you are interested in less and less. It's Nature's way.
  • "Tell me, Nelson, I'm just curious. How does it feel to have smoked up your parents' house in crack?"
  • No matter how hard you climb, there are always the rich above you, who got there without effort. Lucky stiffs, holding you down, making you discontent so you buy more of the crap advertised on television.

Rabbit Remembered (2000) edit

  • [Janice] Looking back from this distance, she can't think any more that Harry was all to blame for their early troubles, he had just been trying life on too: life and sex and making babies and finding out who you are.
  • Cars used to have such dashing shapes, like airplanes, back when gas was cheap, twenty-five cents a gallon.
  • Like Ronnie said, we're alone. All we have is family, for what it's worth.
  • [Ronnie to Nelson] "For a guy who snorted an entire car agency up his nose, you're one to talk about con games."
  • [Nelson, re. Annabelle] ..."she wants what everybody wants. She wants love."
  • His voice is hurrying, to keep up with his brain.
  • These dysfunctionals make him aware of how functional he is.
  • Each set of woes can be left behind in a folder in a drawer at the end of the day. Whereas in the outside world there is no end of obligation, no protection from the needs and grief of others.
  • [Re Annabelle] ...she is an old maid already. But the bright-eyed flounce with which she sits down and slides her way to the center of the table in the booth suggests that she is still hopeful, still a player in whatever the game is.
  • [Annabelle] " care is an expanding field, as the world fills up with people that would have been dead a hundred years ago. Everybody winds up needing care, pretty much."
  • [Nelson, about Harry] "I saw him, eventually," Nelson says, "as a loser, who never found his niche and floated along on Mom's money, which was money her father made. [...] But being a loser wasn't the way my father saw himself. He saw himself as a winner, and until I was twelve or so I saw him the same way."
  • If society is the prison, families are the cells, with no time off for good behavior. Good behavior in fact tends to lengthen the sentence.
  • Family occasions have always given Janice some pain, assembling like a grim jury these people to whom we owe something, first our parents and elders and then our children and their children. One of the things she and Harry secretly had in common, beneath all their troubles, was dislike of all that, these expected ceremonies.
  • Who would have thought that the Internet, that's supposed to knit the world into a shining tyranny-proof ball, would be so grubbily adolescent?
  • [Mim, to Nelson, about Annabelle, aged 39] "This little nursie's not your problem. At thirty-nine, everybody's their own problem..."
  • [Mim to Nelson] "Your father wasn't stupid, he just acted stupid."
  • [Mim, to Nelson, after discussing Annabelle's stepfather being dead] "More and more is dead, are you old enough to notice? Vegas is dead, the way it was. [...] Now it's herds. Herds and herds of Joe Nobodies. Bozos. The hoi pollio, running up credit-card debt. Gambling is legal in half the states so they've built these huge moron-catchers along the Strip, all the way to the airport. A Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, Venice – it's all here, Nelson, all for the morons. It's depressing as hell."
  • [Mim, to Nelson, about Annabelle] "She's letting herself go. You can't afford in life to do that if you're gonna contend."
  • Nelson wonders why, no matter how cheerful and blameless the day's activities have been, when you wake in the middle of the night there is guilt in the air, a gnawing feeling of everything being slightly off, wrong – you in the wrong, and the world too, as if darkness is a kind of light that shows us the depth we are about to fall into.
  • [Nelson, to Annabelle] "The misery of the world," he says, reaching into himself to overcome her resistance. "That's what I kept thinking during my group this morning – the pity of everything, all of us, these confused souls trying so pathetically hard to break out of the fog – to see through our compulsions, our needs as they chew us up..."
  • [Nelson] "...People are crazy. At times when I'm with clients I can't see the difference between them and me, except for the structure we're all in. I get paid, a little, and they get taken care of, a little."
  • All this probing and grappling we must do, out in society: how much easier, Annabelle thinks, it is to stay in rooms you know as well as your own body, having a warm meal and an evening of television, where it's all so comfortably one-way.
  • "Well," his father says, "I'll say this for Slick Willie, he's brought the phrase out in the open. When I was young you had to explain to girls what it was. They could hardly believe they were supposed to do it."
  • ...they were nobodies in the county, they would leave nothing behind but their headstones.
  • [Nelson, about Pru] She had complained for years about living with his mother and Ronnie and about his dead-end job babysitting these pathetic dysfunctionals, boosting his own ego at their expense, caring more about them than he did about his own wife and children, but what it boiled down to in his baffled mind was something she once shouted, her green eyes bright as broken glass in her reddened face: My life with you is too small. Too small. As if being a greaseball lawyer's input organiser and easy lay was bigger. But the size of a life is how you feel about it.
  • [Nelson, re watching TV] He watches until he feels his intelligence being too rudely insulted or his patience being too arrogantly tested by the commercials...
  • "Did Nelson ever tell you the story," Pru asks Annabelle, "how he lost the agency up his nose?"

Salon interview (2000) edit

Interview at
It's no disgrace to, in the end, restore order. And punish the wicked and, in some way, reward the righteous.
  • It was true of my generation, that the movies were terribly vivid and instructive. There were all kinds of things you learned. Like the 19th century novels, you saw how other social classes lived — especially the upper classes. So in a funny way, they taught you manners almost. But also moral manners. The gallantry of a Gary Cooper or an Errol Flynn or Jimmy Stewart. It was ethical instruction of a sort that the church purported to be giving you, but in a much less digestible form. Instead of these remote, crabbed biblical verses, you had contemporary people acting out moral dilemmas. Just the grace, the grace of those stars — not just the dancing stars, but the way they all moved with a certain grace. All that sank deep into my head, and my soul.
  • In the old movies, yes, there always was the happy ending and order was restored. As it is in Shakespeare's plays. It's no disgrace to, in the end, restore order. And punish the wicked and, in some way, reward the righteous.
  • When I was a boy, the bestselling books were often the books that were on your piano teacher's shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership. But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don't feel that now. I don't feel that we have the merger of serious and pop — it's gone, dissolving. Tastes have coarsened. People read less, they're less comfortable with the written word.
  • An author that's in now might be out in ten years. And vice-versa. Who knows when the final sifting is done, in the year 2050, say, who will be read of my generation? You'd like to think you will be one. But there has to be a constant weeding that goes on. The Victorians read all kinds of writers who we don't have time for now. Who reads Thackeray? An educated person reads Dickens, or reads some Dickens. But Thackeray?

Quotes about Updike edit

John Updike's genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. ~ Joyce Carol Oates
  • Bellow, Updike and Heller started very differently, but their own lives are octopuses taking up more and more space in their books: their divorces etc...Even Updike's The Coup which is set among blacks in Africa is a book about John Updike. Clever, erudite, elegant, yes—but just compare it with A Bend in the River...
    • 1979 interview in Conversations with Nadine Gordimer edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (1990)
  • He left the self-conscious literary demimonde of New York for the quiet infidelities of New England.
  • John Updike's genius is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies.
    • Joyce Carol Oates, in John Updike : A Collection of Critical Essays (1979) by David Thorburn and Howard Eiland, p. 53

…that steadily remarkable literary voice

  • I can't stand him. Nobody will think to ask because I'm supposedly jealous; but I out-sell him. I'm more popular than he is, and I don't take him very seriously … He goes grumbling away on those born with silver spoons in their mouths — oh, he comes on like the worker's son, like a modern-day D.H. Lawrence, but he's just another boring little middle-class boy hustling his way to the top if he can do it.
    • Gore Vidal, Comment on the UK radio show Front Row (23 May 2008)

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