Updike and the Witching Hour


Ever since the entire drama surrounding Harry Potter and the Twilight series has somewhat faded, there seems to be an uncanny gap before readers or movie buffs experience any more witching antics. A bit of  googling online brought me to dwell somehow on the almost bookshelved Witches of Eastwick (1984), its filming and its never filmed sequel Widows of Eastwick (1998) written by John Updike.

Updike, whose 3rd death anniversary will fall at the end of this very month of January, was born on 18th March 1932 and succumbed to lung cancer on 27th January 2009. The only child of a mathematician father and a literary minded mother, he had the right atmosphere to bloom into a ‘distinguished Christian person of letters’ according to Jesuit magazine America which gave him its Campion Award in 1997. His initial sickly disposition troubled with psoriasis and stammering led to an interest in writing encouraged by his mother. His father provided the impetus for the ‘sympathetic father figure’ of his early work.

His childhood memories of the towns of Reading and Shillington were the later setting for the fictional Brewer and Olinger of his novels. Egged on by a passion to write, he worked in a local newspaper, graduated in English from Harvard and as an undergraduate at the same, had honed his story writing and drawing skills while working for the oldest humour magazine – The Harvard Lampoon; which had attracted him to Harvard in the first place.

A true son of the earth, Updike drew inspiration from the cluttered life on the margins using the American idiom as his canvas. Perhaps the most illustrative example can be found in his two times Pulitzer Prize winning portions of the “Rabbit” saga comprising of four novels, wherein the circumstances surrounding the life of its main protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom are shown against the backdrop of the social and sexual upheavals of the 1960s and onwards till the final AIDS ridden reflux of the 1980’s in ‘Rabbit’s Rest’.

A frank style of writing which held no room for obliqueness brought both fame and criticism for the content of his works. Redoubtable as he was, “Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible… but they dare to go it alone,” was the only answer he would give to this onslaught. Alone however, he did not remain. The Times, paid him the tribute of a feature story soon after his writing the novel ‘Couples’ in 1968 portraying the complicated liaisons of married suburban couples. On the other hand, all his writing is subtly steeped in theoretical and existentialist yearnings. He was an avid church goer and wherever possible used metaphors and symbols to bring forth philosophical questions.

Updike worked with most genres of prose as well as poetry including sonnets. His poems were light and amusing, characterised by attention to sounds and usage of colloquial language utilizing even brand names and imitating advertising jargon.

Perseverance, hard work and dedication became his personal axioms ever since he left The New Yorker, preferring a secluded existence in Massachusetts and raising his family on the returns of his writing alone. However, during his two year stint at the magazine, whence he had started his career, he had attained a fondness enough for it, to regularly contribute short stories, poems and reviews to it, throughout his life. Early on in his writing career, he initiated and maintained a rigid routine – writing diligently in a rented room for several hours six days a week.

Small wonder then that Updike received so many awards in his lifetime including the rare honour of being the third American to win the Pulitzer for Fiction twice and both the National Medal for Art (1989) and the National Medal for Humanities (2003).

Several of Updike’s works have been adapted for films. The most noteworthy amongst these are the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run as a full length film in 1970, the short story A&P (1961) produced as a 17 minute short in 1996, and Pigeon Feathers (1962) made for TV in 1987. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) produced in 1987 with a stellar cast comprising among others Jack Nicholson and Susan Sarandon, was well received and it remains to be seen if the recently written Widows of Eastwick (2008) has a similar fate in store.  Perhaps it is the lull before the witching hour strikes thirteen.

Photo courtesy: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/aug/12/television.usa

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