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Culture

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: John Updike Le lièvre ne court plus

by A. N.

John Updike: The rabbit stops running

Obituary.

Translated Tuesday 10 February 2009, by Philip Taylor

Obituary.

John Updike, author of the Rabbit novels and Couples, is dead.

The sarcastic bard of the hopes and disappointments of the American middle-class has died from lung cancer at the age of seventy-six. The double Pulitzer prize winner, also known for his gentle and vicious contributions to The New Yorker, was born on 18 March 1932, on a farm in the small Pennsylvanian borough of Shillington. It was there that he grew up, an only child whose mother was obsessed with writing. He attended Harvard on a scholarship, as well as studying graphic arts at the Ruskin School in Oxford. Already, at the young age of twenty-seven, he published the enormously successful Rabbit, Run. This was the first in a series of five novels devoted to average American Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, afflicted with the Madame Bovary syndrome and who seeks to escape the mediocrity of his existence. Angstrom was to grow resigned to his lot, then become rich, finally coming to peace with himself as the end drew near. Two of the books in this series, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, won Updike a pair of Pulitzer Prizes, in 1971 and 1990.

It was in 1968 that Updike reiterated the same themes, with Couples, a ferocious novel on the illusion of being sexually emancipated in small-town America. “In a man’s lifetime, the three most secret things are Sex, Art and Religion”, he once said. While not exactly a puritan, Updike, the grandson of a Presbyterian minister, had deep Christian faith. Yet his approach was far from a conservative one. As he stated in 2005, “Rabbit and I have both been pleasantly surprised, in the course of the last fifty years, by the decline of puritanism in the fields of morality, law, and female fashion”. It was, in fact, due to his anti-conformism and his nostalgia for the traditional values of New England that John Updike set about exposing the illusions of the individualist quest for happiness.

For the sake of of those same American values, he published Terrorist in 2006, a novel which explores the motivations of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, an eighteen-year-old American Muslim manipulated by fundamentalists. Critiques of the book were particularly harsh in the aftermath of 911. Earlier, he had revisited the literature of the fantastic, American-style, with the publication of The Witches of Eastwick in 1984, whose success as a film largely dissipated feminist suspicions of misogyny. A less convincing sequel, The Widows of Eastwick, appeared last year.

Having published twenty-five novels, a dozen collections of short stories and several volumes of poetry, Updike occupies a leading place in American letters.


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