Updike – a review of a review

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I read so many book reviews that I often feel far more well-read than I actually am.

“Oh yes,” I say, affecting an air knowledgeable nonchalance when asked about a certain book.  “I know it.  It received great reviews.”  Chances are I’ll never get around to reading it, though.  And does that matter?  A good book review is an end in itself, as enjoyable and informative to read as any other essay form.

Just such an example of a fascinating review can be found here, in the Times Literary Supplement.  The book in question is the literary biography Updike, by Adam Begley.  I’ve never read any of Updike’s work and am unlikely to read this biography but the review provides a fascinating examination of the biographer’s task.

“Pity the biographer whose subject led an uneventful life.”  Or the unauthorised biographer who, as in this case, was denied access to many primary documents.  Begley therefore resorts to winnowing facts about Updike’s life from Updike’s short stories.  Apparently Updike’s tales of marital infidelity were more fact than fiction.

“The task of a biographer, however, is to outline the subject’s character, to answer the question invariably asked of those who have touched the garment: What was he like?…[But] treating the question What was he like? in a different way would produce a different response.”

Well of course it would.  Every biographer takes the facts and shapes them into a narrative.  That narrative belongs to the biographer, not to the subject.  This is a crucial point, often overlooked.  This biography is not Updike’s story.  It is Begley’s version of Updike’s story; a representation of Updike’s story.

And therein lies our enjoyment of biography.  If we wanted the facts we could, often, go to the primary sources ourselves.  What we want, though, is the narrative.

What we want is a story.

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