Roth vs Updike. No, no, it’s Roth and Updike…
Roth or Updike, Updike or Roth… I have never been able to make up my mind about whom, between the two titans, I admire more.
I have always been torn between these two heroes of mine, and I have been thinking about the matter again after having reviewed John Updike’s posthumously published collection, My Father’s Tears & Other Stories.
Roth is 76 now, and his magnificent late period (starting with Sabbath’s Theatre in 1995) has established him – especially with Updike now being dead – as the greatest living American novelist. The power of his late work (from the frenzy and energy of Sabbath’s Theatre and American Pastoral to the pared-down bleakness of Everyman and Exit Ghost) is resonant of a writer at the top of his game. Few of his peers (JM Coetzee, VS Naipaul, Milan Kundera) can match either his prolific nature or his quality. He has a new novel out later this year.
Updike, killed by cancer in January 2009 at the age of 76, had, by the time he entered his late phase, left his greatest work well behind him. Rabbit at Rest (1990) was his last great novel. After that, I can’t think of anything that rivalled the euphonic, transcendental magic of his best work – although Updike, even when nowhere close to his best, was a better writer than most others.
They both had their indisputable masterpieces: Updike with the four Rabbit novels, and probably the early stories; and Roth, with American Pastoral and Everyman from his late phase, and The Counterlife (1986) from his middle period.
Roth is still very much at it; Updike is no longer. But they had great respect for each other.
This is Roth on Updike on the back cover of my edition of My Father’s Tears & Other Stories: “Our time’s greatest man of letters – as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short-story writer. His death constitutes a loss to our literature that is immeasurable.”
And this is Updike on Roth on the front cover of Roth’s raucous, frenetic, mid-period novel, The Anatomy Lesson: “A ferocious, heartfelt book… Lavish with laughs and flamboyant inventions.”
You know what? I think Roth said it. Updike was, among his generation, America’s greatest man of letters; and Roth is the country’s greatest living novelist.
I genuflect before both. And I needn’t make up my mind about who I admire more. It doesn’t matter.
What do you think?
Can you think of other literary heroes you are torn between.