April 22, 2014

Book Club: A Tale of Two Biographies

'Cheever: a life' by Blake Bailey
'Updike' by Adam Begley

I kept coming back to this question when I thought about two biographies I have read recently on deceased authors John Updike and John Cheever. "Does a screwed up childhood make a author more interesting?"

Let me say upfront I've read almost all of John Cheever's short stories and the novel 'Falconer'. For Updike I've read his first Rabbit book, 'The Centaur", and a book with his collected short stories from his early years. Comparing the books and short stories together I prefer Cheever much more than anything Updike has produced.

Cheever's short stories and his novel "Falconer" have depth and sadness to them bordering on the sublime. Updike's short stories and novels are written well but they have an emptiness in them. Updike's work doesn't make me sit back and think like Cheever's work does. And after reading two biographies on both men you can see where everything differs except their names.

'Cheever: a life' thoroughly examines just how screwed up the Cheever family was. First off poor John was an unwanted kid, always in the shadow of his brother. In fact his relationship with his brother was a little bit strange. John had homosexual, incestuous feelings for his brother that he kept hidden for many years until he had a homosexual relationship with a younger man after he kicked alcohol (more on this later). And this is just a small slice of Cheever's life!

Cheever struggled all his life trying to create a novel. He was definitely a master at the short story and dominated The New Yorker's fiction department for many years. Cheever struggled though with novels. Even after the success of The 'Wapshot Chronicle', which is basically just one long short story, Cheever struggled with the novel. He could never produce novels at such a high rate like Updike.

Success also came very late in Cheever's life. 'Falconer', written and published in the mid-70's, finally brought Cheever the success he craved. "The Stories of John Cheever" finally brought him the Pulitzer. By that time though too much alcohol abuse had finally taken it's toll on Cheever and he passed away in 1982 at the age of 70.

Cheever's screwed up childhood, his alcoholism, his homosexual feelings all lead to some of the greatest short stories I've read and one of the most impactful novels in 'Falconer' that I've read.

Updike was the polar opposite of Cheever despite their same first name. Updike was born during the depression but from this biography it sounded like his parents never struggled as badly as other people during this time. Growing up in that time did lead to Updike being a penny-pincher the rest of his life.

Updike though grew up the complete opposite of Cheever. He had the doting parents, especially his mother which Cheever didn't have, went to school at Harvard, which Cheever wanted to attend but couldn't and pretty much had success writing novels right away and at a high amount.

Probably the most interesting part of the 'Updike' biography was his relationship with his two wives. Updike cheated on his first wife relentlessly and fell in love with his neighbor's wife. Updike and his first wife Mary finally divorced and he married his second wife Martha.

And this is where things actually become interesting with Updike. Adam Begley filet's Martha like a fish in the book. She's painted as a gold-digger who's only mission was to keep Updike writing until the day he died. She kept his children away and even kept Mary away when Updike was on his death bed. She's definitely the most interesting part of the 'Updike' book.

And this is where I keep returning to my question. Does a screwed up childhood make an author's work more interesting?

Cheever clearly had the more interesting and painful life and it showed in his work. He was vastly more cynical towards life and family than Updike. Unlike Updike though that screwed up life prevented Cheever from the mass production that Updike was able to achieve.

Updike on the other hand actually turned into the person he was meant to be. A Harvard prodigy who became an assembly line publishing everything from novels to short stories to poems to art criticism. His easier life than Cheever lead to more production but it didn't lead to more depth.

This also leads to another issue. Would you rather have greater quality of work or a mass amount of work that is still talked about today? I'd rather have the tortured life with the better quality but that's just me.

1 comment:

  1. Updike was like a donut. Delicious on the outside, empty in the middle.