Books Interview: John Updike - the Big Picture ; Never Mind the Pollocks: John Updike Denies That He Stole the Life of American Painting's Most Celebrated Couple. John Freeman Talks Art with the Tireless Novelist in New York

By Drabble, Portrait Neil | The Independent (London, England), April 26, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Books Interview: John Updike - the Big Picture ; Never Mind the Pollocks: John Updike Denies That He Stole the Life of American Painting's Most Celebrated Couple. John Freeman Talks Art with the Tireless Novelist in New York


Drabble, Portrait Neil, The Independent (London, England)


LONG BEFORE he began writing novels, John Updike wanted to be a cartoonist. "Mickey Mouse and I are the same age," says the twinkle- eyed novelist on a recent afternoon visit to the New York offices of his American publisher, Alfred A Knopf. "Disney used to make movies about working in his studio. So I had a fairly clear imagine of what [a cartoonist's life] looked like, but I didn't quite know how to get from Shillington, Pennsylvania, to Burbank."

Instead, Updike, now 70, landed in suburban Massachusetts, where he launched a barrage of novels, stories, poems, criticism, plays and children's books unparalleled in modern American literature. With his 20th novel, Seek My Face (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99), the author draws upon his unrequited love affair with the art world to create Hope Chafetz, a 79-year-old painter who, as Updike describes it, witnessed the "go-go days of Abstract Expressionism" and lived to tell the tale.

Seek My Face takes place in one day during an interview that Hope grants to one Kathryn D'Angelo, a twentysomething art historian from New York. Their conversation snags on Hope's early years, when she was married to Zack McCoy, a volcanically talented artist based on Jackson Pollock.

While he lived in New York during the time that Pollock was gaining fame, Updike never crossed paths with the great painter, never hoisted a glass with him at the Cedar Tavern. That was not his scene.

"Art, however," he says, "was in the air." In the late Fifties, Updike had just returned from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford and was in the process of discovering he would not be a painter. "I used to paint these still lives," he says with a chuckle.

For all his self-deprecation, Updike has nurtured a serious interest in art ever since, writing essays on exhibitions for Art Forum, The New Yorker, and other publications. They were eventually brought together in the collection Just Looking (1989). He is also almost continuously involved in the production of his books, sometimes even bringing in jacket sketches and ideas for how he'd like them to look.

And yet, Seek My Face is less an exorcism of Updike's failed career as an artist as it is an exploration of another man's tremendous success, and how that success undid him. Not surprisingly, Pollock casts a long shadow over the novel, something that has earned Updike some harsh criticisms in America.

In a scathing review, the principal New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani complained that "Zack's life is such a carbon copy of Jackson Pollock's that the novel reads like a graceless rewriting of recent art history."

When asked about the complaint, Updike, who speaks in low, measured tones, winces briefly, then smiles and says, "Why not hang fairly close to the facts, which are so nicely set forward in a number of books, but especially the book that I credit, the big biography? I sort of saw the facts as the flowerpot out of which something surprising would grow."

Indeed, while Hope does resemble Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, many of the details of her early and later life are invented, as is her interior world. The novel eventually moves on to Hope's marriages to husbands two and three, a pop artist and a financier respectively, neither of whom match up for Krasner.

Like Updike himself, who fled New York in the late Fifties for the peace and quiet of New England, Hope moves to Vermont, where she settles into a long, slow life of eating organic food and growing into her own gift for painting.

The big story of Seek My Face, then, is not its insight into postwar American art, but the unlikely bond between Hope and Kathryn that develops during their conversation about it. "The intimacy is set by Hope," Updike explains, "who comes out pretty confessional, pretty breezy, pretty aware that on one side you have her exciting bohemian life.

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Books Interview: John Updike - the Big Picture ; Never Mind the Pollocks: John Updike Denies That He Stole the Life of American Painting's Most Celebrated Couple. John Freeman Talks Art with the Tireless Novelist in New York
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