Proust Goes to the Country Club
At a largely forgettable class reunion, remembrances of things past
By Willard Spiegelman
As he lay dying of cancer in a Boston hospital, John Updike composed a sonnet sequence, “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth 12/13/08,” that ranks with his best work in verse and even prose. Clear-sighted, sober, but witty, unlike many deathbed works, the poems acknowledge feelings of wonder and gratitude. The poet looks at his surround—the equipment, the noise, and the doctors and nurses—and he also takes a backward glance at his early years as a schoolboy in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He thanks his classmates, childhood friends, a mere hundred, because they showed him, in miniature, all the human types he would make use of later on: “beauty, / bully, hanger-on, natural, / twin, and fatso.”
And he continues, more self-consciously, to consider the possibility that “we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life.” He knew the town; the town knew him, and it stayed with him forever, especially after he left it: “I had to move/ to beautiful New England—its triple/ deckers, whited churches, unplowed streets—/ to learn how drear and deadly life can be.” Shillington gave Updike all he needed as an artist, nurturing him as a young man. And like Joyce, who fled Dublin but never truly escaped it, Updike had to get away to realize what he had been given.
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Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and the editor-in-chief of the Southwest Review. His most recent book is Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness.