I have been one of the few to extract a plausible living from a bookshop. When I was hired to work at Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Whitman had recently taken over running the place from her father, George. She wanted a permanent staff to confront the multitudes who flooded in on a daily basis, and she knew a good salary would keep people around. I was glad Sylvia was my boss. She was sweet and even tempered, while George was known to be irascible and unpredictable. Furthermore, everyone told me that George “didn’t like men.” (At one of his heralded Sunday breakfasts, he spied a single boy among the crowd of young female admirers and remarked, with narrowed eyes, “There’s a weed in my flower garden.”)
My shift lasted from 6 p.m. to midnight. Sylvia warned me that George often came down in the evening, after she’d gone home, to engage in sabotage. Father and daughter were embroiled in a simmering conflict over “improvements.” Telephone, or cash register, or books organized by genre — George was revolted by the idea. A few weeks earlier, under orders from the French authorities, the famously-treacherous staircase, described by Anaïs Nin as “unbelievable,” was taken down and replaced by a wider, sturdier, more conventional thing. Enraged, George attacked it with a hammer. The night of my first shift, I sat at the register, nervous that he would renew his assault. What should I do if he appeared with that hammer again? But when he turned up midway through the evening, it was not the stairs he had in mind. A friend was coming from Atlantic City. We needed another bed! Ignoring the line of waiting customers, George ordered me to climb out onto the dilapidated roof (of the 16th-century building) to retrieve a piece of rotting plywood, skewered with nails. I obliged, of course. Later, he brought me gluey pancakes, which I clandestinely flushed down the toilet.
When readings were held outside the shop, George would sometimes throw chewed pieces of chicken out the fourth-story window. This was a snack for Colette, the shop dog. We all prayed the scraps would not fall on the author. George was thrillingly indifferent to appearances. When Bill Clinton visited, he descended in his pajamas to inform the former president that he had “betrayed his principals,” by executing a mentally-disabled man during his tenure as governor of Arkansas.
George was epically and, at times, autocratically uninterested in anything convenient, orderly, or efficient. Cell phones? Computers? Kindles? No thanks. If we organized the books, he disorganized them. If we brought in the cleaners, he was livid. Cockroaches roamed and flourished. The wishing well was raided constantly by gypsies. George didn’t care; as long as people had books.
Over the course of 60 years, he gave shelter to almost 40,000 people, many of that desperate genre: the aspiring writer. When I worked at the shop, we would often find scraps of paper under the stairwell that revealed themselves to be thank you notes to George from people like Langston Hughes or Graham Greene or Jacqueline Onassis. And so I, and the many thousands of others who passed through, add our not-quite-as-illustrious thank you notes to theirs.
Photo courtesy of Harriet Lye.
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.