There's always something ridiculous and over the top about attending a Seattle Arts & Lectures event at Benaroya Hall. It could be that all the pomp and circumstance around a book reading seems a bit much, or perhaps the overkill feeling is, in part, thanks to the gigantic twin Chihuly chandeliers in the lobby—sculptures that appear to represent nothing so much as mutant sperm fighting vigorously to impregnate a parsnip. Last Wednesday, November 12, was a more ridiculous SAL pre-event vibe than usual. The hall had the impatient energy of a stadium rock concert by someone like Springsteen: "I want to get good seats," a woman scolded her husband as they arrived and saw the enormous crowd. "I want to get a good long look at him."
The "him" in question is John Updike, a man who needs no introduction, but who unfortunately (and in an unfortunate manner) was introduced. SAL's executive director, Linda Bowers, immediately drove the proceedings over the cliff of stale literary-criticism terms. She referred to Updike's ability to capture "existential angst" (pronounced, of course, ONGST) and "lyrical particularity," especially while reporting on the "staggering beauty of nature and of art" and "giving the mundane its beautiful due." One man in the crowd shouted until his voice cracked—"WHOOOOO!"—when Updike appeared, as though an in-their-prime Skynyrd had just deigned to play "Free Bird."
Lots of younger readers shit-talk Updike with the same tone of unnecessary rebellion that teenagers have to put up against even the most decent and loving of fathers. His writing style—slathering beautiful sentences one atop the other until you have a complete, gorgeous work—is not currently in vogue with the young literary mafia. But when you hear the man talk, you realize this is who he is: Updike speaks in complete, punctuated sentences, and every word is perfectly chosen.
He was interviewed by David Guterson, who confronted Updike with about a dozen intensely researched and thoughtfully worded variations on the old "Where do you get your ideas from?" question. "I know there's something wrong with someone who has written 60 books," Updike said of his body of work, but "the end is in sight" and it will be "a relief to not work on novels" anymore. Thankfully, to celebrate the Seattle Art Museum's new Edward Hopper exhibition, Updike was also interviewed by SAM curator of American art Patti Junker, who had the good sense to put some enormous Hopper slides on a screen above the stage and simply ask Updike to talk about them.
It was touching how this white-haired man, with his giant reputation, looked so small and thin and frail and generally every bit of his 76 years in his tailored gray suit, standing at the edge of the stage with his back to the audience and looking up at the paintings. "I can taste the dust in the plush," he said of one painting, and he remarked on the "wonderful Hopper silence" within the "box of light" of another, and that "it is not Hopper's way to say if" a woman in the painting "is happy or unhappy." By the end of the critiques, it seemed as though there was nothing left in the hall but Updike's reassuring, measured voice and Hopper's thick square pools of color. It was worth all the crazy adulation for this singular experience: the sound of an unparalleled intellect looking at a masterpiece and precisely, and beautifully, describing exactly what he saw.