“Was I clever enough? Was I charming?” – John Updike

This book review in the New York Times about a a biography by Adam Begley about John Updike (an author whose work I happen to like so very much) made me think about desperation and narcissism. (Not the book review specifically, but about what it says about John Updike.)

And it made me a little sad.

From the piece, by Dwight Garner:

John Updike (1932-2009) grew up to like high spirits, gags, party games. At The Harvard Lampoon, where he became editor, he organized elaborate pranks that required great mounds of elephant dung and the destruction of cars. At The New Yorker, he’d pretend to faint in elevators. He played Twister and Botticelli at his dinner parties. If things got dull, he’d fall off a couch.

He satirized his need to entertain in an early poem called “Thoughts While Driving Home”:

Was I clever enough? Was I charming?

Did I make at least one good pun?

Was I disconcerting? Disarming?

Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

I’m not saying whether or not Updike was a narcissist – I have no idea. But the need to be liked, to be “just right”…these things, while present in all of us, are present in toxic degrees in a narcissist.

Also from the piece:

That Updike had affairs, sometimes with his friends’ wives, is not news. “I drank up women’s tears and spat them out,” he declared in one late poem, “as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital.”

Brutal honesty? Bragging? Brilliant writing? Maybe all.

But also a desperation, if I read between the lines.

Which is the thing about the disease of narcissism, so much time must be spent reading between lines and in the reflection of mirrors.

Again, here is the link to the piece:

A Writerly Life, Beneath the Surface – ‘Updike,’ Adam Begley’s Look at a Novelist’s Career