Tuesday, January 27, 2009
When I read today that John Updike had died, all I could think about was an afternoon two years ago where I quite possibly saw Mr. Updike, or else it was just another elderly gentleman who looked much like him.
It was a chill, rainy day in Paris in March, and I decided to warm myself up with the famous hot chocolate chez Angelina, the fancy Parisian tearoom. Their signature beverage is called chocolat chaud à l'africaine--a name that originated in the early part of last century and thus is probably racist--comes in a miniature pitcher and is the thickest, richest hot chocolate you've ever had in your life. I ordered it with a brioche, which might have raised the waiters' eyebrows because it is not customary, I believe, to eat brioche after lunchtime, but I needed some kind of food with it yet couldn't handle the sugar shock of trying one of Angelina's fancy desserts as well.
The tearoom is located along the Rue de Rivoli, across from the Tuileries; splendidly refined, it's the kind of place that in America would be called a "ladies-who-lunch restaurant." Cream-painted woodwork with gold highlights, high ceilings, marble-topped tables; it feels frozen in time in the Belle Epoque. I should have done more observing and people-watching, but I felt self-conscious being there all alone, and buried myself in a book I was reading for class; was it Salammbô?
Then, as I got up to leave, I turned around to put on my coat and, seated alone at the little table behind me, was the man I could've sworn was John Updike. He was white-haired, with what I believed to be Updike's same distinctive profile and eyes retreating into the folds of his skin. He was well-dressed in a forest-green sweater, which I decided was the kind of preppy East Coast garment that Updike would wear. So I felt the shock of recognition; but what could I do? I was by no means certain that this was Mr. Updike, and even if it were, what would I say to him? "Are you John Updike? Well, that's cool, but I've never actually read any of your books"? (You must remember that I pretty much constantly feel guilty that I haven't read all of the world's great works of literature or all of its most acclaimed authors, even though I am still so young! And thus, in this case, I felt guilty that at the age of 19, I hadn't read any Updike except perhaps a short-story like "A&P.")
Before I left the restaurant, I used the bathroom, which was located on the upstairs mezzanine level and gave me another opportunity to spy on the supposed Mr. Updike from a more distant perch, but again, I could come to no conclusions as to whether it was him or not, and simply left the restaurant.
Galignani, a famous English-language bookshop, is on Rue de Rivoli a few doors down from Angelina, so I ran to the fiction section there and hunted out John Updike's books, seeking an author photo to compare with my memory of the face I had just seen in the restaurant. Yes, there was definitely a strong resemblance, but nothing conclusive enough to alleviate my doubts. I wondered if perhaps the bookshop was hosting Updike for some event, a reading or lecture, but that didn't seem to be the case. I checked the French newspapers for mentions of his name over the next couple of days, but did not find it; and thus, I will never know for certain.
It's a strange little story and probably not worthy of the old man's memory, but as of today it's all that I have. Yes, two years have gone by and I've still never read an Updike novel, perhaps because there doesn't seem to be one novel of his that people single out as best. They just say "Read Updike" without suggesting where, in his lengthy oeuvre, one should start. Perhaps some of the obituaries will help clear that up, and highlight his best works. I did become more familiar with Updike's work as a book reviewer in The New Yorker, and in fact, at the moment am halfway through a book that Updike championed in 2004: The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer.
Rest in peace, Mr. Updike; and if it was you on that dank dreary day in Paris, I hope you enjoyed your hot chocolate.
Explanation of image: I believe I took this photo outside Angelina on the same damp day that I possibly saw Updike. It doesn't have anything to do with him, per se.