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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Updike: diagnostician of the human condition

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 20 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2948
  1. John Quin, consultant physician, Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton
  1. john.quin{at}

    The late, great John Updike’s last work is a sequence of poems about his final illness. John Quin asks whether there can be a more doughty chronicler of physical decline

    John Updike, who died in January, was by some distance the most prodigiously gifted and prolific of contemporary American literary masters. His metaphorical gifts were exceptional, and his observational skills led to conclusions as persistently correct as the bottom line of all those New England Journal of Medicine case reports. You could say after a reading of his work that with great accuracy a diagnostic procedure had been performed.

    Here, in his last collection of poetry, we find him settling into “that decade in which, I’m told, most people die.” Age he must, but “die I would rather not.” And yet he knows of course that he will. Plaintively he requests, “Be with me, words, a little longer.” Being the doughty chronicler he was (“Our time’s greatest man of letters,” Philip Roth said) he must set it all down, even the …

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