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Non-fiction reviews


John Updike - Self-Consciousness

21 December 1989

Memoirs by John Updike
Andre Deutsch

Published in The Age

The 57-year-old John Updike wrote these memoirs when he heard that a biography was in the offing - that someone wanted "to take my life, my lode of ore and heap of memories, from me!" He found the idea "repulsive", and set about pre-empting it.

These are six different pieces: dealing with Updike's childhood in smalltown America, his psoriaitic skin, his stutter, his patriotism, the generations comprising his family - down to his grandsons - and his spirituality.

Fortunately he rarely sticks to the subject. For example the piece on stuttering, Getting the Words Out, in dealing with the whole psychopathology of his stutter, takes us through his childhood, his attempts at public speaking, his asthma, his divorce, and many other things. Each excursion is beautifully executed - as the first paragraph promises:

My first memory of the sensation [stuttering] is associated with our Shillington neighbor, Eddie Pritchard, a somewhat larger boy than I whom I was trying, on the sidewalk in front of our houses, to reason into submission. I think he was calling me "Ostrich", a nickname I did not think I deserved, and a fear of being misunderstood or mistaken for somebody else has accompanied the impediment ever since. There seems so much about me to explain - all of it subsumable under the heading of "I am not an ostrich" - that when freshly encountering, say, a bored and hurried electrician over the telephone, my voice tends to seize up.

He then digresses for 25 pages into everything from his early stories to mid-life crisis, making little attempt, in the end, to draw the threads together: this story, like most of the others, is an unashamed ramble.

Were this book a "proper" biography, it would need to be taken apart bit by bit and reassembled according to chronology and subject. But it works admirably as a patchwork.

Updike's long, elegant sentences are liable to cause panic among the neo-illiterates of the modern education system, but will deeply satisfy the persistent. It struck me, for the first time, how like John Fowles he writes. Appearances are carefully lifted aside, meanings gently examined - themes and characters built over hundreds of dispassionate pages. He is learned:

Your father is black, the pure black of West Africa, his color sealed off by the Sahara from the north and by the breadth of a continent from the infusions of Arab and Hamitic genes that have rendered East Africans comparatively pale. Genealogists tell us that we are all cousins, with common ancestors surprisingly few generations in the past; but when the strains that met in you last met, it must have been early in the history of the human race, when men were outnumbered by lions and tigers.

And honest:

The relentless domestic realism of my fiction implied a self-exemption from normal intra-familial courtesy, and my own handicaps left me, if anything, less than normally tolerant of others': confronted with another stutterer, for example, I wonder why he just doesn't stop trying to talk.

And philosophical:

The faith in an afterlife, however much our reason ridicules it, very modestly extends our faith that each moment of our consciousness will be followed by another - that a coherent matrix has been prepared for this precious self of ours. The guarantee that our self enjoys an intended relation to the outer world is most, if not all, of what we ask from religion. God is the self projected onto reality by our natural and necessary optimism. He is the not-me personified.

These "pieces" are unclassifiable really: at once essays and stories; sociology and fun. Too long for a newspaper; too personal for a professional journal - many of them were originally published in The New Yorker, that bastion of style and ideas which too few Australians get to read.

Perhaps the hardest this constitutionally soft man gets is in On Not Being a Dove - his apologia for his pro-Vietnam War stance. His arguments are sensitive, not belligerent, and will ring bells for those who could never quite come at the Viet Cong as the embodiment of all good. He strives very hard to be fair to all sides...and yet his fairness extends only as far as his patriotism permits. For example he "thought it sad that our patriotic myth of invincible virtue was crashing, and shocking that so many Americans were gleeful at the crash".

Why? The American democracy had long since been subverted. What would Updike's liberal heroes have made of taxpayers donating $25 billion per year to the CIA? Did he think Nixon and Kissinger, as custodians of authority, were benignly simple figures like his hometown mayor?

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