Citizen Updike

Self-Consciousness: Memoirs

by John Updike
Knopf, 257 pp., $18.95

John Updike, the dazzling author, appeared, and still appears, to be one of Augustine’s “fair and fit”—and never more so than when viewed among his male literary colleagues who often tend to show the lump and bump of gene, bad habits, the spread and paste of a lifetime spent taking one’s own dictation. For this tall, and one wants to say still young, man, despite certain dwindling-days, September-song modulations in the composition of his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, everything seemed to fall into place. An only child, treasured by nice intelligent parents who, if not particularly well-to-do, were prosperous in respect and plausibility; born in a pleasant Pennsylvania village, Shillington, with its “idle alleys and darkened four-square houses,” its high school, movie house, stores, avenues and streets whose names will have on his pages the curved beauty of Havana and Caracas, even if they are Pennwyn and Lynoak.

Updike went on to Harvard and, as a young writer, came under the benevolent paternalism of The New Yorker, married early, had children, moved to Massachusetts, and, with an uncommon creative energy, wrote stories, novels, poems, essays, and still writes on and on with great success about suburban landscapes or small-town ones efflorescent in observed detail, prodigal in image, brashly knowing and accomplished in the rhythms of current dialogue and steaming with the orifices and bodily fluids of many fluent copulations.

And then, with an admirable and defiant gallantry, he designed in The Coup his African country, Kush, whose

peanut oil travels westward the same distance as eastward our ancestors plodded, their neck-shackles chafing down to the jugular, in the care of Arab traders, to find in the flesh-markets of Zanzibar eventual lodgings in the harems and palace guards of Persia and Chinese Turkestan.

And then again, he, as productive of print as a Victorian, transmogrifies himself into a sluggish, anxious Jewish novelist, Bech, mooning on Riverside Drive with an exact ironical accent before taking off for a government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union and various satellite capitals in Eastern Europe where he treads the ancient, war-worn stones and confers with the resident writers, one of whom says he plans to “defect as soon as he gets his laundry back.”

A promiscuous, astonishing span; a labyrinthine talent through which the author makes a smooth, experienced, dashing, even dandified passage. A bit of a parson, too; something icy inside the melting flesh of concupiscence.

Updike’s memoirs bear the title, Self-Consciousness, to indicate the natural authorial awareness and, more unexpected, to reveal a distress arising from the envelope of the self, the flesh and bones and organs which have been the source of pain and of the “self-consciousness” of hidden damage. He has lived with torments devastating, if not life-threatening, and it is a hard heart that could turn from these ills with a shrug of into each life some rain must fall. The greatest suffering has been a long battle with a virulent psoriasis. His account of the scabs, blisters, eruptions, and…

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