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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 treatments is of such fullness and wounded feeling one would not want, in description, to substitute a version other than his own. In his going about, the disease was not only hurtful and exhausting but also humiliating, as when he was required to learn to swim at Harvard. On a some-what descending scale, he has endured bouts of stuttering, asthma, tooth and gum problems. So there it is, a host of imperfections and acute discomforts, woes rendered with an eloquent and almost sunny confidence.

My sufferings are purely physical, the aged, dying Santayana is supposed to have said in order to fend off the redemptive efforts of nuns and priests who might wish, at the end, to seduce him from the teasing ambiguity of “There is no God and Mary is His mother.” Updike, far from the end and friendly to redemption, if it should come, has a way of translating the threat of moral ravage into symptoms. “I tried to break out of my marriage, on behalf of another, and failed, and began to have trouble breathing.” Succeeding in the break-up, as determined people will, he writes: “My face broke out, my shoulders and neck became so encrusted I couldn’t turn my head without pain.”

He will go further, twirling, you might say, on a steel toe like a skater in the crisp New England air: “So wrapped in my skin, so watchful of its day-to-day permutations, I have little concern to spare for the homeless, the disenfranchised, the unfortunate who figure so largely in the inner passion of smooth-pelted liberals like my first wife.” “A man’s foes will be those in his own house-hold,” the Redeemer Himself opined. Smooth-pelted liberal, sardonic locution, is attached to the sufferer’s first wife, mother of four Updikes, daughter of a Unitarian clergyman. No doubt Updike regrets the homeless and the unfortunate as much as another. His distaste here is atmospheric, a distaste for the fair, blue-eyed Unitarians in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the attachment to “causes” shown by the trust-fund, rosy-cheeked descendants of the balmy vapors coming from Concord and thereabouts. For Updike, the Over-soul Unitarians, brushing away the Trinity like some dust long in a dark corner, will not do, although he had a try with the placid church before settling down more or less as a Congregationalist and their “sweet bare rites descended from the Puritans.”

The Congregationalists—a mild enough church of choice for the census-taker, not exacting or likely to be interfering or reforming in matters of conduct. It would not have been fitting to take a leap into the Roman Catholic Church where confession, forgiveness is to be followed by the intention to go and sin no more, a source of plot dilemma for Graham Greene and for the almost forgotten Christian novelist, François Mauriac. (Sartre: “God is not a novelist and neither is M. Mauriac.”) The awesome basilicas, rituals, and elaboration of Christian duties in the Roman Church, appealing to the faith hunger of many converts, would be too richly aesthetical for Updike, too denying of Middle America, the other creed embraced in these confessions.

So it was to be the Congregational Church and its pleasant meetings—or was it? Updike was born a Lutheran and there lives in him still a degree of the social conservatism of the great reformer, who opposed the Peasants War of the sixteenth century because it destabilized the state, the power of the Protestant nobles. So he shifts in the manner of the creative, leaves the Church and the site of his youth for self-definition and also, as his memoirs seem to say, to discover and to reclaim for his contribution to literature the meaning of who he was and where he was placed in the American scene.

Settling for the beauties of Massachusetts was not only a flight from Shillington but also from New York. He was happy, he tells us, in Ipswich, an old village on the North Shore of Boston with a number of quite dominating old families, a place notable for the charms of its wooden saltbox houses, the wide shores and cold water of Crane’s Beach, and, a formidable barrier to assimilation, the Myopia Hunt Club. And perhaps Ipswich is now notable for its transformation into Tarbox, the name of the town in Updike’s novel, Couples. Tar, an odorous viscous liquid, and box—well, guess. Of course, Couples is a work of fiction and Tarbox need only be a convenient address of some status, the sort of town young professional couples with children might feel a certain pride in attaching themselves to. In any case, Far-box acts in a peculiar manner upon the pulsing libidos gathered there as if for some pagan festival of nymphs and satyrs and maenads, or perhaps, closer to the bone, a remembrance of Merry Mount, carnal and gun traffic with the Indians, frontier revels around the maypole before the English puritans shipped Mr. Morton back to where he came from. Anyway, Updike was happy in the actual Ipswich—happy, except for the period, the middle 1960s, coming like some loud neighbor’s quarrel over the fence.

On Not Being a Dove,” the most striking section of the memoirs, is a sort of regimental assault, bayonets preceding, on the peace movement occasioned by America’s fierce assault on Vietnam. It is meant to roll and rile the deracinated louts at their homefront barricades, the treasonable clerks in the literary establishment, the fashionable metropolis and its feathered dissent, the barefoot, braless flag-burners, the pious army deserters fleeing the hallowed shores for Sweden and Canada. Certainly, the inanities of the expressive side of the peace movement, the flower children, make-love-not-war, the pouring blood on this and that, off-the-pigs—on these antics anyone free from permanent brain shock might look back in embarrassment.

The protest movement, which had begun in the solemn Fiftyish pronouncements of the Port Huron Statement and the orderly civil-rights strategies, by the time of the ‘67 Washington march and the ‘68 convention had become a Yippieish carnival of mischievous voodoo and street theatre and, finally, a nightmare of anarchy, of window-smashing and cop-bopping and drug-tripping and shouting down.

That’s one thing and not the whole of the peace movement, as the Dance of the Seven Veils is not the whole of the Herodiade. Updike’s positions are not merely a shudder for the misdemeanors of bad taste and the heretical processions of candlelight blowing in the wind; he proposes a tangled support of the actual war in Vietnam, an implied, or rather insisted upon, duty that once in combat, there is something cheap and hollow about agitating against the elected government, taking upon oneself matters of state that because of the horrible circumstances of war require patriotism, standing together, a national, if troubled, acquiescence. That’s the way he sees it, altogether too much carrying on by the motley and mottled mob and worse by the scriveners, their wrists swollen from signing a thousand petitions. What do they know, who are they, poets and screen stars, to demand out-of-Vietnam, or for that matter, to change the scene to earlier foreign manifestations that toppled and diverted governments, to demand out-of-Suez, out-of-Algeria?

There are a number of points in his indictment, some about the nature of citizenship and others concerning the particularities of the Vietnam War.

One source of my sense of grievance against the peace movement when it came was that I hadn’t voted for any of its figures—not for Abbie Hoffman or Father Daniel Berrigan or Reverend William Sloane Coffin or Jonathan Schell or Lillian Hellman or Joan Baez or Jane Fonda or Jerry Rubin or Doctor Spock or Eugene McCarthy. I had voted for Lyndon Johnson, and thus had earned my American right not to make a political decision for another four years.

A peculiar idea of the franchise, considering the porousness of the mandate on this and that, the frenzied concentration in Washington at the end of the day on how “it played” on the evening news and in the polls, representing after all the raw opinion of the unqualified, on what came to the telephone operators computing the yeses and nos, what arrived in the legislative mail bag then, as always, casting a shadow over the morning DC sunlight.

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