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27 Jun, 2009

Re-reading Updike’s Self-Consciousness

When John Updike passed away earlier this year I decided to re-read his volume of memoirs, Self-Consciousness, which I hadn’t looked at since it was published in 1989. It is a marvelous book, and confirms everything good about Updike that I’d almost forgotten as he slogged prolifically through the last couple of decades doing books that were, well, uneven (maybe the truth is I just envy his productivity).

Here’s a couple of my favourite passages from Self-Consciousness. In this one he responds to the charge that he “wrote all too well but had nothing to say,” surely the last word in George Orwell’s direction on this subject:

“My own style seemed to me a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is exactly what it wasn’t–other indulgent, rather. My models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green as I read them (one in translation): styles of tender exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real. In this entwining and gently relentless effort there is no hiding that the effort is being made in language: all professorial or critical talk of inconspicuous or invisible language struck me as vapid and quite mistaken, for surely language, printed language, is what we all know we are reading and writing, just as a person looking at a painting knows he is not looking out of a window.”

And in the following passage, after talking about giving up cigarettes and coffee, he discusses writing. (He’s also devoted many insightful and entertaining pages to his psoriasis):

“So writing is my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world–it happens to everybody. In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God. In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light–in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it–approaches blasphemy.”

Updike’s memoir exhibits all his strengths–beautifully precise visual observation, intimate knowledge of a specific locale (his home town in Pennsylvania, obviously the model for Rabbit’s home town in the novels), and deep understanding of both other people and himself. It made me want to go back and re-read the Rabbit books and the early short stories, which I will do soon.