John Updike’s autobiography

THE writer must quarry his own life: he has nowhere else to turn. ThatJohn Updike has done so has always been clear enough, but what hasalways puzzled me has been his underlying attitude as a lyrical butclear-eyed chronicler of domestic and sexual politics.

Sometimes he has seemed coldly scientific, a travelling biologistobserving the reproductive and social behaviour among a lower order of mammals, American man (and woman) at the start of the second half of thetwentieth century.

But sometimes compassion for his creatures, with their pursuit ofpleasure and their capacity for personal betrayal — betrayal is thecentral theme, I think, of his fiction — seems to break out.

Sometimes, particularly in his scorching passages about extra-maritalsex, as in Couples, with their clinical, forensic detail, the fastidiousdisgust of the prosecutor seems in conflict with the celebratory lyricism of the fellow sinner.

That both sensations are at work is confirmed in this rambling,eccentric, and finally delightful autobiographical fragment, in whichUpdike allows his mask to fall away. These are not confessions; they aretoo patrician and reserved for that. But Updike tells us enough about himself to let us piece together the guilt, the afflictions, and thedoubts that have formed his personality — his self, whose mortality hemust struggle to accept.

Stung by critics who said he was ”profoundly untroubled” and that there was very little under the apparently effortless style, he admitsthat there might be something distanced and cruel in his writing with avengeful element of ”showing” people; ”rubbing their noses” in sadhuman facts.

Elsewhere he says that writing is like a bicycle which would dump himif he stopped pedalling; but fiction, like life, is a dirty business, where discretion and good taste play a small part. ”Parents, wives, children — the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly theyare served up.”

But he has tried to express life as accurately as he could, ”with special attention to human evasions and betrayals,” because out of what small faith he can muster in God has come artistic courage: he believes God knows everything and cannot be shocked, and only truth is useful.

That he has wounded deeply his nearest and dearest he does not deny, and the memoirs are by way of expiation and apology. They are arranged in the form of six essays, and begin with an incident of lost luggage. It is an appropriate metaphor: in the course of reviewing his personal history, that of the son of a Pennsylvanian Dutch family of modest means who became a rich novelist residing comfortably in New England, Updike builds an inventory of his own personal baggage, his afflictions bothmaterial and spiritual.

His physical ailments include the skin disease psoriasis, asthma, stuttering, and bad teeth. The skin complaint is hereditary but he blasts it with unwise amounts of sunshine; the asthma is perhaps the symptom of a first marriage turned claustrophobic; the bad teeth result from a bad diet and inadequate dentistry; his stuttering comes to haunt him at formal moments even though he is an accomplished reader and actor in school plays.

They conspire to heighten his self-consciousness, and his sense ofbeing encased in a mask that hides his true personality. To these physical symptoms he adds guilt — personal guilt about the failure of his first marriage, and intellectual guilt about his refusal to condemn the American involvement in Vietnam at a time when such an opinion set him painfully at odds with his literary and cultural peers.

His refusal stemmed from yet another cause of guilt. He had failed his medical and missed the draft, proceeding smoothly to a life of  comfortable literary success with a novel that made a million dollars. His sense of being in the debt of the politicians and soldiers who got their hands dirty in Vietnam is very strong because he never had to dirty his.

His love of his country is touching. After a visit to the SovietUnion, he concludes that his is the better mousetrap. He struggles tocome to terms with impermanence and death, with the idea of anafterlife. He goes to church and finds that age (he was born in 1932)sits easily on him. His asthma is less of a problem, and the dentists may have done their worst (his passages on his sufferings in the chairmade me wince with sympathy).

Almost to his own surprise, he has to admit that he is a happy man. But happiness is best seen out of a corner of the eye. It comes to himspontaneously at certain moments, as when on a flawless winter Sunday, he collects his Sunday paper from the mailbox.

Lost luggage is one persistent metaphor but another strong idea is the”joy of riddance,” of seeing things pass on to their destination andout of one’s life, like logs over a waterfall or coal down a chute. Inthis journey through his self-consciousness, Updike himself experiencesthat joy; having unburdened himself, he seems to end the book a less troubled man than when he began it.

John Updike. SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS: MEMOIRS. Andre Deutsch.