A Wordsmith’s “Careful” Life

John Updike, Self-Consciousness
Knopf, 257 pages, $18.95.


Norman Mailer storming the Pentagon in The Armies of the Night, Truman Capote dishing gossip in Answered Prayers, Philip Roth’s alter ego baring all in Portnoy’s Complaint: Sometimes it seems as if America’s post-World War II celebrity novelists have written nothing but autobiography. John Updike, in this regard, has always stood somewhat apart from the pack. In the three decades between his first book and last year’s novel S., he produced three dozen volumes, none of which could be described as personally revealing.

In his 37th book, Self-Consciousness (Knopf, 257 pages, $18.95), Updike attempts to modify this state of affairs – albeit with great reluctance. The book that Updike has produced won’t satisfy readers in search of titillation. There are no juicy publishing stories here, no sensational anecdotes about fellow writers; nor does the author of the spicy Couples serve up a single sexy tidbit.  Updike eschews the usual chronological narrative and instead offers six meandering, meditative essays. Among the themes they touch on are race (he met his first black, he says, in 1960), social position (he admits that he spent much of his youth wondering which neighbors were his inferiors), and aging (“Most of us. . . are young when we make our mark. And then we live and live, with our canes and blood tests and toilet seats flattened like orthopedic shoes”).

Much of this book is – to put it bluntly – boring. Updike devotes an entire essay, “At War With My Skin,” to his lifelong battle with psoriasis, telling us far too much about the beneficial effects of the sun and about recent dermatological advances. Equally dull is “Getting the Words Out,” wherein he explains the circumstances under which he does and doesn’t stutter, and gives a comprehensive history of his asthma attacks.

Yet even these essays contain passages that are of interest. In “At War With My Skin,” for instance, Updike attributes many of the major decisions of his life to his psoriasis. “Because of my skin,” he maintains. “I counted myself out of any of those jobs – salesman, teacher, financier, movie star – that demand being presentable. What did that leave? Becoming a craftsman of some kind, closeted and unseen perhaps a cartoonist or a writer, a worker in ink who can hide himself and send out a surrogate presence, a signature that multiplies even while it conceals.”

Updike claims to have led an amazingly serene and untroubled life. To hear him tell it, his career has progressed smoothly and simply; you’d almost think that becoming a famous literary figure were as easy as getting hired by McDonald’s. Even when he’s discussing illness, aging and death his tone is almost uniformly sunny; at his darkest, he drifts into a sweet Wordsworthian melancholy. Yet there’s a telling bitter streak amid the sweetness: Whenever he mentions his first wife (whom he dismisses sarcastically as a “smooth-pelted liberal”), he reveals an astonishing depth of hostility that he seems unwilling to discuss, or perhaps even to examine.

This is not to say that Updike owes us intimate details about his first marriage. Far from it. But his striking failure to confront his feelings about that marriage does suggest that part of the secret of his equipoise lies in a talent for avoidance. Certainly readers who have found his vision of middle-class domesticity to be pat and puerile will not be taken aback by this notion. Updike has made clear, in various places, his enthusiasm for Karl Barth’s view of God as “Wholly Other”; his coolly clinical approach to character gives one the impression that he considers his fellow man, too, to be Wholly Other. This autobiography strongly reinforces that impression.

By far the most compelling piece in this book is “On Not Being a Dove,” a long, courageous and clear-thinking defense of his hawkish stand on Vietnam. Those who pigeonhole Updike as a Harvard Yard liberal will be astonished by his scathing characterization of the anti-war movement as “in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment. Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their pleasant position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world. They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders.” Unarguably, there is much truth in this view.

Remote and reflective, Updike emerges from this book at once a duller and more intellectually respectable sort than one might have expected. A compulsive wordsmith who (in his words) has lived his life “carefully,” he observes (quoting Unamuno) that work is “the only practical consolation for having been born”; his productivity, he suggests, has been his salvation. Famed for his sex scenes, John Updike exhibits passion only when discussing writing. Onward, then, to book No. 38.