John Updike’s memoir showcases his artistry and his delight in it.
Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike. Ballantine/Fawcett. 271 pages.
Without trying, I was always reading something by John Updike. It was hard not to, especially if you read The New Yorker, where his fiction, essays, and reviews appeared for fifty years. I love his memoir, Self-Consciousness, much of which explores what made Updike awkward and shy: his introverted boyhood, his stutter; and his many adult afflictions, especially psoriasis and bad teeth. It’s a fascinating inquiry into the nature of subjectivity and memory.
Early in Self-Consciousness Updike unfolds a scene where, as a student working on an art project after hours in his high school, he realizes that his teacher and the stern principal appear to share a secret romantic life:
To this quiet but indelible memory attaches a sensation that one of these two teachers came over and ruffled my hair, as if we had become a tiny family; but it may be simply that one of them stood close, to see how far along I was, because when I was finished we could all go to our separate homes.
Thus Updike gives readers the dual effect of memoir and fiction. He pulls this skillful having-it-both-ways trick a few times, as when he portrays a strange feed-store proprietor who “always wore dark clothes” and one day would be found murdered. Then Updike pauses:
Did he really always wear dark clothes, or has my memory, knowing of his grisly end, dressed him appropriately? Spying from our front windows, I would watch him descend his long cement steps with an odd sideways bias, favoring one leg, looking like a dark monkey on a string.
The brilliance of this is in its vivid imagery, resonant with emotion, and in Updike’s insight that his memory may be lying—and then in playing out the scene with that suspect material to bring the vision in his mind to life. Most writers wouldn’t have noticed or questioned such a detail in the first place; but Updike understood the interaction among sensibility, history, and imagination. With his confessions, by his calling attention to what might be his mind’s creative lies, he won my complete faith, that famous conjurer, that his memoir was truthful. His scruples were neatly practical, moral, and aesthetic. And his little asides amount to sophisticated criticisms of the unquestioned and the allegedly factual. For what is the truth of most memory beyond one mind’s knowing? Probably no one living but Updike, at the time, remembered that twisted little man—or perceived him that way in the first place.
Of course the passage also underscores Updike’s theme of self-consciousness in showing both his secretive boyhood attentions to life and his adult preoccupation with literary creation. In experiencing the layered subjectivity of this gifted writer, readers find in Self-Consciousness powerful affirmation of their own private selves.