John Updike, like many novelists, liked to hide behind his characters. He even has a German word for it, Maskenfreiheit, the freedom conferred by masks. Children and current wives cannot blame you for what your characters do and say. As a result, this is a very peculiar memoir, discreet to the point of absurdity, now brought out in a new edition. Typically, in discussing his divorce from his first wife, he wedges all mention of it into a section where he’s talking about his asthma (he’s already discussed at length his psoriasis and his stammering). He tells us that his doctor informed him the family’s two cats, which slept on his pillow, were the cause of his illness. He writes: ‘But how could we get rid of two such venerable members of the family . . . ? It seemed easier to get rid of me.’ Updike divorced his wife, moved into Boston, was cured of his asthma – but his stammering came back when he spoke on the phone to his children, so guilt-ridden was he at his desertion of his family. Disingenuous as an explanation, to say the least.

It would be wrong to say that this book is nothing but pages and pages of evasiveness. Updike tells us how important his little Pennsylvania town of Shillington was to his imagination: ‘The street, the house where I had lived, seemed blunt, modest in scale, simple; this deceptive simplicity composed their precious, mystical secret, the conviction of whose existence I had parlayed into a career, a message to sustain a writer book after book.’ In fact, one could say, the two great themes of his copious fiction were a nostalgia for Shillington and an exploration of adult love. When he departed from these two, as in his great African novel, The Coup, he came up with some of his freshest, most imaginative writing.

The writing in Self-Consciousness is as superb as one might expect. He evokes the pleasures of teenage smoking: ‘Cigarettes, for example, were delicious: the sleek cellophane-wrapped rectitude of the pack, the suave tapping out of a single ‘weed,’ the chalky, rasping initial inhale, the little crumbs to be picked from the lower lip without breaking conversational stride, the airy pluming gesturingness of it all.’ He talks about striding through the streets of Shillington on ‘Proust’s dizzying stilts of time’,or of ‘a microphone cowled in black sponge and uptilted like the screened face of a miniature fencer’, although sometimes his eloquence devolves into nonsense – he compares the rain on wicker furniture to ‘a mist like the vain assault of an atomic army’, whatever that means.

Updike emerges as a man who thought he was monstrous because of his life-long battle with psoriasis, who felt ashamed of his bad teeth and his family’s poverty, who sensed in himself ‘some falsity of impersonation, some burden of disguise or defeat’, which may be nothing more than the reflexes of someone who lives through his characters and seizes on every moment of his intimate life as ‘material’.


Self-Consciousness by John Updike will be published on 13 March by Random House. An extract was previously published in Granta 19: More Dirt.

Photograph by Stories From Ipswich

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