I was very sorry to read today about the death of John Updike. I still remember the effect his autobiography, Self-Consciousness, had on me when I read it 20 years ago. I’ve read a lot of his work since then – the early Olinger stories, based on his Pennsylvania hometown, shine like jewels – but nothing had quite the same impact as this series of essays on his chronic ailments and anxieties like psoriasis, stuttering, intimations of mortality and more nebulous feelings of being ‘smothered and confined, misunderstood and put-upon’. There is a dazzling opening chapter, ‘A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,’ in which the present-day (c. 1989) Updike finds himself on Shillington’s Pennsylvania Avenue on a spring evening with time to spare after an airline loses his luggage, and then wanders aimlessly around its streets ‘on Proust’s dizzying stilts of time’. And I still remember off-by-heart this piece of fear and trembling at the self’s unbearable situatedness: ‘Billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them the center of the universe. What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream or take refuge in God?’
Updike was a scribbler for hire – he wrote for everything from the New Yorker to Popular Mechanics to TV Guide. In Self-Consciousness, he links this idea of literature as ‘a space one gratefully escaped into rather than ... a burden of wisdom to be gained,’ to a childhood steeped in ‘the papery self-magnification and immortality of printed reproduction’. His love of cartoons started with Big Little Books bought at five-and-ten-cent stores, and his first ambition was to be a cartoonist for Walt Disney or the syndicates.
I loved the front covers of Updike’s essay collections: Picked-Up Pieces has a photograph of the author dressed in jeans and sweater, standing in a suburban street of clapboard houses and holding some leaves up to the camera. Hugging the Shore shows him in summer clothes, sitting in a boat by the banks of a river, and on the cover of Odd Jobs he is in winter overcoat and woollen hat, raking leaves and twigs on to a garden fire. He’s just pottering about, checking out the neighbourhood, the jobbing author of suburbia.
This blog salutes an author who said the aim of his work was to ‘give the mundane its beautiful due’.