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Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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A Sunday Morning Voice From Israel

I think of myself as a relatively literate person – spend enough time around gymnasiums and ball fields, and a guy who reads can get this impression – but apparently I’m no Eleanor Wachtel. I’d never even heard of David Grossman, the (apparently) quite wonderful Israeli novelist, but Michael Enright and The Sunday Edition brought him into my kitchen yesterday morning.

There’d been an April series of interviews and discussions recorded in Israel, most of which I hadn’t heard. The culminating interview was yesterday’s 25 minutes or so (ah, the pleasures of commercial-free radio!) between Enright and Mr. Grossman, a sympathetic and thoughtful commentator on the eternal (in my life, at least) Middle East Problem. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have, in the western popular mind, pluralized this Problem, but it always comes back to roost in Palestine, the Holy Land (aren’t they all?), the Greater Israel of the extreme Zionists. And in the centre, the modern state of Israel and the territories it occupies or otherwise influences and warns. The Jewish Question remains, though it has been re-cast in their reclamation of an ancestral homeland in the years since 1948.

“We are a story,” says Grossman of the Jewish people, an enormously polarized one that he wishes was just a bit less compelling. Extremes make for good fiction, but they make ordinary life tenuous and painful. A little moderation might be nice, he thinks: “[Jews] are idealized or demonized, but these are simply the two faces of dehumanization. I just want a solid existence, a place to be, and for us to live an enjoyable life.” (The same is true of Aboriginal people everywhere, including those occupying land near my home town of Caledonia.) Most Israelis want only the same thing. But unlike Grossman, most Israelis have no idea how their Palestinian neighbours live, and they may not want to. (Digressing again, I’d say the same is true of many Caledonians.) “Most,” he told the CBC’s Michael Enright, “cannot rise above the fear that they have for each other. This fear is almost mythological.” (If I were to digress again, I would say something about a similar fear in and around a small Ontario town. But I’m too disciplined for that.)

Contemporary Israel’s fear is a recent innovation, though the ignorance of conditions in the West Bank is of long standing. “For the first 21 years of the occupation,” says Grossman, “there was no hatred from Israelis toward Palestinian. They were inconsequential; they were almost as children.” And the Israeli media tended to act not as a lens but as a buffer, insulating Israelis from the reality of military occupation. At least, that is, until Grossman wrote a series of late-‘80s articles about living in occupied territory, a series that eventually became the novelist’s best-known work, a non-fiction sensation in Israel called The Yellow Wind. (It is a must-read, already on order from my local library. Are libraries not the greatest institutions ever? I’ll probably go overdue on this book, and I’ll be happier to pay the fine than you were to read another digression.)

The Yellow Wind reminded Israelis that they are occupiers, a dysfunctional dynamic that can only distort both peoples. Grossman is not engaging in knee-jerk national self-loathing – “we are not the only bad guys here; Israel is not surrounded by the Salvation Army” – but I think he paints a most intelligent, humane and, as far as I can tell, fair portrait of conditions in Palestine. He spoke very strongly yesterday about the great wall that Israel is building to insulate itself from Palestinian guerrilla attacks: “A wall will not stop Palestinian misery and poverty…You cannot impose a border upon your neighbours. A wall is against dialogue. We must acknowledge the harm we have done to each other. We must pay a maturity tax.”

I’m glad Mr. Grossman came into my house. His is a weary but stubbornly hopeful voice, one that deserves a wider hearing and more of my attention. Coming soon to a bedside table near me.