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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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2015: Paris et Charlie, Chuck and Li’l Ol’ Me

I’m still writing like it’s 2015. I don’t mean brainless mis-dating in my chequebook (for those who remember writing cheques), just that my writing nook is a jumble, my mind is a mess and my habits are blowin’ in the wind. 2015 wasn’t any annus horribilis for me, and I’m far too privileged to complain about my lot in life. But although I wrote some things I’ve liked in this space, I wasn’t even a moderately productive pen-monkey¹ this year. I won’t annoy you (or me) with the details. However, I do believe in fresh starts, and before January gets any older, here’s a small bloggish step in any given direction.

¹ Writer Chuck Wendig’s self-description.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I wrote about it, though briefly, as part of my January 2015 lookback at a better year of JH.com bloggishness. For the second time in two months, Adam Gopnik was in my radio Thursday commenting on a freedom-of-speech manifesto written by the Charlie Hebdo editor, Stephane Charbonnier, not long before he and 10 others were murdered. Another misguided wretch, butcher knife in one hand and a box of toxic notions in the other (and a fake suicide vest – what in hell was he thinking?), tried to darken Paris, too, with his own in memoriam.

In November, Gopnik, Canadian-born and U.S.-based but with a longtime attachment to the City of Light and Love, had spoken movingly of how the second Paris attacks, that thuggery-in-spiritual-clothing, felt to a lover of the place. (Writer Nancy Huston was on the same CBC Sunday Edition program, and I still think of what she said. I’ll be quoting her in “He Said/She Said” soon; I’ve meant to for a month.) The dark side of the human spirit grossly forced itself upon Paris twice this year, but it was also the site of the United Nations’ COP21 environmental conference, the gathering that spotlighted an awakening world’s mounting concern over, and stumbling commitment to act on, climate change – and all the self-destructive habits and attitudes that are producing it. A long, often painful global roadshow – the one that portrays the dawning consciousness of the oneness of humanity – made three fateful stops in Paris in 2015.

I barely wrote about any of it. A snippet here, an oblique reference there. Bad pen-monkey.

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Happy 500th Birth(day)!

Got some cake? Know where the ice cream is hidden? We won’t bother with the five hundred candles, thanks, but I welcome you to eat your favourite birthy-day-ish things.

I’m trying to quit, so do the festive eating for me.  bekicookscakesblog.blogspot.com is the site from which I nabbed this low-cal number. Mmm.

 What are we celebrating? I nearly missed it myself, but my recent posting of a quote from the great Paulo Freire, down there on the right in “He Said/She Said”, was the

500th post on JH.com!!

Some were short blurts, or quotes from others, but most — as some of you know only too well — were pretty full-bodied pieces that most often run between 800-1400 words. Especially to those of you who’ve digested a pile of ’em, thanks for reading. Thanks for raising a long-stemmed glass of Cherry Garcia, or German Chocolate Cake, or even Redcoat Rations (!) in a toast:

to reading!

to writing!

to everything that goes with it!

 

* Ice cream counts as part of “everything”, even if I could only manage a McD’s sundae today. But then so do peace, justice, education and clean water. (And basketball.)

WritersFest II: Men’s Night

There was a superb collection of brainy and passionate literary warriors last night in Ottawa. (I was there, too!) Session One of another evening at the Writers’ Festival was titled “Canada: The Imagination of Place”, and it took the often-banal national navel-gazing to a level of intelligent feeling that we don’t often don’t come near.

B.W. Powe discussed and read from his (again) newly revised A Canada of Light, which examines the philosophy and perception underlying the country. He is not without self-confidence, and describes the book as “my ‘Leaves of Grass’, my attempt to do for Canada what Walt Whitman did for the United States”. Or maybe he just meant that the centre of his life and thought is right there, and he keeps going back ‘til he gets it right. (Did Whitman do the same?) “We should celebrate the solitudes and the strangeness of this country,” he says, “because Canada works very well in fact, just not in theory!” Canada offers to the world, he argues, not a mirror but “a new premise, a new ethic” based on what he calls, oxymoron intended, a “radical rootlessness”. Yes, he invokes Innis and McLuhan, and has something of the wild-eyed romantic about him. Powe, eloquently and forcefully, puts forward a poetic vision of the country, one that opposes the ever-present forces that subvert hopefulness and joy. He wants us to understand what is in front of our faces right now, to “face the present! For the future is implicit in it.” Powe is passionate and lyrical about our country, its place in an evolving world, and would like for all of us to see it more clearly.

So would Andrew Cohen, whose While Canada Slept bemoaned our loss of moral (not to mention military and diplomatic) influence in the world, has now come out with The Unfinished Canadian. He examines the Great Northern Project from a more historic and political viewpoint — our collective choice of evolution over revolution — and his urgently practical manner was an interesting counterpoint to Powe’s visionary urbanity (“Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”). Substituting as he was for Roy McGregor (who was puck chasing with Sidney Crosby and the Senators), Cohen told a hockey story to illustrate one of his strongest points. After the hail of criticism that fell on the Canadian women’s hockey team (and the women’s game itself) as they stir-fried their opponents at the Torino Olympics, star Cassie Campbell had to wonder. “Just what is it about this country that we get slammed for excellence?” Ah, the tall poppies. They must be cut down to size! Cohen decries our poor grasp of our own history, and our reflexive anti-Americanism, dismissing the recent bestseller Fire and Ice precisely because it panders to our desperate urge to see ourselves not only as separate from the Americans but, well, better than them. While there are real differences, Cohen finds it rather unbecoming to “protest too much” (and so inaccurately). He’s an unabashed nationalist, however. To the charge that nationalism is so 19th-century, such a violent albatross from the past, he responds with a call for civic nationalism: pride in our institutions, in the ethics and practices we have evolved and the good things Canucks have made and done in the world. It is, on the other hand, the ethnically based nationalism, he argues, that is limiting and has such rich harvests of bigotry, war and misery. It was all good stuff.

Next up was the third of the Writers’ Festival’s “Writing Life” series, featuring two men I’d never heard of and a third I’d never read. I find writers sharing their work unfailingly interesting, but I was particularly impressed last night. Neil Smith read from his debut collection of short stories, Bang Crunch. Having been a student in Montreal when the 1989 massacre of 14 women occurred – and with Virginia Tech reverberating in every mind – Mr. Smith read from a disturbing mass-murder tale of his own invention. He has an unusual reading voice and style, and was quite compelling. I’ll be paying more attention. C.S. Richardson is another first-time author, after a distinguished and ongoing career in the visual arts and design. (He was the designer of Smith’s book, for example.) What an engaging person and writer: his character descriptions flow beautifully, unpredictably, in his novel The End of the Alphabet. Because of what he selected, I have little idea of the plot, but sign me up – this is a novel I want to read.

The third writer, Lawrence Hill, has made a sensation with his newest novel, The Book of Negroes. It is a shameful omission that I haven’t read him before. For one thing, he’s from my neck of the southern Ontario woods, but his background couldn’t be much different – intellectual American parents, a white mother and black father who came to Canada to escape bigoted attitudes (and laws) toward racially mixed marriages. He has been writing the stories of his own family, of the African diaspora and especially the North American experience of it. His reading from Negroes was outstanding. He has told this story of many stories in the voice of an African woman, from her youth in what is now Mali, her enslavement and her release from it after the American Revolutionary War, a Black Loyalist move to Nova Scotia and one of the first back-to-Africa voyages ever made by a black community. At the beginning of the novel, and again at the end, we listen to her as an elderly woman in Britain at the height of the movement to abolish the slave trade. With this year marking 200 years since that epochal change, Hill’s timing is excellent but, more importantly, he has the story and he has the voice. It’s funny: I’ve never read the man before, but one night in his company has made me a big fan. He is gracious, enormously eloquent, and there’s a quiet fire burning in all that he says and writes.

Chalk up another great night for the wordwatchers. And somehow, the Senators managed to defeat Sidney and the Penguins without me frozen in front of the tube.

Stalking the Editors

The pilgrimage to Toronto — holy of holies for lit-wits Canadian — continued today, with much to love and great good luck. Martin Levin, Books editor at The Globe and Mail, had agreed to meet the Writer Who Came in From the Cold (of Ottawa), and to the surprise of both of us, I walked out with Teacher Man by Frank McCourt and a review deadline for next week. Yippeeee!! Right up my street. The Walrus magazine wasn’t far away, and its editor hadn’t gotten my emails, but I still got an hour in a coffee shop with Ken Alexander, another former teacher and avid basketball coach (it just took him less than 20 years to escape). Hi, Ken! What he’s doing is a nervy thing, and I admire it. Good mag, too. I want to be on its list of writers, a good list and getting better.

I Have Friend (Possibly Even Plural)

You may not have a Deirdre in your life, but if you ever have the chance, get one. Through no fault of my own, I did and I’m a grateful writer dude. I have My Own Private Deirdre and she’s great, even if I have to share her with everyone she’s ever had at hello. My kids like her kids, some of her friends are my friends — it’s just the best kind of ridiculous luck.

Lunch with her was my little treat for myself this week. She’s a Bahá’í friend, she’s a writer, she was my predecessor at Rideau Hall and the reason I knew there was an opening there (and thanks, Wendy!). She’s one of the best people I know in combining brains and encouragement. Somehow, it’s not as common as it might be, as it needs to be. I came away feeling good, feeling happier and (consider the odds!) smarter. It’s strange, the power of Deirdre. And then I hung out at the Running Room, buying nothing but soaking in that old feeling of athletic camaraderie with strangers who know sport and respect those who know it in return. Good afternoon!