A Welcoming Dinner-Party Host, Updike Re-Serves His Life

By John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 703 pages, $40

New to New York and still a teenager, I used to play a kind of sidewalk parlor game with a friend on our dawdling way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a jokey test of one-upmanship in response to a simple question: What is the cheapest way to get into the Met? The admission fee is only “suggested,” of course, but without paying nothing at all, how cheap could one be? Pay a nickel, one of us would say. Cheap! Pay a nickel and ask for four cents change, the other would reply. Cheaper! Pay a nickel, ask for change, and say, “That’s for the two of us.”

John Updike’s eighth fat collection of nonfiction brings to mind a variation on the game: What is the slenderest sliver of ephemeral writing that Mr. Updike will preserve between hardcovers? A foreword to a small press reissue of Buchanan Dying, his only play and perhaps his least-loved work? Cheap! A lone paragraph on the topic of “The Beautiful” written for Allure magazine? Cheaper! A foreword to a bibliography of his own works published by Oak Knoll Press?

All of these—and much, much more—appear in Due Considerations. Aside from a handful of dutiful essays (an account of a three-week trip to China in 1998, a description of the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art), the bulk of the book is made up of more than 60 book reviews. It’s a pleasure to see him devoting considerable attention to promising younger American novelists (Colson Whitehead, Andrew Sean Greer), but no less pleasing to be reminded of the enormous time and energy he has spent reviewing the work of their distinguished elders (DeLillo, Doctorow, García Márquez, Grass, Pamuk). We’ve grown accustomed to Mr. Updike writing on his American contemporaries over the years, but it’s really rather extraordinary. When was the last time DeLillo reviewed Doctorow, or Doctorow Roth, or Roth DeLillo?

Happily, Mr. Updike’s temperament as a reviewer is that of the warm and welcoming dinner-party host who’s nevertheless willing to point out the seed stuck between the teeth of a too-talky guest or to tell a wilting one it’s time to go home. He toasts, for example, the pleasing pucker of J.M. Coetzee’s style: His “paragraphs and plots feel sharply pruned, at times as brutally disciplined as Parisian lime trees.” And he charmingly shushes Salman Rushdie: “[H]is novels pour by in a sparkling, voracious onrush, each wave topped with foam, each paragraph luxurious and delicious, but the net effect perilously close to stultification.”

Still, Mr. Updike’s reviews feel like what they are: hackwork. They’re diligent, they’re interesting, they’re dispensable. Don’t take my word for it; take Mr. Updike’s own. After noting that reviews have displaced the brief fiction that made his reputation, he writes: “These reviews demand a kindred spurt of energy and strive for somewhat similar harmonies and resolutions, so that I may be fooled in to thinking a short story is what I have written. But only I am fooled. Reviews, even the most earnest of them, are contingent and dispensable, whereas short stories, even the slightest of them, aspire to be timeless and self-contained—human matters crisply packaged and preserved for keeps.” As so often in reading him, just when you’re about to shut the door and lock it, there’s Mr. Updike with a grin and the key.

What, then, is for keeps in Due Considerations? The extraordinarily vivid autobiographical fragments that dot the book. These include a few dozen “personal considerations”—comments on his own stories, squibs about Philadelphia and Saul Steinberg, larks about his favorite year of the century (1946: “nothing much happened, which was the beauty and wonder of it”) and his childhood wish to act in cartoons—“to be myself a set of dancing lines, indestructible and jivey.”

There are also some lovely wind-in-your-hair pieces: a reflection on friendship and regimen through his decades-long weekly poker game, and an account of the stations of his married life as seen through the cars he’s owned. (For the record: a first marriage full of Ford sedans and station wagons, as well as a Citroën; an interim bachelorhood of Mustang and Karmann Ghia convertibles; and a second marriage full of Audis, a Subaru and an Infiniti.)

Mr. Updike has a good memory, of course, and no novelist has a surer eye for the telling detail. But the memoirist’s needle requires a double thread, one to stitch the anguish and joy of the past, the other to prick and bind the ache of the memory itself. These autobiographical fragments make plain that he’s a master of the needle trade, a memoirist of the highest order.

Perhaps, given his antipathy to literary biography, Mr. Updike is creating a personal record so voluminous and dense with significance that no biographer could possibly digest it all. Or perhaps he’s just trying to show the impossibility of anyone capturing another’s life in print. “Someone else, in my limited experience, never gets things quite right. The exact socioeconomic tone, the muddle and eddy of peculiar circumstances are almost inevitably missed.”

For example, in a piece called “On Literary Biography,” Mr. Updike points out the inaccuracies he discovered in a brief biographical note about him. The author claims “that I had been editor of my high-school mimeographed paper, The Chatterbox, and of our high-school class’s yearbook, Hi-Life, but in fact I had been neither. He had been talking to some old classmates of mine, and their memory may have deceived them; or he had reasonably assumed that, since mine is the preeminent literary reputation to have thus far emerged from my high-school class, I naturally occupied these editorial eminences. But in truth, the wise faculty advisers felt my energy was better employed as a cartoonist and contributor. Two steady and able young women—Ann Weik and Frances Runge by name—were appointed to the respective editorships.”

These are minute errors, of course—but not so minute to Ms. Weik and Ms. Runge. (And oh the winking pride and good-hearted glory of that “thus far”!) In rescuing such minuscule facts from the scrapheap of memory, Mr. Updike is performing no less honorable a memorial role than the carving of the names of the dead on a monument.

But the best memoirs not only clarify and memorialize, they complicate our sense of a life and reflect its jagged unknowableness, its thick particularity. We may know a man less the more we know about him. Reading Due Considerations one thinks of the surprising encomium that Evelyn Waugh sent to Henry Green after reading his 1938 memoir, Pack My Bag: “It makes one feel I know [you] less well than I did before which, in a way, I take to be its purpose.”

Matt Weiland is the deputy editor of The Paris Review. A Welcoming Dinner-Party Host, Updike Re-Serves His Life