In the Eye of the Writer: Two Memoirs
JOHN UPDIKE and Nika Hazelton share the memory of having been an ``only child.'' Otherwise, they are as different as any two selves might be: He, a small-town boy from Pennsylvania who grew up to be a famous author; she, the Roman-born daughter of an Italian mother and German expatriate father, exposed ever since her childhood to a cosmopolitan diet of languages, cuisines, and cultures. Even their responses to being an only child are different: Hazelton suspects it made her more grown up; Updike feels his lack of siblings made him awkward about physical contact with people, thus increasing his self-consciousness and prolonging his ``childishness.''
If Updike is a ``serious'' writer (maladroit as the term may be when applied to one whose works are so thoroughly imbued with the comic spirit), a Writer with a capital W, then Hazelton is a writer in a more workaday, lowercase sense: She is the author of some two dozen cookbooks and, for the past two decades, has been a contributor to the National Review.
But as memoirists, their most significant difference lies not in the details of background, gender, or nationality, but in their ways of looking at things.
Updike's title, ``Self-Consciousness,'' signals his concern for the subjective world. Hazelton, on the contrary, is interested chiefly in externals. These diametrically opposed outlooks suggest why it was that Updike became a novelist, poet, and short-story writer, and Hazelton a journalist and food writer.
BOTH their outlooks, however, prove effective ways of approaching a memoir.
Selfhood, being, nothingness, and the relation of self to God are pervasive themes in Updike's memoir. It is, nonetheless, a rather modest work, reexcavating (as he freely admits) much of the material he has used in his fiction and poetry. (Relevant passages from his previous works are conveniently cited in footnotes.)
There are six chapters. Two focus on ailments: the psoriasis that he feels may have helped a very ordinary boy think of himself as different (``At War with My Skin'') and the stuttering and asthma he sees as related to his self-consciousness (``Getting the Words Out'').
Updike's metaphysical cast of mind deftly reveals these physical symptoms as symbols of existential states: ``...my sensation, when I stutter, is that I am trying, with the machete of my face, to hack my way through a jungle of other minds' thrusting vines and tendrils.'' Having traced the physical fact to a metaphysical origin, Updike then brings the mental state back into the visible world by means of his brilliantly chosen imagery.
The fourth chapter, ``On Not Being a Dove,'' is a self-justifying, yet refreshingly honest, account of why this liberal felt obliged to support - or at least not join what he saw as mindless opposition to - a war being run by some of his fellow liberals. Whether or not one agrees with his stance, this is a nuanced portrait of a frame of mind in which a sharp understanding of what was wrong with some antiwar extremists combined with a genuine patriotism and a fuzzy sense of sympathy with the beleaguered LBJ, mired in Vietnam.
Once Updike abandons the interior world, he flounders amid facts. His fifth chapter, ``A Letter to My Grandsons,'' is a long and tedious account of Updike's forebears, suitable for grandsons, perhaps, but of less interest to the rest of us.
Mercifully, he returns to his true metier in the final chapter, ``On Being a Self Forever,'' a graceful meditation on religion, selfhood, consciousness, and the thirst for prolonging ourselves into eternity.
Strolling the streets of his native town in the first chapter, ``A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,'' Updike stresses the importance, for him, of the seemingly unremarkable. The ``deceptive simplicity'' of his boyhood surroundings ``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.''
ONE trembles to think what Nika Hazelton would make of Updike's Proustian soliloquies. ``I don't seem to remember any feelings of wonder at the world as a child,'' she writes. ``I took everything ... for granted, and missed out on any sensitive revelations of self and world which so many children seem to have; these revelations have always bored me and still bore me as much as ever.''
In their stead, she offers a colorful, flavorful, piquantly detailed montage of scenes from an obviously remarkable life, from a childhood in Rome, suffused with the smell of ever-simmering beef broth (broda) - which she detested - to a stint in Brazil, where her kitchen table stood in cans of an insecticide called Creolina, which sounded to her ``like a beautiful girl's name.''
Even her most outlandish opinions are delivered with a certain panache: ``I loathe all chicken soups, whatever their nationality. Liquid hen is just too much,'' she declares. She writes sparingly, but interestingly, of her parents.
Her father, a German socialist, had the fun-loving, tolerant temperament usually associated with Italians, while her Italian mother had the hardworking, authoritarian personality often attributed to Germans. She, too, was anti-Fascist.
``Ups and Downs'' covers only the first few decades of its author's life, and if there were any serious ``downs,'' one gets little sense of them here.
Hazelton writes, not for some ``dear Reader'' to whom she unburdens her inner self, but for a public audience. She describes German and Italian Christmas customs, the various schools - English and Continental, Protestant and Roman Catholic - she attended, her adventures as a young journalist covering the League of Nations in Geneva, and the excitement of going to work for Henry Luce's new Fortune magazine in New York.
Anecdotes, opinions, even recipes, are delivered along the way with a cool spontaneity that's hard to resist. The voice is the sort heard at a formal dinner party: lively, frank, opinionated, yet reserved. The personality is distinctive, at times disagreeable, but it never intrudes on the scenes it describes, leaving us with a fresh and vivid impression of a richly variegated life.