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John Updike

“Karl Barth, another Reformed clergyman, responding in an interview late in his life to a question about the afterlife, said he imagined it as somehow this life in review, viewed in a new light. I had not been as comforted as I wanted to be. For is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and-doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance…

In church this morning, as I half-listened to the Christmas hymns and the reading of the very unlikely, much-illustrated passage from Luke telling how Gabriel came to Mary and told her that the Holy Ghost would come upon her and the power of the Highest would ‘overshadow’ her and make her pregnant with the Son of God, it appeared to me that when we try in good faith to believe in materialism, in the exclusive reality of the physical, we are asking our selves to step aside; we are disavowing the very realm where we exist and where all things precious are kept — the realm of emotion and conscience, of memory and intention and sensation.

I have the persistent sensation, in my life and art, that I am just beginning.”


Excerpted from the impeccable final chapter “On Being a Self Forever” in John Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this multifaceted, beautifully written book. Among modern American writers, Updike is perhaps the best known for his prolific output: in looking at his CV, it seems he published a book every month — and a poem every morning along with two essays and a review each afternoon. This unsurpassable fluency and energy come through in the superb writing and versatility of Self-Consciousness. It’s a memoir that covers a lot of ground, effortlessly.

Though I like the biographical narrative of Self-Consciousness, it’s these ruminative asides — profound and deeply personal — that make the book so special. You can read more below.