When writers write fiction about writers and writing they brace themselves, nervously or defiantly, for an adverse response from friends, colleagues, publishers, and, in due course, reviewers. They expect to be told that such a project is incestuous, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and of no interest to anyone but themselves. But when these fears have been overcome, and the work begins, a sense of unwonted ease and enjoyment is apt to ensue. The writer is focused on a subject he really knows intimately, and about which he really cares—more perhaps than he cares about any other: the business of writing, in every sense of the word “business.” There is no need tediously to research, or strenuously to imagine, the lives of nonwriters—dealers or dentists or down-and-outs. The material is all there in his head, just waiting to be accessed.
Few writers have earned the right to such an occasional easy ride as fully as John Updike, whose oeuvre is remarkable for scrupulous verisimilitude in rendering a variety of occupations, métiers, and avocations, in a wide range of social, historical, and geographical settings. For over thirty years—for most, in fact, of his long and prolific literary career—he has also been writing stories about the adventures of a fictitious Jewish American novelist called Henry Bech. The paradox is that the first two collections of Bech stories, Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech is Back (1982), slim volumes whose jauntily alliterative titles frankly confessed their metafictional jokiness, not to say in-jokiness, have been among the most popular and warmly received of his productions; and the advent of a new, third installment of Henry Bech’s biography will have provoked tremors of pleasurable anticipation in many readers who perhaps decided to pass on Updike’s recent “serious” novels. Which is not to imply that the Bech books are not in their own way serious, or that Updike’s other novels lack wit and humor. But the former are arguably his most overtly comic works, and this no doubt accounts for their popularity. It is all part of the holiday mood in which one intuits they were written: the author’s (comparatively) effortless enjoyment of his task communicates itself to the reading experience. The last two stories, or chapters, in Bech at Bay especially suggest an author who is taking a wicked delight in his own invention.
For the benefit of new readers: Henry Bech was born in 1923; enjoyed a fashionable success in the Fifties with his first novel, Travel Light, and a novella, Brother Pig; then produced a long novel called The Chosen in 1963 which was intended to be his masterpiece but which was so badly received that Henry succumbed to a chronic writer’s block, a condition he relieved by impersonating himself on various American campuses, and in various foreign countries, as a representative of contemporary American fiction. These adventures, which invariably involved Bech in sexual encounters with various female minders, meeters, greeters, and fans, were chronicled in Bech, one of the first books to register the fact that writers could now have quite interesting and economically sustainable careers without actually writing anything. It is merely necessary to have written something in the past on the strength of which one can peddle oneself as a personality, a platform presence, a cultural envoy, or a dissertation subject.
In Bech is Back, after further peregrinations of the same kind, the writer was jolted by a surprising marriage to his mistress’s sister into rapidly finishing the work-in-progress he had been ineffectually tinkering with for fifteen years. When Bech last submitted a book to his publishers they simply took it, printed it, and paid him a royalty. The finely comic rendering of Bech’s bewildered initiation into the world of corporate, market-oriented, and publicity-driven modern publishing was another indication of Updike’s sure finger on the pulse of cultural change. Entitled Think Big, the new book received ambivalent reviews (e.g.,”The squalid book we all deserve”—Alfred Kazin; “Not quite as vieux chapeau as I had every reason to fear”—Gore Vidal) but became a best seller on the strength of its saucy sexual content.
Both Bech and Bech is Back are classified as short stories on the crowded preliminary page of Bech at Bay that tabulates John Updike’s prodigious output, but the new book itself is subtitled “A Quasi-Novel,” creating an unnecessary puzzle for future bibliographers. The format of all these books (for which Nabokov’s Pnin is perhaps the model) is the same: a collection of self-contained stories unified by their common protagonist. In Bech at Bay there are five. One is the now-it-can-be-told story of a libel case in which Bech was involved back in 1972. The actions of the others date from 1986 to 1999. The book mainly covers, in other words, the author’s old age, to which his self-assessment in Bech: A Book still applies: “His reputation had grown while his powers declined.” Bech has published nothing significant since Think Big, and shows no signs of doing so, but under the benign providence of his creator he ends up, in his seventies, more famous than ever—and still sexually active. So there is hope for us all.
The first story, however, “Bech in Czech,” finds the novelist in somber mood, his morale at a low ebb. Once again he is on the road as a government-sponsored cultural envoy. He is staying in Prague as the cosseted guest of the American ambassador, but he feels uneasy in the residency, a palace built by a Jewish banker whose family had to flee Hitler. “For a Jew, to move through post-war Europe is to move through hordes of ghosts, vast animated crowds that, since 1945, are not there, not there at all—up in smoke. The feathery touch of the mysteriously absent is felt on all sides.” And nowhere more pervasively than in Prague. It is felt in the old Jewish cemetery where the gravestones of centuries are crowded together at crazy angles like cards being shuffled, and in the newer one on the outskirts of the city where Bech, at the ambassador’s tactful suggestion, makes a pious visit to Kafka’s grave. “The vistas seemed endless,…silent with the held breath of many hundreds of ended lives.”
As for the present, it is 1986, and the Velvet Revolution is still three years in the future, unimagined and unimaginable. Life in Czechoslovakia outside the luxurious precincts of the embassy is drab, depressed, deprived. Bech, uncharacteristically, feels unworthy of the respect accorded to him. All his books are translated and in print, but they “were petty and self-indulgent, it seemed to Bech as he repeatedly signed them, like so many checks that would bounce.” A specimen samizdat volume shown to him at a gathering of dissident writers gives him, by contrast, “some archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.” The ambassador has a theory that the heroic age of Czech intellectual resistance came to an end in 1968, and Bech can see an element of truth in this: the dissident writers he meets have a somewhat weary, middle-aged air, as if resigned to the permanence of their plight. But some of them have suffered terribly for their principles. Imagining himself faced with the threat of torture, Bech “could think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.” It is moments of ruthless honesty like this that make him, for all his faults, a rather endearing fellow.
Out of loyalty to the dissident writers, Bech is determined to despise the apparatchiks who run the state publishing network, but this consolation is denied him, for they turn out to be disconcertingly young, hip, and very well acquainted with Bech’s work and its place in contemporary American writing. Altogether, Prague is an unhappy place of passage for Bech, equally alienated as he is from its historical past and its political present. Even his sexual appetite seems to be fading. He fancies the ambassador’s wife but lacks the energy or the gumption to make a pass at her until it is too late. Henry Bech, in short, is having a recurrence of the mid-life crisis from which he resurrected himself by marriage and the completion of Think Big.
More fervently than he was a Jew, Bech was a writer, a literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt cause for unease. He was a creature of the third person, a character. A character suffers from the fear that he will become boring to the author, who will simply let him drop…. As his sixties settled around him, as heavily as an astronaut’s suit, he felt boredom from above dragging at him.
After his lecture, bloated with undeserved praise and embassy white wine, Bech “lay in bed sleepless, beset by panic.” The text then segues into passages extracted (a note on the copyright page informs us) from the Czech translation of the story “Bech Panics,” in Bech is Back, which set up the final epiphany: “His panic…revealed a certain shape. That shape was the fear that, once he left…the Ambassador’s Residence, he would—up in smoke—cease to exist.”
I am not sure about the passages in Czech. They are manifestly inserted by Updike into Bech’s consciousness, since Bech doesn’t speak or read more than a few words of the language. As a device to express the character’s alienation and disorientation it seems less effective and less justifiable than Tom Stoppard’s use of Czech dialogue in his television play Professional Foul (1978), which makes the audience share the English protagonist’s helpless incomprehension of a secret police raid on a dissident’s home. However, with that reservation, “Bech in Czech” is a very satisfying story. Nothing much happens—but that is in a sense the point; and our attention is held by the delicacy and precision of the prose, always Updike’s enviable strength.
Most modern short stories end with either an epiphany or a twist. “Bech Presides” belongs to the latter type, and the fact that you can see the twist coming from miles away doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the text, again because of the sentence-to-sentence quality of the writing. The year is 1991 and Bech, back in the Manhattan he loves and loathes, is sixty-eight. He is persuaded by a young editor intriguingly called Martina O’Reilly to contribute a tribute to the seventieth-birthday Festschrift for his old literary acquaintance and rival, Izzy Thornbush. The two writers’ reputations have seesawed over the years, but perhaps at this juncture Izzy, the author of great sprawling flawed epics, has a slightly higher profile than Henry, whose most characteristic work aspires to the exquisite condensation of a haiku—or so Izzy’s dishy wife Pamela tells Bech, not entirely to his pleasure, while he is looking covetously down the front of her dress.