Jew d’Esprit

Bech Is Back

by John Updike
Knopf, 195 pp., $13.95

The return of Henry Bech was, one might think, something less than inevitable. After all, when, “with his thinning curly hair and melancholy Jewish nose,” Bech first surfaced in a short story in the mid-1960s, the American Jewish Novel was approaching its heyday as a generic cultural commodity. In 1965 Herzog concluded a two-year stay near the top of the bestseller lists. By 1970, when seven Bech stories appeared together (with addenda) as Bech: A Book, “Portnoy” was peaking—as a household name, as a nightclub punch-line; Salinger’s silence boomed then too, almost as loudly as Mailer’s word factory. In short, a fictional composite of the working American Jewish Novelist must have seemed like a good idea at the time—especially since the novelists themselves, however feverishly personal their alter egos, were still avoiding self-portraiture of the more transparently autobiographical kind.

So John Updike, that least Semitic of colleagues, quickly filled the vacuum with precisely the right blend of curiosity, affection, satire, and just-for-the-fun-of-it craft. Bech: A Book was a hard-working impersonation in casual-frolic dress, complete with a parody bibliography, lit. crit. in-jokes, and an introduction from Henry Bech himself—who gave his shrug of a blessing to this “little jeu of a book” and slyly defused à clef murmurings in advance by immediately noting the Bechian similarities to Mailer, Malamud, Singer, Bellow, Roths (2), Fuchs (1), and others. (He also astutely wagged a finger: “By the way, I never—unlike retired light-verse writers—make puns.”)

But the moment for a “little jeu of a book” about the American Jewish Novelist certainly has passed now—even if Updike could (and might) claim with justice that “some of my best books are jeu-ish.” The AJN per se is no longer at the center of serious-yet-popular fiction, no longer even superficially generic. Furthermore, in the dozen years since A Book, Bech territory has been vigorously invaded by the Bech originals. Philip Roth—as if to say “You thought Portnoy was autobiographical? I’ll show you autobiographical!”—made himself an unabashed mirror-man called Nathan Zuckerman, with both magical (The Ghost Writer) and mundane (Zuckerman Unbound) results. Isaac Bashevis Singer stands even more frequently (as the famous writer, not just the bemused observer) at the heart of a Singer story. Malamud’s Dubin and Heller’s Gold may not be novelists, but they’re working writers. And Bellow, richly confessional about the literary life in Humboldt’s Gift, seems ever more patently autobiographical with his (non-Jewish, non-novelist) hero in The Dean’s December.

Why, then, this comeback for Henry Bech—child of Williamsburg, would-be recluse of Riverside Drive, Casanova not-so-manqué? If impersonation were the point, surely Bech would have been allowed to retreat, the victim of terminal writer’s block, into well-earned obscurity. Even in Bech: A Book, however, there were hints that Updike’s investment in the game went far beyond the playful or the timely. The mock foreword by Bech begins: “Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than you.” Moreover, Bech wonders whether his fictional portrait…

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