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.
At a party to launch the Festschrift, Izzy urges Bech to accept the presidency of a privately endowed academy called the Forty to which they both belong, and in his anxiety to leave the party at precisely the same moment as Martina O’Reilly and lure her to his loft apartment in SoHo (a tactic which succeeds) he hurriedly agrees to the proposal. Founded to enshrine “the dignity, the integrity, the saintly devotion that had once attached to the concept of the arts in the American republic,” and housed in one of the last neoclassical brick-fronted mansions in midtown Manhattan, the Forty has become something of a dodo in the brutal, restless climate of postmodern culture. Its aging membership meet at long intervals to consume a dinner, deplore the corruption of modern taste, and elect new members as old ones die off to make up the statutory total of forty—but even this last task seems increasingly beyond them, so reluctant are they to acknowledge any merit in artists younger than themselves.
Bech rather enjoys the majesty of office, sitting at a desk as big as the deck of an aircraft carrier under the glass dome of the solarium, with a devoted secretariat of civilized, celibate ladies at his command, but becomes increasingly exasperated at the members’ inability to nominate any new members even though the society’s continuing existence is in jeopardy. Updike takes liberties with real people, some of them living, in his amusing account of these discussions. “The name of William Gaddis, put forward by Thornbush, was batted aside with the phrase ‘Joycean gibberish’…, and that of Jasper Johns met unenthusiasm in Seidensticker’s summation of ‘Pop tricks and neo-figurative doodles.”‘ Toni Morrison may be surprised and not altogether enchanted to read here that her nomination is withdrawn because the proposer forgot she was already a member.
Izzy springs a surprise motion to disband the organization and distribute its assets among the members, which is passed by a narrow majority. Since the Forty occupies a prime mid-Manhattan site, quickly snapped up by a buyer, the spoils are considerable, but are immediately contested by the family legatees of the founder. It seems that most of the proceeds will probably be swallowed up in legal fees, and the members’ greed justly punished thereby; but Izzy proves to have an indirect interest in the deal. Bech belatedly realizes he has been used, but is consoled by the prospect of receiving a cut himself, glimpsed in a final improvised haiku: “After a lifetime/of dwelling among fine shades/a payoff at last.”
Bech: A Book carried a mock foreword in the form of a letter from Henry Bech to John Updike which deftly preempted the first interpretative question which is bound to be asked about the whole Bech saga: To what extent is it a serial roman à clef? “Dear John,” it began, “Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me.” After drawing attention to resemblances between Updike’s portrait of Bech and various well-known Jewish American writers (Mailer’s sexuality, Bellow’s silver hair, Philip Roth’s boyhood, Salinger’s writer’s block, etc., etc.), Henry Bech perceives also “something Waspish, theological, scared, and insulatingly ironical that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.”
By scrambling so many clues drawn from so many sources, Updike has made it impossible for us to identify Bech with any one writer. By making him Jewish he presumably aimed to establish an ironic distance between his authorial self and material that (as the foreword concedes) was drawn in part from his own professional life and character. It was a risky strategy: How could a Gentile writer presume to represent the subjectivity of an American Jew in competition with so many brilliant real Jewish writers? Though I can hardly speak with any authority, it seems to me that Updike has risen admirably to the challenge, with the possible exception, oddly enough, of Bech’s prose style. Here for instance is an extract from his tribute to Thornbush:
“Here be dragons” was the formula with which the old cartographers would mark a space fearsomely unknown, and my own fear is that, in this age of the pre-masticated sound-bite and the King-sized gross-out, the vaulted food court where Thornbush’s delicacies are served is too little patronized—the demands that they, pickled in history’s brine and spiced with cosmology’s hot stardust, would make upon the McDonaldized palate of the reader…
And so on, for several more lines before the sentence is wrapped up. Even allowing for the insincerity of the writer in this instance, both syntax and diction strike me as being too precious, too Jamesian, too Nabokovian, too Updikey, in fact, to be a plausible pastiche of Jewish American writing. Just as well, then, that Updike shrewdly abstains from giving us any specimens of the fiction on which Bech’s reputation rests—only teasing critical characterizations, “Early Post-Modern… Post-Realist…Pre-Minimalist.” But Bech’s speech, especially his wry, laconic one-liners, and his thoughts rendered in free indirect style, would not, it seems to me, look incongruous in the pages of one of Updike’s Jewish peers.
In the present volume the story that tells us most about Bech’s ethnic and social background is perhaps “Bech Pleads Guilty.” Back in the early Seventies, it appears, he wrote an article for a new magazine about post-studio Hollywood in which he rashly described an agent called Morris Ohrbach as “an arch-gouger” who for “greedy reasons of his own rake-off” had “widened the prevailing tragic rift between the literary and cinematic arts.” This everybody in the industry knows to be true, but it is defamatory, and not easy to prove. The magazine quickly goes out of business. Ohrbach sues Bech for ten million dollars. It is the writer’s nightmare that turns out to be waking reality.
Bech’s queasy involvement in the legal process, his anxious observation of the court proceedings in Los Angeles, his sense of being a pawn in a kind of game played out by two teams of lawyers with priorities of their own, are acutely and comically observed. But a curious thing happens: when the villainous Ohrbach finally appears in court, Bech begins to feel sorry for him because he reminds him of his father, a salesman in the diamond district of Manhattan who died on the subway in the rush hour. Some old Oedipal wound has been opened. Bech wins the case but feels obscurely guilty. Afterward, in post-coital conversation with a member of his legal team called Rita, he relates how
“When my father died…we found in his bureau drawers these black elastic stockings I had bought him, so his legs wouldn’t hurt so much. He had never worn them. They still had the cardboard in them. Pieces of cardboard shaped like feet.”
“Sweetheart, O.K. I see it. The cardboard feet. Dying down in the subway. Life is rough. But that other judío was trying to eat you. Which would you rather?”
“Hey, I don’t know,” the defendant responded, touching two fingers to the erectile tip—the color of a sun-darkened, un-sulphur-treated apricot—of her nearer breast. “Neither seems ideal.”
As Bech says in another story, “Without guilt, there is no literature.” Certainly no Jewish literature.
Like the Woody Allen character in Woody Allen’s movies, Henry Bech has been endowed by his creator with an apparently ageless ability to attract young sexual partners. And whereas in the average man lust is increasingly supplanted by gluttony with advancing age, Bech enjoys both in the virtual reality of metaphor—vide the apricot nipple above, or Martina O’Reilly naked under Bech’s bathrobe: “Martina suggested a big blintz—the terry-cloth the enfolding crepe, her flesh the pure soft cheese.” As a concession to realism, these consorts have become slightly less ravishing as time goes by, but no older. In “Bech Noir” he is living with a new secretarial assistant, Robin Teagarten, “twenty-six, post-Jewish, frizzy big hair, figure on the short and solid side…. He was seventy-four, but they worked with that.” The story takes other, more daring gambles with credibility: Bech becomes a serial killer.
As often happens with writers, the older he gets, the more obsessed Bech becomes with his reputation, the more he suffers from a sense of neglected merit, and the more resentful he becomes, retrospectively, of the critical reception of his work. The ministrations of Robin cannot entirely soothe away this niggling discontent. But one day, reading the Times over breakfast, Bech comes across the obituary of a critic who had panned The Chosen. The gourmet rhetoric takes a new and sinister turn. “A creamy satisfaction—the finest quality, made extra easy to spread by the toasty warmth—thickly covered his heart.” More bluntly, “Mishner dead put another inch on his prick.”
A week later Bech finds himself on a crowded subway platform three rows back from the edge where he spots Raymond Featherwaite vulnerably standing, the snotty English expat academic and critic who called Think Big “prolix and voulu” in the “ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books.” He is irresistibly tempted to repeat the satisfaction of Mishner’s death. A well-timed push as the train rushes from its tunnel creates a domino effect that sends Featherwaite under the wheels. “It was an instant’s event…. Just one head pleasantly less in the compressed, malodorous mob.” Bech slips away, trembling but unobserved, and the death is reported in the next morning’s paper as a presumed suicide. Featherwaite’s colleagues at CUNY are quick to supply possible motives (and after all, who in the modern world doesn’t harbor them?). Robert Silvers is quoted expressing shock and paying tribute to the deceased’s “unflinching critical integrity.” Having got away with murder once, Bech cannot resist trying again. This time his victim is an elderly lady professor and writer of children’s books who long ago wrote dismissive reviews of Brother Pig and Think Big. He sends her forged juvenile fan mail enclosing stamped addressed envelopes whose gum he spikes with poison.
When Robin tumbles to what Bech is doing, she is appalled but also fascinated and attracted, to the point of colluding with him. In this way she enacts the response of the reader. We ought to be repelled by Bech’s deeds, but in an awful way we enjoy them. We ought to find them incredible, but suspend our disbelief for the sheer delicious black comedy of the conceit—an old writer’s revenge for old insults taking such a literally murderous form. How Updike resolves this tension between morals and aesthetics in narrative terms I will leave the reader to discover, mindful of Bech’s resentment of the “cheerfully ham-handed divulgence of all his plot’s nicely calculated and hoarded twists” by reviewers of Travel Light.
I feel no such constraint about the final story, since its content is given away in the publisher’s blurb, and probably by its title, “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden.” Yes, Henry Bech wins the Nobel Prize. This is of course even more incredible, given his literary track record, than his murders, and yet again we go along with it for the pleasure of the ride, which has to it an edge of danger, like being on a roller coaster or a runaway train. There is a kind of exhilarating recklessness about these last two stories in the liberties they take with decorum, in the ordinary as well as the literary sense of the word. Updike, unlike Bech, is clearly past caring what reviewers say about him, and indifferent to how his fellow writers may feel about having their names promiscuously dropped in the Bech chronicles. His account of “the Forty” seems to be a mischievous travesty of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he is himself a member, and whose centennial Festschrift, published this year, he edited.* He is apparently ready to jeopardize his chances of winning the Nobel Prize (which can’t be negligible) for the sake of having some fictional fun with it. The main narrative question in “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden” is what kind of acceptance speech Bech will give. That I won’t divulge. Suffice to say that it is the first Nobel speech given by a recipient holding a baby, and that the last word of the story is “bye-bye.” Bye-Bye Bech might have been a better title for this book. It is hard to imagine there could be a sequel—but with Updike you never know.
In Bech: A Book the eponymous hero visits England to celebrate the publication of an anthology, The Best of Bech. At the airport on his departure, his publisher thrusts into Bech’s hand a sheaf of reviews, which he reads in a way that every writer will wincingly recognize: “Bech skimmed, as a fakir walks on coals, pausing nowhere long enough to burn the moisture from the soles of his feet.” Bech is not, of course, just avoiding the pain of criticism; he is also looking for, or hoping to light on, praise, especially in some simple unambiguous formula that can be quoted on the cover of the paperback edition. Looking back through this review I perceive that in spite of the generous length allowed to me by this ravingly Anglophile journal I have somehow omitted to provide such a quote. So here it is: Bech at Bay is brilliant.
November 19, 1998
A Century of Arts & Letters: The History of the National Institute of Arts & Letters and the American Academy of Arts & Letters as Told, Decade by Decade, by Eleven Members (Columbia University Press, 1998). ↩