John Updike: Bech: A Book

This review was originally slated to post last Tuesday, the day John Updike died but before his death was announced. I’m not sure how I would have felt about that, but this now gives me the opportunity to put up a sort of review in memoriam. I’m not yet familiar with most of Updike’s work. I’ve read only a few of his short stories, and those long enough ago that I don’t remember them though I remember not understanding them. I was in the bookstore a couple of months ago with a coupon for a free book, and I knew I wanted to use it to get to know Updike. Perhaps fortuitously for me, the bookstore did not have any of the Rabbit books (strange, I know). I’d heard good things about Bech, though, so I grabbed the first one: Bech: A Book (1970).

bech-a-book

This book is actually a collection of short pieces written during the 1960s and published principally in The New Yorker. In them we come to know Updike’s antithetical alter ego (or is it correct to say the anti-alter ego?), Henry Bech, a Jewish New Yorker who’s suffering from writer’s block. Bech has never married, and his behavior at 40 years of age is decidedly curmudgeon. Yet, in him we get a whiff of some of Updike’s own character. Then again, perhaps we get no more here than we get in any other book by any other author. But Updike himself, in his very playful introduction to this collection, suggests there’s at least a bit of him in here.

Dear John,

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. At first blush, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinning curly hair), I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; then that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns, than of stolid old homely yours truly.  My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer. I get a whiff of Malamud in your city breezes, and I am paranoid to feel my “block” an ignoble version of the more or less noble renunciations of H. Roth, D. Fuchs, and J. Salinger? Withal, something Waspish, theological, scared, and insulatingly ironical that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.

It is also in this introduction that I was really introduced to Updike’s love for poetry and word games. He obviously had fun writing these stories:

I don’t suppose your publishing this little jeu of a book will do either of us drastic harm.

However, though the introduction started me off on the right foot, the first story “Rich in Russia” confused me. I was expecting to really get a sense for this character. Updike’s linguistic flavor was present (“Virtue, in Russia as in his childhood, seemed something that arose from men, like a comforting body odor, rather than something from above, that impaled the struggling soul like a moth on a pin.”), but I didn’t care for Bech himself. It’s not that I didn’t like Bech. I really didn’t care one way or the other. My disinterestedness continued in the second story, “Bech in Rumania; or, The Rumanian Chauffeur.”

These were interesting stories in their own way. Bech, not getting too much out in the publishing world these days, has been invited to tour the countries of Eastern Europe. In his encounters we get a sense for the man. But like I said, I was not engaged.

All of this changed with the subsequent stories: “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “Bech Takes Pot Luck,” “Bech Panics,” “Bech Swings?,” and finally “Bech Enters Heaven.” The many things I’d heard about Bech — how compelling his particular mixture of libido and impotence was, how offbeat his observations were, how well Updike filled this man up with life, etc. — became clear and potent to me. I guess I like my alter-ego authors to have some sort of existential crisis. It began with this beauty of a line: “Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility.” Suddenly Bech the man became accessible to me on a deeper level, and surprisingly to me, his first stories — the ones I’d discounted — became significant.

My personal favorite was “Bech Panics.” It begins this way:

This moment in Bech’s pilgrimage must be approached reverently, hesitantly, as befits a mystery. We have these few slides: Bech posing before a roomful of well-groomed girls spread seraglio-style on the floor, Bech lying awake in the frilly guest room of a dormitory, Bech conversing beside a granite chapel with a woman in a purple catsuit, Bech throwing himself like a seed upon the leafy sweet earth of Virginia, within a grove of oaks on the edge of the campus, and mutely begging Someone, Something, for mercy.

In this story, we meet up with Bech a few months into the relationship he began at the end of “Bech Takes Pot Luck” (“As to love, he had been recently processed by a pair of sisters, first the one, and then the other; the one was neurotic and angular and harsh and glamorous and childless and exhausting, and the other had been sane and soft and plain and maternal and exhausting.”). A southern female voice calls him on the phone to invite him to speak to an all-girls college in Virginia. Bech, who doesn’t accept invitations to speak at Columbia two subway stops away, takes this chance to get one thousand miles away from his latest mistress — or perhaps I’m being unfair there. What he finds when he arrives is a great crisis of his faith — no, not in the Jewish religion, Bech doesn’t believe in that, but in his faith in himself, in his being, in his own value as an author, and in the value of art itself.

He saw that even in an age of science and unbelief our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions, mere animal noises intended to repel or attract. He looked around the ring of munching females and saw their bodies as a Martian or a mollusc might see them, as pulpy stalks of bundled nerves oddly pinched to a bud of concentration in the head, a hairy bone knob holding some pounds of jelly in which a trillion circuits, mostly dead, kept records, coded motor operations, and generated an excess of electricity that pressed into the hairless side of the head and leaked through orifices, in the form of pained, hopeful noises and a simian dance of wrinkles. Impossible mirage! A blot on nothingness. And to think that all the efforts of his life — his preening, his lovemaking, his typing — boiled down to the attempt to displace a few sparks, to bias a few circuits, within some random other scoops of jelly that would, in less time than it takes the Andreas Fault to shrug or the tail-tip star of Scorpio to crawl an inch across the map of Heaven, be utterly dissolved.

I’m not sure, had I encountered the first few stories in The New Yorker, I would have been able to follow them. As I said above, the stories came alive as they built on one another. For me, these stories work best in book form, all compiled into one place, ready to be read as if a novel and not as discreet parts. And now that I’m done with Bech: A Book, I can’t wait to get a hold of Bech Is Back and Bech at Bay. Perhaps I’ll encounter them on some library shelf in the Mid-West. I think that would make Updike happy.

9 thoughts on “John Updike: Bech: A Book

  1. Rob says:

    I’ve never got around to reading any Updike, I’m not sure why. It may just be that reading John Irving’s Until I Find You actually put me off any author whose surname begins with a vowel. This one sounds intriguing, though. A good place to start, do you think?

  2. Trevor says:

    Ugh, Irving. A few months ago a few of us discussed Irving, whom I never have liked, and most people in the discussion said that his work has gone downhill.

    About this being a good place to start: I think so. It was fairly quick and I think showcases Updike’s storybuilding skills, his wordplay, and his eye for detail. The one caveat is in my review: I think one must read these as a novel and not as a short story here and there. I’m not sure where to go next. I have Gertrude and Claudius, and I hear The Centaur is superb. And someday I’ll get the Rabbit books. Bech: A Book definitely made me want to get to know him better, so perhaps that makes it a great place to start.

  3. Rob says:

    That would probably suit my reading style. I do tend to read books of short stories, especially shorter volumes, more or less as one would read a novel. A bad habit, I know, but one that’s not easily shaken (if I put a book down between stories, there’s too much risk that I won’t pick it up again).

  4. When I revisited Updike a few years ago, I was intrigued by how well Bech had aged in comparison to the Rabbit books (although I certainly enjoyed that reread as well). I think this review hits on one of the reasons. Updike’s meticulousness is well-suited to the short story whereas too often in the novels one is left with the “will this boring bit never end” kind of feeling. And it is ironic that the Bech stories, while supposedly centred on the individual writer, are actually more outward-looking that the Rabbit novels.

    So, given that Updike wrote the two series in parallel, you now have a decision to make Trevor. Do you follow Bech through to the end or do you read the books in the order that Updike wrote them? Since he meant both as a commentary on America as he experienced it, either choice seems appropriate.

  5. Trevor says:

    So, given that Updike wrote the two series in parallel, you now have a decision to make Trevor. Do you follow Bech through to the end or do you read the books in the order that Updike wrote them?

    That’s a good question, Kevin, but I’m afraid I don’t know the answer right now. This book really made me anxious to read the rest of Bech, but at the same time, I’d kind of like to save some of these stories for later, since I found them so enjoyable. Mostly, it probably depends on which comes my way first. I have my eyes on the Everyman’s edition of Rabbit Angstrom and The Complete Bech. That seems a sensible way to move forward, but which one will I get first? Or if I get both at the same time? I’m thinking it will probably be Rabbit.

  6. Both those Everyman’s editions have great introductory essays — Updike himself in Rabbit (where he explains his historical plan) and Malcolm Bradbury in Bech. The last time I read them, I read Bech first, then Rabbit. If I had it to do over again, I think I would try alternating them — Rabbit in particular is a tough go if you read all four one after the other. There is a good argument for saving Bech as well, because all of the stories reward savouring.

  7. Stewart says:

    I hadn’t realised the Bech books were a series of connected short stories. I’ve had the compendium sitting on the shelf for a year now, but can’t say I’ve ever thought of venturing toward it. It’s there more as a case of Updike completism gone awry.

    Never finished an Updike book yet, the best I did was half of Rabbit, Run which I remember enjoying and can’t think for the life of me why I would have set it aside. I assume a book more sparkly came out that week and I jumped on its lustre.

    The other I tried, his first, The Poorhouse Fair, was one of the more boring reading attempts of last year. I doubt I got more than twenty pages in. I think it’s fair to say that when he’s good, he’s very good, but when he’s bad, he’s torrid.

  8. I would give Bech a shot. If you get into the rhythm of the character (as I did and so obviously did Trevor) he becomes quite an interesting curmudgeon. And I give nothing away if I say that — if that does happen to you as a reader — the stories get better and better as the series goes on. And if you don’t get into that rhythm, you can just put the book back on the shelf.

  9. Trevor says:

    I think, Stewart, that the Bech books might just be the thing to get back into Updike. It did take me a few of the short stories before I, as Kevin said, got into the rhythm of the character, so give it a few – they are very short. Also, since he wrote them over a period of forty years, I don’t feel the obligation to read them that close together, so they’re good reads to come to again and again.

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