Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel
by John Updike
Knopf. 241 pp. $23.00

In the last of the five stories that make up Bech at Bay, John Updike describes what happens when his protagonist, Henry Bech, is awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature. The announcement is greeted with scorn and incredulity; the New York Daily News goes so far as to run a front-page headline inquiring, “BECH? WHODAT???”

In reality, few readers of superior fiction will need to be told whodat. Bech is the moderately famous novelist who has featured in two previous Updike collections, Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982). He was born in 1923—nine years before his creator John Updike—and published his first novel, Travel Light (“a semi-Beat near-classic”) in 1955, four years before Updike published his first novel. A big novel called The Chosen—no connection with Chaim Potok—flopped in 1963; a sexy novel, Think Big, was a best-seller in 1979. During his fallow periods, which have been extensive, he has spent much of his time lecturing on campuses or traveling abroad, especially in Eastern Europe, as an ambassador of contemporary American fiction. He has been married once, unsuccessfully; he tends to become involved with women on a more or less intimate basis wherever he goes. And he is Jewish—very much so.

The first story in Bech at Bay finds Bech back in Europe, in a Czechoslovakia where the Communists are still in power (the year is 1986)—lecturing, staying at the American embassy, feeling ill at ease with dissidents and apparatchiks alike. Next, five years on, he is inveigled into becoming president of the Forty, a privately endowed academy of the arts that meets in a handsome townhouse in midtown Manhattan; not long after being installed, he is invited to preside over its dissolution. Then it is back in time to 1972 and across to Los Angeles, where the most conspicuous result of a journalistic assignment is a $10-million libel action brought against him by Morris Ohrbach, one of Hollywood’s most feared movie agents.

The last two stories in the book bring Bech close up against the elemental facts of death and birth. In “Bech Noir,” set in 1997, he hits on a technique for avenging himself on the literary critics whose slights he has had to endure over the years. He starts murdering them, using increasingly ingenious means; although Robin Teagarden, the “post-Jewish” twenty-six-year-old who has moved in with him, eventually tumbles to what is going on, the discovery merely serves to make her find him more exciting. Finally, in “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden,” he travels to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremonies, accompanied by Robin and their eight-month-old daughter Golda. (When it comes to naming her child, it turns out that Robin is “not so post-Jewish after all.”)



The sonorous phrase, “bounty of Sweden,” is a borrowing from an earlier and actual Nobel laureate, W.B. Yeats. Used in connection with the prosaic Bech, it is comically inappropriate—and also a reminder of the extent to which the Bech saga is a prolonged literary game. Nothing in this new collection is as skittish as the bibliography of writings by and about Bech that Updike appended to Bech: A Book (a number of the—needless to say—spurious items in that bibliography were listed as having appeared in COMMENTARY); but there is an abundance of artfulness even so. Updike has plainly enjoyed himself fabricating a literary world tantalizingly close to the real thing, yet distorted at every turn by touches of parody and burlesque, and the more solidly grounded Bech is made to seem, the more playfully implausible his adventures become. All the stories in Bech at Bay, with the possible exception of the Czech episode, could reasonably be classified as entertainments, but the last two—Bech as serial killer, Bech crowned by the Swedish Academy—are unashamed extravaganzas.

Viewed purely as light fiction, the stories are admirable. The debates among the decrepit members of the Forty, Bech’s contribution to a Festschrift for an ancient rival, the fake letters sent to an intended victim in “Bech Noir”—material of this kind could hardly be better handled. Updike has a sharpness of eye and a lightness of touch that set him far apart from most of what currently passes for literary satire.

At the same time, Bech is no mere stooge. The stories reach beyond entertainment; they invite us, in varying degrees, to take poor old Henry seriously—to share his aspirations, to enter into his sorrows. And up to a point we accede. The comedy is often rueful; it allows for a certain amount of sympathy. But it can also be uncomfortably inconsistent, and the relatively straight moments are hard to square with the more farcical or cartoonish ones. To cite only the most obvious instance, just how seriously can we take Bech’s subsequent adventures—or, in retrospect, his earlier ones—after he has been subjected to the black humor of “Bech Noir”?

It may be that Updike is simply amusing himself by breaking the rules and mixing incompatible modes. Certainly he seems to be teasing us when, in the subtitle, he describes Bech at Bay as a “quasi-novel,” for “novel” implies a coherence the book does not actually possess (though of course “quasi” is always an escape hatch). At the climax, or what would be the climax if this were a novel, broad comedy and high seriousness are scrambled together in a positively defiant manner. Bech delivers an impassioned Nobel lecture on life, art, and “the nature of human existence” while holding baby Golda in his arms; she in turn behaves much as you would expect her to. The effect, alas, is rather corny. It somehow recalls Frank Capra.



If Bech is best taken one story at a time, two elements in his personality remain constant. He is forever struggling with his fate as a writer, and we cannot be in his presence for long without being reminded that he is a Jew. His Jewishness in fact constitutes the most distinctive aspect of his appeal as a literary artifact. Without it, it seems inconceivable that the Bech stories would have given readers the frisson they did when they first began to appear nearly 30 years ago; and however much the world has changed since then, they still retain the faint shadow of a violated taboo. In creating Bech, Updike was challenging a supposed area of Jewish uniqueness, the tacit assumption that only a Jewish novelist could create convincing Jewish characters. In a friendly spirit (and you might say that the very attempt was an act of friendship) he was setting out to demonstrate that a non-Jew could get it right.

His achievement in this respect is impressive as far as it goes. The small social details are plausible. So, for the most part, are the mannerisms and habits of thought. Though Bech’s life does not appear to have much of a Jewish hinterland—in terms of culture, social activities, or ideas—there is no particular reason why it should. It is a novelist’s privilege to concentrate on the aspects of a character he is likely to handle best, and, within his limits, Bech has an authentically Jewish feel—rather more so, I would say, than James Joyce’s dubiously Jewish Jew, Leopold Bloom.

The episode in the new collection with the highest Jewish content is “Bech Pleads Guilty,” the story of Bech’s lawsuit with the dread Morris Ohrbach. At one level it is a neatly constructed courtroom drama; but as the case develops, strange feelings stir. Bech’s hostility toward Ohrbach starts to melt away. He cannot help identifying him with his own father, Abe Bech the diamond dealer, who has died the previous year. (A New York death: he collapsed on the subway, “under the sliding filth of the East River.”) By the end of the story we have been vouchsafed some glimpses of Bech’s adolescence in Brooklyn, and given an insight into the guilt—filial, not legal—to which the title wittily alludes. The whole performance is a small triumph of cultural empathy.

The other overtly Jewish passages are mostly found in the opening story, “Bech in Czech.” They are beautifully written, but they feel somewhat dutiful and external—extracts from a traveler’s notebook as he visits Kafka’s grave, ponders the drawings of children murdered in the Holocaust, reflects on the fact that the American embassy in Prague was once the home of a Jewish banker. By comparison, the Ohrbach imbroglio seems frivolous, but it has been more fully imagined from the inside.

Bech at his best remains an essentially comic creation. But we are still left wondering why, at the end of Bech at Bay, he is not racked by at least occasional guilt at the thought of all those critics he has dispatched. True, they were only critics; but they were human beings, too. In the next book, will his adventures perhaps take a Dostoevskian turn—Bech as the hero of a latter-day Crime and Punishment?


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