The Magazine

Forward & Bechward

John Updike collects his Henry Bech stories.

Jul 2, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 40 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
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IN HIS LATER LANDSCAPES, Paul Cézanne often elaborated the center of his pictures while leaving the corners unpainted, so the sky was only implicit in the blank patches of canvas. In his Henry Bech stories, recently collected in The Complete Henry Bech, John Updike turns Cézanne inside out: he elaborates the corners and leaves a lot of white space in the center.

The effect is not accidental. Updike is an artist of the corners, an objective artist who creates the impression that he is depicting what is there, not just what his characters happen to notice. In an interview in the New York Times Book Review with his own Henry Bech, Updike described the aim of his fiction: "It’s bringing the corners forward. Or throwing light into them...,singing the hitherto unsung....I distrust books involving spectacular people or spectacular events." One gets the impression that if Updike were a movie director, he would spurn the close-up: too subjective, prurient in its gaping at characters isolated in moments of high emotion. I once caught him on television fondly citing the most valuable piece of advice that his father ever gave him: Butter the edges of the toast—because some always ends up in the middle anyway.

If you’re going to nibble the buttery edges of someone’s prose, it might as well be John Updike’s. On every page of every Bech story (there are twenty, spanning over thirty years), there is something to enjoy and admire—a sly literary gibe, a deft character sketch, a flashing social insight, expertly mimicked speech, or descriptive phrases that faithfully reproduce the material world and still manage to chime so melodiously on the page they might as well be arranged on staff paper.

But in the Bech stories not enough butter does finally trickle into the center, occupied
by a protagonist we might think we know better than we do. Certainly, Updike supplies ample personal data about Henry Bech, the blocked New York Jewish novelist that he first introduced in a 1964 New Yorker short story that won the O. Henry prize. Bech comes to us with a detailed biography and (as an appendix to Bech: A Book, the first in the series of three Bech books, non-committally called "quasi-novels") a complete bibliography.

Born in 1923, Bech was raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side by a domineering mother and an "atheistic socialist" father who worked in the diamond district. Bech saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and cut his eyeteeth on a service newspaper in postwar Berlin. He studied literature at NYU on the GI Bill (at least in one version; in another he is a stack rat who created himself as a novelist without the benefit of a college education) before beginning his literary ascent in Greenwich Village contributing literary journalism, poetry, and short fiction to the welter of postwar little magazines.

When first introduced, Bech has written three novels, the Beat-era road novel Travel Light ("a minor classic"), the highly aestheticized novella Brother Pig ("did his reputation no harm"), and his "frontal assault on the wonder of life" The Chosen ("universally judged a failure—one of those ‘honorable’ failures, however, that rather endear a writer to the race of critics, who would rather be assured of art’s noble difficulty than cope with a potent creative verve").

By the time Updike begins writing about him in the mid-1960s, Bech is forty-ish, single, blocked, coasting on early fame, building his life outward without making dramatic upfield advances, and falling gratefully on any opportunity for escape. "In his fallow middle years [Bech] hesitated to decline any invitation, whether it was to travel to Communist Europe or to smoke marijuana," as Updike puts it in the story "Bech Enters Heaven." "His working day was brief, his living day was long, and there always lurked the hope that around the corner of some impromptu acquiescence he would encounter, in a flurry of apologies and excitedly mis-aimed kisses, his long-lost mistress, Inspiration."

Bech is a frequent flyer. Bech: A Book flies him behind the Khrushchev-era Iron Curtain to Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria for three stories. In the story "Rich in Russia," the author is flush with unexportable rubles from the royalties of his Russian sales and can’t find much to spend them on besides cheap watches, blocky toys, and furs.