John Updike collects his Henry Bech stories.
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 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. His Russian interpreter, Kate, is a translator of American science fiction. "‘All over Soviet Union committees of people sit in discussion over Travel Light, its wonderful qualities,’" she tells him. "‘The printing of one hundred thousand copies has gone poof! in the bookstores.’ The comic strip colors of science fiction tinted her idiom unexpectedly." (Updike has a tendency, as here, to explain with superfluous literalness what he has already embodied with much charm.) The funny money and Kate’s surprise splashes of cartoon language suggest all the hidden difficulties in cultural translation that frustrate the good intentions of "cultural exchange." "Bech Swings" finds the author in swinging, mini-skirted London to promote a British anthology of his work and looking for a romantic Muse. She materializes in the shape of Merissa, a quick-witted heiress with whom his conversations "have a way of breaking into two-liners." The two go to a trendy club called Revolution "where posters of Ho and Mao and Engels and Lenin watched from the walls as young people dressed in sequins and bell-bottoms jogged up and down within a dense, throbbing, coruscating fudge of noise." Bech’s "particularizing" and very novelistic vision saves him from being taken in by the outwardly anarchical trappings of the counterculture: "Revolution was the cave of a new religion, but everyone had come, Bech saw, for reasons disappointingly reasonable and opportunistic. To make out. To be seen. To secure advancement. To be improved." Bech’s politics, like John Updike’s, seem to be underpinned by a sternly traditional work ethic and patriotism that is as tenaciously held as it is seldom spoken aloud. It is typical perhaps of conservative luck that the one major American novelist of his generation who held himself aloof from the faddish shibboleths of the 1960s Left never chose to acknowledge an affinity with the neoconservatives whom he often sounds like. The frequent flyer miles continue to pile up in the second book of the series, Bech Is Back. In the story "Bech Third-Worlds It," the writer hopscotches from hell-hole to basket-case across a third world simmering with post-Vietnam anti-Americanism. In "Australia and Canada," he visits Toronto and Sydney, all but interchangeable Anglo-Saxon "cities whose cores are not blighted but innocently bustling." In "Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author," a story that seems as if it were written as an excuse for its delicious closing line, Bech and longtime mistress Norma Latchett enjoy an expense-paid holiday in the Caribbean, courtesy of the Superoil Corporation, so that Bech can sign 28,500 copies of a fancy gift edition of his second novel. There, the blocked writer discovers what should have been obvious long before: He can no longer write his own name. With his new bride Bea Latchett (the discarded Norma’s sister), he travels to Israel ("The Holy Land") and Scotland ("MacBech"). His gentile wife glows with pious rapture in the Holy Land. The Jewish-American writer, in contrast, is repelled by the commercialism and banality juxtaposed with Jerusalem’s holy sites. He is also made uneasy by his new wife’s assumption that her marriage to Bech has conferred on her a proxy to, in a way, experience things on their joint behalves. In Scotland, the roles are reversed. Bech sees a paradoxically uplifting reflection of himself in Scotland’s history of defeat, while the ethnically Scottish Bea imagines that Bech in going native is snatching her ethnicity from her for his own writerly ends. In "Bech Wed," Bech finally comes to ground in suburban Ossining (John Cheever’s home, where the West Side Jew feels like a "one-man ghetto") and nestles into a mock Tudor with Bea and her three children. Prodded into activity by Bea, his "suburban softy," Bech produces after almost two years of diligent work an uncharacteristically lurid novel, inevitably promoted by his astonished publishers as his "long-awaited novel." But after the book becomes a major bestseller, a wrathfully jealous Norma Latchett ("The very bones in her ankles seemed to gnash as she crossed and recrossed her legs") returns to needle Bech for "turning into one more scribbler" and exact sexual revenge on the smug sister who is "bragging all the time about how she got you your little room, and told you to write a few pages every day, and keep going no matter how rotten it is." In the last book of the series, Bech at Bay, the novelist is largely consumed, whether in nostalgia or bitterness, by the past that dwarfs his dwindling future. This final book is dominated by two long, almost novella-length stories. In the first, "Bech Presides," Bech is coaxed into assuming the presidency of "the Forty," an exclusive and outwardly august society of mostly frail and superannuated artists that has come to seem like a genteely elitist relic, even to most of its own members. Just as Bech is getting used to his new briskly authoritative self, the decorously senescent members of the Forty, despairing of finding worthy artistic heirs among the rising generations, vote to dissolve themselves and pocket the proceeds of the sale of their mid-Manhattan townhouse and its valuable real estate. "Bech Noir" is a pastiche of noir unsentimentality and superhero righteousness. Having discovered in his declining years "that the literary world was a battlefield—mined with hatred and rimmed with snipers," a caped Bech transforms himself into an exterminating angel on behalf of unfairly reviewed writers everywhere. The adverse comments on Bech’s work cited in the story echo those made about Updike’s own fiction over the years. If Bech’s life is amply documented, however, it seems under-dramatized. In part, this is an effect of the discontinuity of the Bech stories: If you try to read them as a unified novel, in the course of which the protagonist learns from experience and adapts in discernible ways, you will be frustrated. And in part, it is because Bech is portrayed to a large extent in isolation from a web of intimate friends and family that in fiction helps reflect facets of the protagonist’s personality. Take Bech’s writer’s block, for example. If Bech were a fully dramatized personality, his impasse—he goes sixteen years without publishing a novel—would be the central dramatic situation confronting him. Its effects on him and the way those effects change over time would be explored in dramatic incidents selected for that purpose. Updike touches on the causes of Bech’s block: perfectionism, narcissism, and negligence pretending to themselves that they are patient preparation or principled abstention. But with the unconvincing exception of an implausibly overeducated panic attack in the story "Bech Panics," Updike largely neglects the psychological effects of Bech’s block. This is a curious omission. Bech’s drift into a life of creative sterility cushioned by public and critical recognition has carried him to a polar remove from the modernist ideal of the artist-priest who perseveres in beading his string despite the absence of a public up to the demands of his difficult work. An "exquisitist," according to Updike, who "accept[s] the standard of Flaubert and Joyce," Bech is aware that his life has swerved off into the negation of the ideal by which he was called to literature. This knowledge should be an open wound near the center of his psyche. Instead, it is more often a set-up for jaunty one-liners: "Am I blocked? I thought I was a slow typist." (I never said they weren’t good one-liners.) Instead of selecting incidents that illustrate the effects of Bech’s creative impotence, Updike seems to have assigned Bech writer’s block as a pretext for staging the kinds of incidents—the cultural exchanges and promotional appearances, the signings, book parties, and public readings—that permit him to poke gentle fun at his true subject: the trappings and peripherals associated with medium-sized literary celebrity in America. Updike has said that Bech "is about writing." But Martin Amis was probably closer to the mark when he said the Bech books are "about what writers get up to when they aren’t writing." Bech and his creator are often thought to be as unlike each other as two writers can be. This is in part because Bech appears to be assembled from parts of other writers, all Jewish: He has Bellow’s intoxicated language, Roth’s snarled feelings about his Jewishness, Salinger’s silence, and Mailer’s wooly hair and unconstrained polygyny. But in the devout aestheticism of his art and the aggrieved traditionalism of his politics, not to mention his foreign travel, Bech is a surrogate for John Updike, a vessel into whom Updike can empty his travel sketchbooks and a screen through whom he can work off literary grudges at a plausibly deniable remove. The result reads at times less like fiction than like fictionalized journalism. While peers like Capote and Mailer were trying to smuggle their Great American Novels in under cover of journalism, Updike was smuggling highly polished travel journalism and glossy trade news in under cover of fiction. That said, to the extent that the Bech stories are journalistic, they are less frontal than conventional journalism. Updike works his way in from the outside by layers of detail establishing a convincing sense of place, while often remaining coyly evasive about larger themes. The Bech stories’ epiphanies are muted, deliberately deflated, glimpsed on the go in peripheral vision. Pervading the stories is a sensibility of almost eerie detachment: They are about the eastern bloc but not the Cold War, about the book business but not writing, about sex but not love. Of course journalism justifies itself by topicality and relevance to a broad audience. But collected in a book this size, over five-hundred pages, the themes of the Bech stories seem undersized. The Complete Henry Bech serves up plenty of John Updike’s best prose, prose which leaves one wanting to lick the spoon. At the same time, you wonder: Is it too much icing and not enough cake? A writer in Washington, D.C., Daniel Wattenberg is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.
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