Books: All in a Nobel cause
Bech at Bay by John Updike Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99, 241pp: Zachar y Leader warms to the kind of writer who could murder a critic
Saturday 09 January 1999
Robin herself, like this reaction, is pure wish-fulfilment. For though Bech's reputation has been quietly growing, unlike his oeuvre (three novels, two novellas, a "miscellany," a volume of "Sketches and Stories"), he is now 74. When he wins the Nobel Prize (Updike indulges all the male writer's fantasies, enumerated by Freud as "honour, power, wealth, fame and the love of women"), one thinks of Saul Bellow, whose fifth wife, Janis, is more than 40 years his junior. Bech, though, is no Bellow; or rather, as in Updike's two previous collections about him, Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982), not quite Bellow; just as he's not quite Roth or Mailer or Malamud or Heller.
To begin with, he's a lot like Updike, for all the expertly observed Jewishness, even the writer's block (definitely not Updike's problem). Updike, too, is a sexy writer, and like Bech has been accused of misogyny and hatred of the body (Brother Pig, the title of the first of Bech's novellas, is "a contemptuous Medieval expression for the body").
He also supported, or at least refused to denounce, the Vietnam War (like Bech, "draft evasion disgusted him") and has often been labelled reactionary, memorably by Gore Vidal. The most wounding of the phrases Bech broods over from his bad reviews - "says nothing with surprising aplomb," "prose arabesques of astonishing irrelevancy" - recall the critic Gary Wills, for whom Updike's writing is "stylistic solipsism". Wills and Vidal, one notes, are the only real-life critics that Bech contemplates rubbing out.
The funniest of these five linked stories is "Bech Presides", in which Henry's friend and rival Izzy Thornbush, a sort of Mailer figure (though cunningly crafted to evade precise identification), persuades him to become president of a privately endowed academy called the Forty - a cross between the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (whose centennial Festschrift Updike has just edited) and the Academie Francaise.
At first, Henry rather likes presiding, just as he likes the Forty's sumptuous midtown mansion in New York, with its mahogany presidential desk, its ceremonial dinners, and its devoted female administrators. But the Forty is dying: four members have already expired; the remaining 36 are ancient; and nobody can agree on a single new member. The exhilarating spite with which Updike imagines these egomaniacs who keep nominating people who are dead or else already members is among the best things in the book.
"Bech Presides" also pleases through its artful plotting; in several senses, a virtue of the collection as a whole (which may account for its subtitle, "A Quasi-Novel"). In "Bech Pleads Guilty", Henry is sued for libel by a Hollywood agent whom he once described in print as an "arch- gouger" (Bech is "at bay" partly because surrounded by such enemies). This agent is monstrous but he also reminds Bech of his dead father. As the agent's suit collapses, Bech begins to feel sorry for him, and guilty (hence the story's title).
Bech's father, a diamond dealer, was indomitable, like the agent, but Bech now also sees him as vulnerable. His death from a stroke in the subway, "under the sliding filth of the East River," anticipates the death of Bech's first victim in "Bech Noir", the critic-killing story, whom he pushes under the D-Train at a Sixth Avenue station. The Oedipal echoes of critic, agent, and father - blocking figures all - reverberate throughout the collection, delicately interweaving themes and plot motifs.
In the final story, "Bech and the Bounty of Sweden," Bech not only wins the Nobel Prize, to the fury and astonishment of his rivals ("Sour grapes," he tells us elsewhere, is "the champagne of the intelligentsia"), and marries the zaftig Robin, but fathers a daughter. As Bech holds this daughter, Golda, in his arms, and ascends the podium to deliver his acceptance speech, a "solemn look" on her face signals "the spicy smell of ochre babyshit".
Here, as everywhere in the collection, we are offered the twin literary pleasures of wish-fulfilment and mimesis. This is the world just as it is and just as the writer wants it.
Books And it is whizzpopping!
MusicThey're running their own restaurants
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Norwich paedophile ring: Woman at centre of gang who made children 'sexual play things' guilty of 23 offences
- 2 Kate Winslet thanked 'particularly horrible' girl who bullied her at school after Titanic success
- 3 Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
- 4 Walter Palmer: Cecil the lion killer revealed to be American dentist
- 5 The lesser known erogenous zones - and how to find them
Conan O'Brien accused of stealing jokes from Twitter, could have to pay hundreds of thousands in damages
New on Netflix August 2015: From Narcos and Spellbound to Kick Ass 2 and Dinotrux
Child Genius: the Final, Channel 4 - TV review: Top marks to the child prodigies but mum and dad should take a bow too
Game of Thrones season 6: New toy line suggests Jon Snow is not among the dead
Spectre: Ellie Goulding is almost definitely singing the theme song to the next Bond film
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband