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

WHY WRITE? John Updike's answer, from an essay of 1976, is thoroughly Freudian: "the world, so balky and resistant and humiliating, can in the act of mimesis be rectified, adjusted, chastened, purified". Updike's comic hero, the Jewish-American novelist Henry Bech, would agree, calling art "both duplication and escape". But for Bech art is not enough. The chastening process must also be enacted, and where better to begin than with one's enemies? "I think you've shown a lot of balls, frankly," Bech's 26-year-old mistress, Robin, tells him when she discovers he's been systematically murdering the most hostile of his reviewers, "translating your resentments into action instead of sublimating them into art."

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash