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.

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