Sunday, February 01, 2009

Bech: A Book

I've been attempting to read Bech: A Book, in memoriam of Updike. The buzz is that Henry Bech is "Updike's irreverent alter ego," so naturally I was curious to have a go at this lighter Updike. But these linked stories about the witty, patronizing, and often spiteful Bech utterly dismay me. Bech, on a literary tour of Russia and eastern Europe, teases and ridicules his well-meaning guides. In "Rich in Russian," he enjoys skewering the English of his guide, the translator Kate. After she earnestly shares her feelings about their tour of Tolstoy's house, rambling on about where he wrote his books, he rudely apes her English syntax, "I also like the way Upton Sinclair was in his bookcase." At one point, he reduces her to tears, and then guiltily tries to make it up to her by a surreal shopping trip In Moscow. (Kate doesn't enjoy the understocked Russian shops.)

In the next chapter, "Bech in Rumania," he gently mocks Petrescu, the polite, helpful guide and translator of Melville : Petrescu is "a fool for books." While Petrescu eagerly quizzes him about American literature, Bech, bored and rude, mimics him. Petrescu: "Is it possible to you that Pierre is a yet greater work than The White Whale?" Bech: "No, I think it is yet not so great, possibly." Petrescu: "You are ironical about my English." Yes, this is humorous --but Bech, oblivious, doesn't seem to care that people catch on to his barbs. Of course Updike portrays Bech's insensitivity, as well as his humor. Everyone is fodder for Bech's satire, and for Updike's too. Updike obviously enjoys himself, giving payback for the indignities of writer tours and other demands on his public persona. And it's all a literary joke: it opens with the fictional character Bech's letter to Updike, flippantly giving his blessing to Updike's "indecency of writing about a writer. Thus the metafictional Updike plays Boswell to Bech's Johnson.

"Until your short yet still not unlongish collection, no revolutionary has concerned himself with our oppression, with the silky mechanism whereby America reduces her writers to imbecility and cozenage....We veer between the harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk, only to collapse, our five-and-dime Halloween priests' robes a-rustle with economy-class jet-set tickets and honorary certificates from the Book-of-the-Month Club, amid a standing corwd of rueful Lilliputian obituaries. Our language degenerating in the mouths of broadcasters and pop yellers," etc.

It's brilliant, and yet it palls very quickly. Obviously writers experience these difficulties on writers' tours. But a little of this satire goes a long way..


Ellen said...

I know Updike from his columns (or essays) in periodicals like the _NYRB_ or _New Yorker_, and I liked him there. If I saw his name, I would make sure to read the column. I never read the _Rabbit_ novels you describe in your earlier blog and am sure I'd dislike _Bech: A Book_. Little as I follow these things, I've seen the obituaries and memories online. I wonder what he was like.


Mad Housewife said...

I admired Updike's criticism. No complaints there. I find Bech'd comic attiturdes toward women, eastern European intellectuals, etc., offensive. That's not really analyzing the book, is it? The stories--it's called a novel-- are cleverly linked by writing events and writerly encounters.. I was extremely offended by one story in which he visits a "girls'" college and sees them all, repulsed, as breeding machines.

This is really a man's book.