Of all those big American novelists who emerged after the Second World War, John Updike has been the most consistent, the most productive, and probably the most pleasurable. A writer’s writer, he has played across the genres: long serial novels, crisp novellas, realistic tales, social chronicles, strange fantasies, short stories, literary criticism, poetry, books on golf. He has produced classic fictions, works that take up and renew the grand themes of American writing reworking Hawthorne, for example, nodding to Melville, playing with the great yeses and nos of the culture. He has created some long-lasting characters, above all his famous Harold ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, the sporty, all-American guy in a changing, commercialising world.
Long ago, in the Old World Order, he invented the typical peripatetic writer, Henry Bech, the wandering Jew in the era of American cultural mission-work, whose modest adventures, mostly happening in Cold War Eastern Europe on embassy-run tours, were first chronicled, comically, in Bech (1970). Bech showed Updike’s precise political observation, his gift for cultural and literary satire, his fascination with lecheries and literary libels. He also allowed Updike to comment on the, so to speak, rival tradition of Jewish-American fiction, against which his own work was so often set by the critics. Bech came back again, for a second dose, in Bech is Back (1982). Now, the Cold War over, he is back again in Bech at Bay.
Except, at the start of what is mysteriously called a ‘quasi-novel’, the Cold War is not quite over; Bech at Bay begins in the Prague of 1986. Bech is reaching his later years now, but still rides on his sense of American triumphalism, his Eastern European celebrity as a much translated author, and the little humours and lecheries that keep him travelling. He makes the statutory visit to Kafka’s grave outside Prague, a much-attended literary site (it has appeared a number of times in Roth’s fiction – The Professor of Desire, etc – and has clearly touched the wry soul of Alan Bennett). But Bech’s anxious, haunted sense of old Europe is growing dimmer. Reaganite America is here, and even Middle Europe is now reading the Barthian literature of exhaustion. The signs of change and thaw bring Bech the fear that, like a character in a fiction (which he is), he is about to be written out.
In the rest of Bech at Bay, Bech writes himself in again. Updike’s Jewish alter ego has always been a site of interesting literary fantasies, and a playground for odd and knowing desires . Ageing now, but no less lustful than before, Bech faces the adventure of literary senescence. He is invited to become president of ‘The Forty’, a century-old artistic academy with a select and now geriatric membership, surviving into the age of body art and the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy. Should they elect new members of the Millennium, or cash in the club’s assets? Bech half-ironically tries to hold the fort, but postmodern capitalism triumphs, as maybe it should, for Bech has never been a lover of literature: only, it seems, of his own writing.
There are other trials that go with being an ageing writer near the end of his life. There is the tough Californian court case, long unsettled, that arose when Bech the crusading journalist castigated a notorious Hollywood agent as an ‘arch-gouger’; Bech risks losing all. And then, then above all, there is the great reckoning with the critics and the reviewers, those who over the course of his lifetime have found Bech to be the minor writer sometimes even he is prepared to admit he is. Still, gratifying an age-old writers’ fantasy, Updike sets him off on an exotic murder spree, as Bech ingeniously wipes out – in part through the aid of advanced computer technology and its lovely female representative (there’s always one of those somewhere, for lucky Bech) – some of the egregious critics whose barbs have hurt him most.
The dream-like gratifications are not yet done. Bech settles, spawns a child. Then it’s onward to the final prize. It’s the Nobel Prize for Literature, of course, which we learn is awarded by the Swedish Academy to Henry Bech in its deliberations of 1999. This gives Bech (and Updike) the opportunity to write the biggest text of all: the Stockholm acceptance speech. It first produces the final writer’s block, then the ultimate solution. I won’t say what it is, except to note that Updike, while often barbed, is sometimes just a generous old romantic, with an exceedingly soft spot in his heart for his roguish alter ego.
Writers in particular will love this book, with its cunning observation, its acid cultural portraits of the New York and Californian literary scene, its touches of parody and self-parody, its characters à clef, its sense of the value and the nastiness of literature, its frankness about literary ires and envies. Updike indulges himself with Bech, and lets loose a bitter comic vigour. If we are in doubt about the nature of the world of literary malice and envy it calls up, we have only to read the latest Paul Theroux. Other readers will like it too. It’s Updike at his most left-handed. But that is still pleasure indeed.