John Updike’s Bech: A Book is composed of loosely related stories featuring Updike’s fictional literary alter ego Henry Bech, a Jewish novelist from Manhattan who diverges from his creator in numerous significant ways, chief among them his religion and persistent writer’s block. Bech first appeared in “The Bulgarian Poetess” and subsequently became the vehicle through which Updike wrote about his literary travels and satirized the publishing industry. Although the stories were originally published separately, Updike arranged them in a loose picaresque series and added other unpublished material to create a short-story sequence similar to his Olinger Stories (1964) and Too Far to Go (1979). Updike’s assignment of the subtitle “a book” indicates the volume’s intermediate status between a novel and a miscellaneous story collection.
The volume begins with a foreword purportedly written as a letter by Bech to Updike. Bech parses his own literary resemblance to other famous living Jewish writers, as well as to Updike himself, praises Updike for treating the oppression of writers by the publishing industry, criticizes him for his prose, and ultimately bestows his blessing on Updike’s representation of him. This device hints slyly at the volume’s overall themes, establishes its pervasive satirical tone, and provides an ironic critique of Updike’s portrait of the artist while establishing the main character’s voice. Through Bech’s analysis, Updike anticipates some of the critical reviews of his work and introduces the volume’s thematic focus on the writer as self-created character whose life becomes a consumable public fiction that consumes his literary talent.
The picaresque chronicle of Henry Bech’s literary travels opens with three stories that take place in Eastern Europe, returns to the United States for two stories, and then moves back across the Atlantic to England before returning Bech home to Manhattan. The book concludes with two appendixes: excerpts from Bech’s Russian journal and a fictional bibliography of literary criticism on Bech. Bech is a blocked writer who seeks to escape his creative problems by embracing literary celebrity, repeatedly reinforcing and sometimes exacerbating his situation. Updike’s use of the short-story sequence is therefore apt, as each individual story repeats Bech’s dilemma and the overall form depicts a discontinuous life rather than advancing a novelistic plot.
The book’s opening story, “Rich in Russia,” recounts Bech’s ambivalent acquisition of a large sum of rubles, showered on him by the Soviet government as royalties for recent translations of his work. The behavior of the Soviets stands in contrast to that of the American publishing industry, which has taken advantage of Bech’s poor business sense to keep most of the profits from his best-selling novel Travel Light. Experiencing feelings of guilt about taking money from the proletariat, Bech determines to spend the money in Russia, enlisting the aid of Kate, his devoted guide and translator, who is eager to spend time with him.
Obsessed with spending, Bech fails to recognize Kate’s feelings for him until her moist farewell kiss at the airport alerts him to the missed opportunity. As he rushes to his plane, his suitcase bursts open on the runway; though he recovers his purchases—furs and now-cracked watches—he is forced to leave behind copies of his translated books. These lost books represent the excess baggage of a cumbersome literary reputation, and they help Bech understand that he leaves Russia without having experienced it fully. The story’s narrative frame, a college professor relating this episode while lecturing on Bech, provides commentary on Bech’s subject position and highlights the role of literary biography in constructing a character, paralleling Bech’s self-conscious creation of a literary persona.
The next story, “Bech in Rumania,” opens with Bech wearing an astrakhan hat purchased in Russia, alerting readers to the stories’ progressive, interrelated nature. This story also concerns missed connections, signaled by the American Embassy personnel’s failure to recognize Bech at the airport and by the Rumanian Writers’ Union’s attempt to keep him away from the Rumanian literati, who the Americans hope will be stirred up by his presence. Bech accidentally meets one of these writers—a friend of Petrescu, the admiring guide whose devotion to reading and writing...
(The entire section is 1847 words.)