A Jeu of a Book: On the Preface to John Updike’s “Bech: A Book”

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Cynthia Ozick argued that hidden inside of John Updike’s Bech trilogy there is a theological reading of Jews. In 1965, Updike, the award-winning American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) writer – Pulitzer Prizes in 1982 and 1991, National Book Award in 1964, PEN/Malamud Award 1988, etc – addressed what one could call his Jewish question: how does a American writer describe the American Jew by way of fiction? The answer to his question isn’t so simple. Yes, it is through comedy. But is it, as Ozick believed, through a theology that made Jews into the embodiment of Augustine and Pascal’s “carnal Israel?” Or is he just an endearing schlemiel character who has Roth and Singer as his progenitors?

With this question in mind, I started reading the first of Updike’s books on Bech – a Jewish American character, a writer.

Updike begins his narrative with Bech’s voice, addressing John Updike (the author) in a letter that comes in the wake of Updike’s book on Bech…that we readers are about to read:

Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it is me, enough me, purely me. (9)

Bech notes that in some of Updike’s representations of him, he appears as someone else:

At first glance, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinking curly hair), I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; than that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns. (9).

Neither of these characters relate to the “real” Bech. Who does? “My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I.B. Singer”(9). In other words, Bech sees himself as a cross between two specific kinds of schlemiel characters: one Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, a “sexual schlemiel”; the other, Gimpel, the memorable schlemiel of the story that made him an item in the USA in the late fifties (near the time this novel was written).

Bech says that Updike’s mis-readings of his character come from “something Waspish, theological, sacred, and insultingly ironic that derives…from you”(10). Yet, says Bech, “you are right.” About what? His misrepresentations?

He is right about the writer.

Bech launches into a strange reflection on writers and their demise in America:

Envied by Negroes, disbelieved in like angels, we veer between harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk, only to collapse, our five-and-dime Hallowe’en priests’ robes a rustle with economy-class just-set tickets….Our language degenerating in the mouths of broadcasters and pop yellers…I could mutilate myself like sainted Origen, I could like Jeremiah. Thank Jahweh these bordellos in the sky can soon dispose with the excuse of us entirely; already the contexts of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast cereal box.

But the question not answered is this: is Updike right about the Jew? Has he answered the Jewish question in his fictional portrayal? Is the “real” me Bech is talking about an American Jew or an American writer? Is he a schlemiel or a writer? Can’t they be both, as Heinrich Heine said of the poet? (According to Hannah Arendt, for Heine, the poet is the schlemiel – the “lord of dreams.)

Bech’s Jewishness sinks in when he gets to the point: “I'[m sure that when with that blithe goyish brass, I will never cease to grovel at, you approached me for a “word or two by way of preface,” you were bargaining for a benediction not a curse”(11). What he offers is a criticism:

My blessing. I like some of the things in these accounts very much. The communists are all good people – good people…..Here and there passages seemed over edited, constipated; you prune yourself too hard….I like some of the women you gave me, and a few of the jokes. (11)

But the jeu, not the Jew gets the last word: “I don’t suppose this little jeu of a book will do either of us drastic harm”(12).

The irony of this final statement works on several levels. First of all, what kind of thing is Bech saying about Jews? By calling Updike’s book on him a “little jeu of a book.” he is making an anti-Semitic kind of statement. However, the word “jeu” means game in French. Is this book a “play”on the meaning of the Jew or on the comical meaning of the writer? Is this about Bech’s Jewishness? Or is this about Updike’s Jewish question?

For me these questions are all important, but as an American Jew it is even more interesting. In reading this book, do I expect Updike to show me what American Jewishness (circa 1967) looks and sounds like? Is the the crux of being an American Jew – as a result of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and I.B. Singer, amongst others – for Updike, the award winning American novelist – tied to comedy and the schlemiel? Or is this assertion itself, as Ozick notes, a theological caricature of Jewishness?

To be continued…..

3 thoughts on “A Jeu of a Book: On the Preface to John Updike’s “Bech: A Book”

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