Bech: A Book
By John Updike
Read Dec 2018
John Updike was a prolific author, writing the well-known “Rabbit” series and countless stories and essays published in multiple journals, most notably The New Yorker. He wrote a series of short stories in the 1960’s, published in The New Yorker, about Henry Bech, a Jewish author who published a successful novel “Travel Light” and a few stories in the 1950’s and then enters a “dry” period. Bech: A Book is a compilation of these previously published stories plus the final story in the book as well as 2 appendices and an introduction. The first appendix is a collection of Bech’s diaries during his travels for the state department and a couple of letters written during this period; the second appendix is a bibliography of Bech’s writings of the period and items written about him. The forward is supposed to be written by Bech to Updike. Updike continued to write additional stories about Bech, his “Jewish alter-ego of sorts” and collected these stories in two additional books published well after this book.
In this book, the focus is on Bech’s “dry period” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’sfollowing the publication of “Travel Light”. During this time Bech travels for the US State Department to various communist states and lectures at various remote schools and spends more time being a literary figure than an author. Unlike “Rabbit” and John Updike himself, Bech is a confirmed bachelor for this series of stories.
The character of Bech isn’t particularly appealing. He enjoys having a relationship with a woman but has no interest in any form of commitment. In this set of stories he leaves one sister to take up with another. He has no real understanding of what the State Department wants him to accomplish on his trips to the communist countries and there is no indication he undergoes any useful debriefing. He takes speaking engagements at remote places for the money they pay him. He’s riding the wave of his previous literary success and is conscious that may be the end of his literary output, of which he is honestly concerned.
I don’t classify this book as “classic” as it doesn’t pass my simple criteria for “published more than 50 years ago” although it is close to meeting this criteria. The book is witty and the language is really quite wonderful. As it seems the book was written as entertainment for the author and for his contemporaries I’m not sure we will be reading this in another 50 years unless the reader is studying literary trends of the mid- to late -1900’s.