Overflow

Frank Kermode

  • Beck at Bay: A Quasi-Novel by John Updike
    Hamish Hamilton, 241 pp, £16.99, January 1999, ISBN 0 241 14027 7

That John Updike has a Trollopian fidelity to his characters is evident from the four books of the Rabbit series; this new book is the third of a sequence about the New York Jewish novelist Henry Bech. As it carries him into his seventies it may be that this is the last of Bech, as Rabbit at Rest was presumably the last of Rabbit, but as long as the real author is alive, fertile and motile, one cannot be sure.

Bech is a strange antitype, a funhouse distortion, of his inventor. He is Jewish and costive rather than self-consciously WASP and Trollopianly fluent, but over the years he has had his bookish successes, including a bestseller, and more than what, in the old days, would have been thought his fair share of women. The titles and dates of his works and conquests are recorded with bibliographic accuracy, and where necessary distinguished from other books with similar titles: thus his masterpiece, The Chosen, is not to be confused with twenty or so other books with the same or a similar title, even if the title is in Korean, a language in which ‘Chôsen’ presumably means something quite different. The facts of his life – his marriages, his Manhattan addresses – are laid before us in the same scrupulous way, as if to give credibility to an alibi. Bech travels a lot, fortuitously in the footsteps of his creator, and his wanderings are recorded with a slightly disgusted accuracy and wit, and also with a certain homesickness for America, that cannot but remind one of his inventor’s, though in the end they are made his own.

The first of the series, Bech: A Book, appeared in 1970, the second, Bech Is Back, in 1982. If this new one is a quasi-novel, so are the others not so called: the qualifying term seems to refer to their consisting not of continuous narratives but of five or seven episodes in the life of the writer. Typically, Bech Is Back sends the hero on a bewildering lecture tour to Ghana, Korea, Venezuela, Kenya, Tanzania and so on, and on another to Canada and Australia. He has certain adventures, some light, some solemn; the moods, like the memories, are confused. In Jerusalem Bech and his Protestant wife stay at Mishkenot Shananim, the grand civic guest house outside the southern city wall. The accommodation at Mishkenot is described in such minute, though ungenerous detail, that it can hardly be doubted that Bech, or somebody, has stayed there while seeing the sights. And his understandable disgust at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is clearly based on personal experience.

The earlier Bech books have some memorable and some funny passages, some based on sly in-jokes, as when, in a burst of sour high spirits, he parodies the style of certain New York reviewers. The new book gives comparable satisfaction in these or similar respects. There is a chapter on Bech in Czechoslovakia (before the break-up) which is, like so much in the earlier books, surrogate travel writing, Updike Bechised. Another concerns the fortunes of an academy, consisting of forty distinguished artists, musicians and writers, and intended to provide America with the equivalent of the Académie Française. Of this body Bech, though at first understandably reluctant, succeeds to the presidency.

The story of the American Forty offers a good idea of the machinery of the Bech books, the method by which raw experience is transmuted into Bechian gold. There recently appeared a collection of essays entitled A Century of Arts and Letters, edited by John Updike, which celebrates the centenary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This institution, generously donated by Archer M. Huntington, the railway magnate, is rather inconveniently situated in a mansion on 155th Street, so far out of things that New York taxi-drivers have to be guided to it. Once a fellow gets there it is, apparently, a pleasant place, good for parties and dinners. Over the years the Immortals, not actually restricted to forty, have quarrelled about many things, including the admission of women and the propriety of electing such eccentric and tasteless writers as T.S. Eliot. In fact the Academy has been less famous for the writers and artists it included than for those it didn’t (Hemingway, Dewey, Mencken, Salinger, Thurber, Edmund Wilson, Nabokov) and for those who, having joined, resigned (Thomas Hart Benton, Lewis Mumford, John O’Hara, Yvor Winters, Ezra Pound). Nor was it famous for anything it actually did: for years its main business was merely to perpetuate itself by suitable elections. Of late, however, it has taken to sponsoring lectures and awarding grants and medals, so that after the fierce rows of the Forties and later it looks set to live on and even be useful.

The section of the commemorative volume that deals with the great row is by John Updike. At one point, in 1991, he presided as Chancellor over a debate as to whether the Academy should vote itself out of existence. So does Bech. His institution is not exactly like Updike’s: membership is supposed to be forty, on the French pattern, and the headquarters are moved over a hundred blocks downtown. Bech, prompted by an efficient administrator, manages to control a madly contentious debate, but the membership (much reduced by the Academy’s inability to replace deceased fellows) discovers that if they vote for dissolution they might get handsome pay-offs from the sale of the building. The vote is won, but descendants of the original donor are quick to start legal proceedings to keep the money in the family.

This, the longest chapter in the book, is thus a farcical, fantasticated account of Updike’s own experience. Bech claims to enjoy presiding, and it seems Updike enjoyed it, too. He has a taste for anarchic irony, and, speaking through his dummy, can make swingeing judgments that are attributable to Bech alone:

at bottom he didn’t like any of his contemporaries’ work. It would have been unnatural to: they were all on the same sinking raft, competing for dwindling review space and demographic attention. Those that didn’t appear, like John Irving and John Fowles, garrulously, Dickensianly reactionary in method seemed, like John Hawkes and John Barth, smugly, hermetically experimental. O’Hara, Hersey, Cheever, Updike – suburbanites, living safe while the inner cities disintegrated. And that was just the Johns.

In another chapter, rich in farcical invention and animated by what sounds like a genuine hatred for California, Bech is sued for libel in Los Angeles. At that point the direct link to Updike seems to be broken, and fantasy presumably takes over, as it more certainly does in the chapter in which Bech, with the aid of another new young mistress, Robin to his Batman, launches a campaign of murder against hostile critics. First to go is an affected Englishman, who is accused of ‘snottily potting American writers ... courtesy of the ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books’. He had called one of Bech’s books ‘prolix and voulu’, so he is pushed off a subway platform at rush hour. A female reviewer, long forgotten by all save unforgiving Bech, dies when she licks a stamped addressed envelope supposedly sent by a juvenile fan for an autograph. A breathless old critic, who had consistently ‘negated’ Bech and who remained courageously insulting to the end, has his oxygen supply discontinued. So it goes.

With the final instalment we enter the world of dream when Bech gets the Nobel Prize. Delivering his Nobel lecture with his new baby on his arm, he discourses on Kierkegaardian dread, the cosmic loneliness that increases with each new revelation from astronomy. Henceforth real babies, even when inconveniently defecating, interest him more than books and prizes. After such celebrity there is nothing worth his aspiration except the immortality conferred by biology.

The Bech books are fun, and ample evidence of the author’s intellectual energy, his skill in dialogue, his eye for detail. Bech is growing old, and the causes of dread increase, but for him they remain pretty steadily in the mode of farce. The books are in a sense works of the left hand; or one might think of them as overflow from the main torrent of this author’s fiction, or as a means of relief from more serious business. Toward the End of Time, published last year and now available in paperback,[*] is much more serious business; it is one of Updike’s most extraordinary performances. If the Bech books display charms of fancy, in this work the exercise is of the imagination, constructing, making whatever sense can be made by the poetry of fiction.

The scene of the novel appears to be based on the novelist’s own house and estate on the coast north of Boston. Hint by hint we discover that the date is 2020, after a brief and ruinous Sino-American nuclear war. Mexico has recaptured Texas and southern California; the country is underpopulated and normal services have broken down; there is only local scrip for currency, protection racketeers have taken over the job of the police (themselves to be ousted by Federal Express). Radioactive scraps of metal, metallobioforms or pseudozoa, have begun to breed dangerously, an electronic parallel to evolution. In the sky there is a torus as well as a moon. (‘Torus’ is a word among many that readers of more restricted vocabulary, like me, may need to look up.)

A year passes, registered with minute attention to the changes in vegetation; Updike has always had that novelist’s gift of seeming to know all one needs to know about anything, and here it is plants and trees. The narrator, Ben Turnbull, has an unamiable, even odious wife, a gardener and so a violator of nature. She wants him to kill the deer that browse on her plants, which for good reason he cannot bring himself to do. He plays golf, but also tries to situate himself in the natural order, and in relation to astronomical immensities. Speculating about adjacent, overlapping universes, he suffers the horrors of prostate cancer. His sexual conduct, and language, are normally coarse and raunchy, as if, somewhere along the great chain from DNA to black holes, it happens that poets, indeed everybody in so far as everybody is a bit of a poet, live in a world that offers endless occasions for observation, and offers also the possibility of ecstasy, however crude. The whole system is somehow related to joy, even when time, inevitable above the level of the smallest particle, attacks the roots of joy and reduces a man to impotence and incontinence.

What is remarkable is not merely the unsparing detail with which disease, and sex, are described; one has come to expect that intensity, and Updike is almost alone among contemporary novelists in his determination that every sentence be alarmingly (some think irritatingly) charged with unlooked for senses, with surprised meaning. But even more striking is the containment, within this firmly built structure, of excesses that might seem to belong to romance: like the doe who melts into the hooker with whom he takes his pleasure during a wifely absence; like all the furnishings, including a large Tabriz carpet, that are stolen by this doe-girl, yet seem nevertheless still to be there when the girl has gone and the wife returns. Without any signal the narrative modulates into a tale of which the narrator is John Mark, associate of St Paul, or an Egyptian grave-robber, or a Nazi prison guard insulting a naked Jewish doctor.

Not for nothing is Updike a devoted admirer of Hawthorne, who knew how to read alternative universes. The prostitute, who admits she steals, will not lie: ‘It’s too confusing, it makes another world.’ But the poet has to lie, and this one happens to be interested in the thin boundaries between alternative universes, as well as the infinitely elaborate structure of the normal, commonplace one.

This large topic, man or poet in universe, glory, jest and riddle, calls for rich, packed sentences, and it would be strange if they all succeeded. ‘Dawn had yet to break, but a plump moon in the west bleached the bare November earth the white of a saint’s bone, a knuckle or splinter of scapula in its reliquary of chased electrum, burnished at the base by the hungry kisses of the worshipful’: this does seem a bit over the top. It is a manner devised not for this but for more significant moments, reports of ecstasy as experienced by a man for whom such moments are, by biological necessity, associated with sex; he has the bad luck, common enough in this particular universe, to have time and death attack him exactly there, in his sex. But he can continue to celebrate life, youth and the universe, even at their sleaziest, and the vigour of his responses contrasts with the tediousness of his conformist wife’s, and the triviality of his golf partners’. None of them could talk like that.

The Bech books don’t go in for this kind of writing. Bech is clever but really quite small, ironical and ironised, sexually successful but never ecstatic. The virtue of the Bech series lies not only in its being amusing, but in the way it illuminates, by contrast, the author’s scope and power when he is aiming very high, as, for example, here and in Roger’s Version. In the Bech books he is just, very pleasantly, keeping his hand in.

[*] Penguin, 352 pp., £6.99, 7 January, 0 14 027143 0.