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John Updike the Jew

In his Bech books, the great novelist of American WASPdom parsed the allure and otherness of Jewish writers

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American novelist, poet, and critic John Updike, photographed in Boston, Mass., on Oct. 8, 2008. (Antonin Kratochvil/VII/Corbis)

Cynthia Ozick’s story “Levitation,” first published in 1976, deals with a pair of married writers—the husband Jewish, the wife Christian—who throw a party for their literary friends. The party turns out to be as middling as their careers—Ozick has them inviting all the literary celebrities of the hour (“Irving Howe, Susan Sontag, Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler”), none of whom show up—and the star attraction turns out to be a professor who is a Holocaust survivor. Inevitably, the Jewish guests all congregate in the living room to hear him relate the horrors he lived through. Then, in a moment poised between satire and magical realism, the room full of Jews begins to float into the air, leaving the Gentile hostess behind:

The room begin to ascend. It lifted. It rose like an ark on waters. Lucy said inside her mind, “This chamber of Jews.” It seemed to her that the room was levitating on the little grains of the refugee’s whisper. She felt herself alone at the bottom, below the floorboards, while the room floated upward, carrying Jews. Why did it not take her too?

“Levitation” is Ozick’s seriocomic attempt to imagine what it might be like to be a Christian in a midcentury New York literary world largely populated by Jews. The Holocaust, in this sardonic fable, is an obsession and a badge of authenticity that the Jews, despite themselves, hold over the non-Jews; Jewishness and Jewish suffering become a kind of club to which outsiders would not necessarily want to belong, except for the nagging realization that they never can. The Jews’ levitation is at once a concrete symbol of their spiritual loftiness and a frightening example of their vulnerability, their readiness to be severed from the Earth. No wonder Lucy feels a mixture of envy and resentment when her guests take off for the sky.

“Levitation” can also be read as Ozick’s coded response to her contemporary John Updike, who six years earlier had published Bech: A Book, the first of what would become three collections of short stories devoted to the fictional American Jewish writer Henry Bech. The Bech books, which have just been reissued in paperback as part of Random House’s ongoing edition of Updike’s collected works, constitute a weird outlier in Updike’s enormous oeuvre. They are among his most personal, confessional works, dealing as they do with the inner life and professional misadventures of a novelist who in many ways resembles Updike himself. Often, reading the Bech stories, it is easy to imagine Updike drawing upon his own experiences and venting his own writerly spleen—about the fecklessness of publishers, the illusory nature of celebrity, the envy and resentment of rivals and critics. The sheer length of time Updike spent writing about Bech—Bech: A Book (1970) was followed by Bech Is Back (1982) and Bech at Bay (1998)—means that he occupied Updike’s imagination for as long, if never as deeply, as his greatest creation, Rabbit Angstrom.

Yet making his alter ego a Jew, Updike—who was, theologically and sociologically, one of the great novelists of Protestant America—also puts the Bech books in heavily ironic quotes. For Updike the arch-WASP to become Bech the Jew is a stunt, a knowing joke, before it is a confession or even the creation of a character. More, it is an opportunity for Updike to explore the same uneasy mixture of emotions that Ozick hinted at in “Levitation”: the fascination and alienation of a Gentile writer in a literary milieu dominated by Jews.

***

In 1971, in a small piece of Bechiana unfortunately not included in the paperbacks (but available online), Updike wrote a profile of himself for the New York Times Book Review under the byline of Henry Bech. “The book about me,” Updike-as-Bech reports Updike-as-Updike saying, “had not so much been about a Jew as about a writer, who was a Jew with the same inevitability that a fictional rug salesman would be an Armenian.” There is an unmistakable edge in this protestation, with its pointed embrace of rude stereotypes—just try asking an Armenian how he would feel about being called a rug merchant.

But the deeper irony lies in the fact that the identification of Jew with American writer should itself be that kind of stereotype, something so automatic as to seem cliché. Half a century later, the glory days of American Jewish writing seem like something out of a museum or textbook: We remember the names Ozick invited to her fictional party, then add even greater names like Bellow, Roth, Mailer, and Malamud, and wish we could have been part of it all. Reading the Bech stories is a useful reminder of how unexpected, how sheerly unlikely, this Jewish moment must have seemed to a Protestant writer of Updike’s generation.

After all, Updike, born in 1932 and raised, as so many author bios reminded us, in small-town Shillington, Pa., inherited a literary culture in which all the great names sounded much more like John Updike than like Bernard Malamud. For Updike to enter into his career and find himself suddenly the anomaly, an outlier against the Jewish average, must have been a surprise and could well have turned into an ugly shock—as it unmistakably did for Gore Vidal, who has always enjoyed dipping his toes in the waters of anti-Semitism. The Bech books can be seen, then, as Updike’s good-humored, essentially benevolent, but still curious and awkward attempt to figure out what was going on in the lives and minds of his Jewish peers.

The odd, sometimes bumpy tone of the Bech books comes from the way this imagined element, this inquest into the familiarly unknown, goes side by side with experiences and emotions clearly drawn from Updike’s own writerly life. A number of the Bech stories—there are 19 altogether—are satirical portraits of the American celebrity writer abroad. Updike, like almost every writer of note during the Cold War years, must have gone on his share of cultural exchange visits behind the Iron Curtain and to hotbeds of anti-Americanism in the Third World; and so does Henry Bech, usually to gently comic effect.

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John Updike the Jew

In his Bech books, the great novelist of American WASPdom parsed the allure and otherness of Jewish writers