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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)

In “Rich in Russia,” Bech is handed a wad of rubles as payment of his Russian royalties and must find a way to spend them before he leaves the country. This allows him to write about the dreariness of Soviet department stories: “Here they found a vaster store, vast though each salesgirl ruled as a petty tyrant over her domain of shelves. There was a puzzling duplication of suitcase sections; each displayed the same squarish mountain of dark cardboard boxes, and each pouting princess respond with negative insouciance to [his] request for a leather suitcase.” Later, in Bulgaria, Bech falls in love with a dissident poetess, and in Rumania his life is threatened by a reckless chauffeur: “Is it possible,” Bech asks his translator, “that he is the late Adolf Hitler, kept alive by Count Dracula?” In “Bech Third-Worlds It,” the identification between author and character grows especially close, when Bech is protested in Latin America for voicing political views very like the moderate-conservative Updike’s:

Some years ago in New York City he had irritably given an interviewer for Rolling Stone a statement, on Vietnam, to the effect that, challenged to fight, a country big enough has to fight. Also he had said that, having visited the Communist world, he could not share radical illusions about it and could not wish upon Vietnamese peasants a system he would not wish upon himself. Though it was what he honestly thought, he was sorry he had said it. But then, in a way, he was sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever.

Updike always takes care that we cannot draw too close a connection between Bech and any one real writer. Bech, born in New York in the 1920s, served in World War II and fought at the Battle of the Bulge; his first novel, Travel Light, is described as a quasi-Beat story about motorcycle gangs and juvenile delinquents in the American West. His second, Brother Pig, and his third, with the intriguing title The Chosen, are barely described at all, except that they were conspicuous failures. When we first meet Bech, and for most of the first two books of Bech stories, he is completely blocked, and Updike wrings a rueful comedy from the way much of a writer’s career consists of impersonating a writer in public rather than actually putting words on paper. None of this makes Bech especially close to Mailer or Bellow or Roth or Salinger, his rough contemporaries; and of course his blockage makes him the polar opposite of Updike, who was famous for being unstoppably prolific.

Often, Updike’s attempts to mark Bech as a Jewish writer feel pro forma, and slightly off. Bech grows up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and goes to a public school in the east 70s, but Jewish writers of his generation were more likely to come from the Bronx or Brooklyn; it wasn’t until rather later that the West Side became a bourgeois Jewish neighborhood. At one point Bech’s father is said to have been a diamond merchant from Amsterdam—again, not an impossible background, but statistically quite unlikely for an Ashkenazi Jew like Bech; the choice of Amsterdam seems to owe more to Updike’s memories of Spinoza. More true to life is the way that, when Bech’s mother died, “He had scarcely mourned. No one sat shivah. No Kaddish had been said. Six thousand years of observance had been overturned in Bech.” Both the lack of piety and the guilt over breaking with tradition feel authentic.

What is genuinely illuminating in the Bech stories is not what Updike knows about Jewishness, which is not very much, but what he imagines about the way Jews think and feel. Echoing ancient tropes, he repeatedly comments on Jewish self-satisfaction and clannishness—without rancor, but also without recognizing that this sort of thing might put Jewish backs up. When Bech is asked whether Jews believe in heaven, he replies:

“Jews don’t go in much for Paradise,” he said. “That’s something you Christians cooked up.” … He went on, with Hollywood, Martin Buber, and his uncles all vaguely smiling in his mind, “I think the Jewish feeling is wherever they happen to be, it’s rather paradisiacal, because they’re there.”

This is an interesting inversion of what Ozick says in “Levitation,” where Jewish solidarity is based on a fascination with the hell of the Holocaust. But the idea that Jews occupy a self-satisfied center, relegating Gentiles to the periphery, crops up again and again in the Bech stories. In “Bech Weds,” the longest and most substantial story, we see Bech conquer his writer’s block by deciding to ignore quality and just produce prose. The result, Think Big, is a best-seller, but from the way Updike describes it, a horrendously bad one, sounding more like Jacqueline Susann than like the literary novelist Bech is supposed to be. Bech’s Gentile wife, Bea, is offended by one facet of the novel in particular:

“Do you realize there isn’t a Gentile character in here who isn’t slavishly in love with some Jew?”

“Well, that’s—”

“Well, that’s life, you’re going to say.”

“Well, that’s the kind of book it is. Travel Light was all about Gentiles.”

“Seen as hooligans. As barbaric people …”

“I’ve another idea for your title,”she said, biting off the words softly and precisely. “Call it Jews and Those Awful Others. Or how about Jews versus Jerks?

At the same time that Updike sees Jews at the center of things, he also writes of the Jewish sense of being alienated from America, geographically and culturally and spiritually. At the beach, Bech is jealous of a WASP teenager who “knew how to insert a clam knife, how to snorkel (just to put on the mask made Bech gasp for breath), how to bluff and charm his way onto private beaches (Bech believed everything he read). … He was connected to the land in a way Bech could only envy.” This is the comedy of the Jew as all brain and no body—a Woody Allen joke, and possibly a Philip Roth one. But Updike goes astray when he extends the analogy to Jews’ feelings about America as such:

Upon the huge body of the United States, swept by dust storms and storms of Christian conscience, young Henry knew that his island of Manhattan existed as an excrescence; relatively, his little family world was an immigrant enclave, the religion his grandfathers had practiced was a tolerated affront, and the language of this religion’s celebration was a backward-running archaism. He and his kin and their kindred were huddled in shawls within an overheated back room while outdoors a huge and beautiful wilderness rattled their sashes with wind and painted the panes with frost; and all the furniture they had brought with them from Europe, the footstools and phylacteries, the copies of Tolstoy and Heine, the ambitiousness and defensiveness and love, belonged to this stuffy back room.

This is true to a certain vein of Jewish feeling in Bech’s generation: Alfred Kazin writes in a related spirit about Brownsville in “A Walker in the City.” But what Bech does not represent is the way that most Jewish American writers rebelled against the parochialism and fearfulness of their immigrant ancestors by flinging themselves ardently into the arms of the “real” America. It is no coincidence that Kazin became his generation’s preeminent expositor of American literature, or that Bellow self-consciously wrote, with The Adventures of Augie March, a Great American Novel. If Updike found himself in a literary culture dominated by Jews, it was not because Jews were shy of America; on the contrary, it was because they loved the country and found it ready to reciprocate their love.

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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