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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)

Yet Updike is persistently struck by the unlikeliness of this romance, especially in literary terms. “Bech Noir,” one of the last Bech stories, shows the now elderly novelist systematically murdering various critics who have panned him throughout his career: One gets shoved onto the subway track, another is sent poisoned fan mail. It is one of the stories where the thin line between Updike and Bech seems to blur: The glee with which Updike writes this revenge fantasy makes the reader uncomfortable, since it seems to be the bubbling up of unworthy personal grievances. Updike recognizes this and seeks to defuse it by self-parody—Bech ends up talking like a Raymond Chandler character, and the bloodiness of the plot makes it a caricature, a joke. Still, at the end of the story comes a serious moment. Bech is about to murder one “Orlando Cohen, the arch-fiend of American criticism,” and Cohen uses his last breath to denounce Bech’s work:

“You thought you could skip out … of yourself and write American. Bech … let me ask you. Can you say the Lord’s prayer? … Well, ninety percent of the zhlubs around you can. It’s in their heads. They can rattle … the damn thing right off … how can you expect to write about people … when you don’t have a clue to the chozzerai … that’s in their heads … they stuck it out … but that God-awful faith … Bech … when it burns out … it leaves a dead spot. That’s where America is … in that dead spot. Em, Emily, that guy in the woods … Hem, Mel, Haw … they were there. No in thunder … the Big No. Jews don’t know how to say No. All we know is Yes.”

In a century whose most famous Jewish writer was Kafka, the idea that Jews only know how to say yes is bizarre; but it goes directly to the heart of Updike’s beliefs about America and American literature. For Updike, tracing an intellectual lineage to Dickinson, Melville, and Hawthorne, what makes literature American is a post-Puritan, post-Protestant wrestle with the absence of a redeeming God. Jews, he suggests—as so many English professors suggested before him—cannot in their bones understand this kind of American experience. Just as, in the very first Bech story, Updike wrote that wherever Jews are they think it’s paradise, so now, in one of the last, he writes that Jews are too affirmative, too this-worldly, to understand the American longing for transcendence. In this sense, a Jewish writer can never “skip out of himself and write American.”

In this way, Updike ends up repeating the old exclusionary trope that Jews, in some essential way, can never understand the Anglo-Saxon spirit of English and American literature. He even goes so far as to have Bech, at one moment, confess that the English language is foreign to him: “English, that bastard child of Norman knights and Saxon peasant girls—how had he become wedded to it? There was something diffuse and eclectic about the language that gave him trouble. It ran against his grain; he tended to open books and magazines at the back and read the last pages first.”

But the plain absurdity of that last detail gives the game away: as though Bech, who has only ever known English, is compelled by racial memory to read it “backwards,” like Hebrew. If there was ever a barrier between American Jews and American literature, it was not a spiritual misunderstanding: All you have to do to prove that is look at how many Jews in the 20th century devoted their lives to teaching and explaining Melville and Hawthorne and Dickinson. Anyone can learn what is going on in anyone else’s head—that is the very principle of literature.

The barrier was, rather, the self-doubt instilled by sentiments like Updike’s, the insinuation that the Jewish soul was at odds with the American soul. But the truth is that the American literary inheritance can be passed down to anyone who wants to claim it. That category includes only a few people in any American generation, but they can be Jewish, black, Asian, or anything else, as easily as they can be Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And the continued vitality of the tradition is proved by the way it can be reinterpreted by each new generation that sees it with new eyes. The Bech books deserve to be read as a testament to the tensions that this process of reinterpretation can evoke—and to the powers of imagination and humor that allow it to succeed.

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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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