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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.

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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.

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.

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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