In America, everyone does everyone else. Gay men wrote the classic boy-girl love songs; Jewish screenwriters modeled the ideal American type on their notion of the ideal WASP. Blacks supplied Jewish songwriters with their rhythms; Jewish songwriters gave black jazz musicians their standards. White suburbanites do black ghetto kids; black college kids do the white middle class; professional women mime the manner of executive men; executive men copy the empathetic style of successful women--and on and on and on. After all the historical brutalities and injuries, our national heart is ultimately a miscegenating organ. A kind of spiritual transvestism is woven into our daily existence. No wonder the word "celebrity" is almost synonymous with the word "actor."
Interestingly, in American speech, the verb "to do" means not only to impersonate but to have sexual intercourse with and to kill, as if sex and murder were different phases of the desire to be another person. Perhaps the very act of impersonation is a mastery of the homicidal impulse or a sublimated lust. These verbal echoes are significant because the true Other is never safe in America. Our assimilations of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality repress the profoundly alien element in life.
For the true Other is we ourselves, we who are so different and other than what we expect. This incalculable us-ness persists through all our hearty embraces of seemingly alien identities. It's our own strangeness that makes us fear alienness in the first place and, although popular culture has been the gratifying treasure house of commingling othernesses, literature is the place where the act of impersonation goes beyond superficial inhabitings into the impersonator's own perplexing and perplexed nature.
There have not been many memorable impersonations in classic American fiction: Jim in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn"; the multiple personalities in Herman Melville's "The Confidence Man"; Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie"; arguably, J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield (the adult doing the adolescent); the Jewish Saul Bellow's WASPish "Henderson." Of course, more and more novelists try their hands at inhabiting figures in extremis: Siamese twins or explorers dying on mountain peaks, for example. But these characters are often bloodless exotic essences. A real impersonation requires a palpable everyday existence.
John Updike's impersonation of an American Jewish writer named Henry Bech, an authentic impersonation if ever there was one, has been going on for almost 40 years. It is the WASP version of blackface. The 20 previously published Bech stories, now collected in one volume--not to mention the several "interviews" of Updike by his creation not included here--make up one of the weirdest, most audacious and provocative occasions in American literary history. And yet these stories, bound into a totality, have attracted little attention to Updike's singular enterprise.
There are a few possible reasons for such neglect, the first simply being that a WASP author semi-satirically inhabiting a Jewish character doesn't have the same daring piquancy that it did when Updike published his first Bech story, "The Bulgarian Poetess," nearly 40 years ago, in 1964. Besides, with American Jewish books like "The Talmud and the Internet," with an American Jewish novelist recently comparing Israel to a lost wallet on the New York Times op-ed page, where is the satirist who could outdo the often ridiculous American Jewish literary reality of our day? Now if a gay author were to semi-satirically inhabit a straight author, or vice versa; or a male author send up contemporary feminist and post-feminist attitudes in the person of a female character; or a female author adopt the soft, sensitive, virtue-conscious persona of the new Machiavellian male--these literary feats would attract attention. What a blessing they would be. But everyone seems too careful nowadays for such imaginative improprieties.
There is also, with regard to the stunning indifference with which "The Complete Henry Bech" has been received, the question of literary reputation. Updike puts it well in the short story "Bech Presides," in which he describes the curious literary dynamic that attends authorial duration. The longer an author lives and the less he publishes, the more burnished his or her reputation becomes: "the mud of a clinging fame.... Such an honorable retreat could go on forever, thanks to modern medicine
The necessity for the artist to remain unappeased by fame and wealth: This is one door Updike knows well, and it is the door through which Bech makes his entrance. "The Bulgarian Poetess" appeared immediately after Updike's "The Centaur" won a National Book Award in 1963 and made famous its 31-year-old author, already widely acclaimed for two wonderful volumes of short stories. Fame is a (cherished) calamity, especially for artists. Hapless, blocked, desublimated Bech, who at one point receives "the Melville Medal, awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence," seems to have provided his creator fame-therapy. Bech kept Updike down in the foul rag-and-bone shop of existential toils.
Yet Bech prevails, becoming more and more distinguished, finally in "Bech and the Bounty of Sweden" (probably the worst story in this series) winning the Nobel Prize ("'BECH WHODAT???' was the Daily News' front-page headline"). In Yiddish literature, the schlemiel performed the identical cathartic function of turning chronic failure into a weapon of ultimate success. With Bech, Updike stole from Yiddish culture one of its star figures and appropriated one of that culture's driving engines: the hardship at the heart of things.
Of course, the impulse to savor, even exaggerate, the Other's ordeal is partly behind such a cultural appropriation Bech almost theologically keeps Updike's mortal coils warm through the reminder of ultimate human failure: Love ebbs, life ends, the work of art always falls short of its conception. But Bech also represents, through the decades of his existence, the wish of his triumphant creator for the failure of Updike's rivals. It might seem like an obscure footnote now, but by 1964, American Jewish authors like Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth were seizing the ground once occupied by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. Leading the pack was Bellow, and it's no coincidence that the "Bulgarian Poetess" came out in the same year as "Herzog," Bellow's own satire on, but also celebration of, the urban Jewish male intellectual.
In "Herzog," Bellow patented one of the saliences of his style: the casual philosophical generalization as a storytelling springboard. And here in "Bulgarian Poetess" is Updike, beginning sections of the story with "[m]en traveling alone develop a romantic vertigo" and "[a]ctuality is a running impoverishment of possibility." Strangely, marvelously, these ploys poke fun at Bellow's style while reiterating Bellow's satire on just such a mode of intellectualizing, and they duplicate Bellow's habit of, at the very same time, intellectualizing in a serious, poetic way. There is a modest truth and beauty to both of Updike's poetically stated propositions. Bellow begins as his target and grows into his inspiration.
Is there a writer at work today who has read his rivals as viscerally and intelligently as Updike once did his and then acted on it? Is anyone having serious literary fun anymore? These Bech stories, uneven, though usually sharp and witty, sometimes profound and always original, seem on the surface to be the divertissements of an author blowing off extra steam, but Updike is also out to accomplish some meaningful business. In his warm, though somewhat nonplussed introduction to this volume, late novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury writes that for Updike, Bech has represented the alienated counterpoint to the mainstream average American Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of Updike's most famous series of novels. Updike, according to Bradbury, "needed a second alter ego, rather less wholesome ...." Bech, Bradbury goes on to say, "comes from the counter-strand of American fiction, the dissenting, immigrant, anguished and extreme."
Maybe someone should have pointed out to Bradbury the word "angst" in Rabbit's last name. Bradbury seems to have been guided by a prejudice; he seems to have some British writers' idea of the Jewish writer as a kind of two-legged id, dashing around in plaids and dark glasses, flicking cigar ashes on all the conventional consolations. "Dissenting," "anguished" and "extreme" describe just about every great American writer from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Twain and Melville up through Stephen Crane, Dreiser, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. And great artists are always immigrants. They are not born in a literal place; they are born again and again in their daily immigrations. Certainly postwar American Jewish writers introduced into American fiction a special style of dissent, of anguish, of extreme imaginings, but Updike pilfers these energies and gives them his sensibility. He turns the American Jewish writers of his generation inside out. He assimilates them to his own WASPish, Northeastern, suburban sensibility.
"The Complete Henry Bech" comprises three previously published collections of Bech short stories with a kind of coda, "His Oeuvre," the final tale in this volume. Updike takes Bech through a rough comic spectrum of worldly encounters: smoking pot with a former WASP student who reintroduces himself to the wry Jewish author one summer's day on Martha's Vineyard ("I bet you don't remember who I am." "Let me guess. You're not Sabu, and you're not Freddie Bartholomew."); touring what was once known as the Third World ("in his role as ambassador from the kingdom of stupid questions"); exchanging rapid-fire ripostes with his hip upper-class British girlfriend in the "swinging" London of the '70s ("Merissa: 'I'm terribly tired of being white.' Bech: 'But you're so good at it."').
We find him in Israel with his WASP wife, where he resents her awkward Christian ardor and its ebullient assimilation of the Holy Land ("'Jerusalem,' Bea said, 'belongs to everybody."'; we find him in Scotland with his WASP wife, where she resents his cheerful Jewish gloom and its ebullient assimilation of her ancestral home ("'That's the point,' Bech said. 'They moved the poor crofters out and then burned their cottages."') and we encounter him in numerous other outlandish situations. But as the Bech stories proceed, Bech's American Jewish style of dissent, anguish and extremism shades poetically into Updike's special turf of domestic crises, of transcendental longings, of adultery as the apple in the modern Eden. Bech is Updike's answer to the charge of suburban complacency and empty, chilly aestheticism first leveled against him almost 40 years ago by--you should pardon the expression--the Jewish literary establishment at the time, headquartered in the offices of Commentary magazine, among other places.
Updike's revenge is as diabolically ingenious as Shylock's. "You want complacent?" he seems to be saying; "here's complacent." "You don't like my lavish style? Then choke on it." The first Bech stories have Bech touring Communist Russia and Eastern Europe for the State Department, as if Updike wanted to send his Jewish writer back to where the parents of his rivals (Bellow's, for example, and Herzog's) came from, as if he wanted Bech to begin in the high-modernist land of radical skepticism from which the hanging judges of Commentary had once condemned Updike himself. Bech finds no occasion for political reckoning or metaphysical irony in these extreme circumstances. He ends up falling in love, betraying someone's heart, witnessing adultery, longing for a familiarity of feeling that he has never experienced as familiar. He is like Rabbit but from the Bronx and with a City College education. (In fact, Bech attended NYU on the GI Bill.)
What evocation of dark conditions there is in these Eastern European stories comes obliquely, captured in a net of domestic emotions, soaked in shimmering poetic details and under absolute literary control. Soviet Russia "must be the only country in the world you can be homesick for while you're still in it." In Romania, Bech feels that "there had been a tough and heroic naivete in Russia that he missed here, where something shrugging and effete seemed to leave room for a vein of energetic evil." One can imagine Irving Howe or Norman Podhoretz--two of Updike's most dismissive critics--pouncing on the taming literary superfluity of "energetic." How could evil ever be anything but energetic? The qualifying addition seems like a sunny subtraction.
Tug on "energetic" and the whole sentence appears to unravel, like the balding fabric on a comfortable old armchair. It descends by stages into cushy nuance: "a vein of"; "seemed to leave room for"; "something shrugging." But what might seem like a self-satisfied optimism is a refraction of Updike's true sympathetic voice. It is the voice of a country that pushes its lucky, capacious idiom into the history-scarred world. It is the voice of an author whose seeming complacency is actually his country's invincible innocence, which measures evil on its own scale of pain and therefore has had less tolerance for the mass organization of evil.
This voice also has its own sadness, not to say its anguish. A troubling tension tears quietly at Updike's prose. In the lush miracle of his physical details, you glimpse the American dream that often succeeds in protecting happiness from history; in his patterns of lust and possession and disintegrating loss, you feel the widening depression induced by the American illusion of unbroken happiness. Updike titled his second novel "The Centaur," and his fiction is centaur-like: One half of the creature is the immanence glowing at the heart of American expectations, the eternity in a grain of quotidian detail; the other is the harsh, chilly psychology of blown expectations, of an immanence that never arrives. This is why critics react so acidly to Updike: Encountering his artistic tensions, they find themselves confronted with American paradoxes.
Assimilated to a defiant, middle-class voice, Bech turns up in the affluent suburb of Ossining, N.Y., the fictional bourn and actual home of John Cheever, where he meets Johnny Hake, one of Cheever's most famous characters, and commits adultery, the metaphorical quiddity of Updike's fictional world. In a much later story, Updike even appropriates the theme of the Holocaust. This is from the opening pages of "Bech in Czech," which finds Bech visiting Communist Czechoslovakia.
"The Americans had acquired the building [the American ambassador's residence] and its grounds after the war, before Czechoslovakia went quite so Communist .... For a Jew, to move through postwar Europe is to move through hordes of ghosts, vast animated crowds that, since 1945, are not there, not there at all--up in smoke. The feathery touch of the mysteriously absent is felt on all sides ...." Similarly, in Prague's old Jewish cemetery, Updike describes "the tombstones jumbled together like giant cards in a deck being shuffled."
"[Q]uite so Communist"; "the feathery touch of the mysteriously absent"; "like giant cards in a deck being shuffled"--this detached domesticating rhetoric, this irritating fluency amounts to an extreme, dissenting assault on a Jewish passion and obsession. As if all that were not irreverent enough, Updike inserts a Jewish bte noire, T.S. Eliot, the anti-Semitic WASP literary doorkeeper, into Bech's visit to the site of the central event of modern Jewish history. "[A]re not there, not there at all--up in smoke" echoes Prufrock's famous lines: "That is not it at all/That is not what I meant, at all." Through Bech, Updike attempts to assimilate his Jewish rivals with the same subversive friction as his Jewish rivals mocked the suburban assimilation of their parents. He wants to undercut Jewish adversarial energies by adopting them himself, in his own antithetical idiom.
This is caustic stuff. It is admirably caustic stuff. All's fair in love and literature, even the ugliest of the fair. Updike describes a Jewish woman who is coming on to Bech: "She looked up into his face like a dentist who had asked him to open his mouth. She was interested. If he had said he had hemorrhoids, she would still be interested. A Jewish mother's clinical curiosity. Abigail Bech [Bech's mother] had always been prying, poking."
This is in truly bad taste, nor does it rise from crude caricature to genuine satire. A memorable caricature first generates its own qualities and then becomes a type, like Mr. Micawber or Tartuffe, but Updike's Bech, his Jews and even his WASPs and his Third World radicals are frequently stereotypes that tumble straight into caricature without first ripening into their own particularities. Bech himself, insofar as he does acquire a real satirical weight, is a passe figure, a first-generation American Jewish intellectual whom few younger American Jews, let alone anyone else, will now recognize. Updike, in a startling intuition, has Bech thinking that "nothing in history sinks quicker ... than people's actual motives, unless it be their sexual charm." The motives of a Bech are, for satirical purposes, now lost to us.
What remains in these stories is the dynamism of a satirical libido unafraid of bad taste, the presence of which, after all, is the liberated excess of true satire. And what will last in the desultory Bech saga is the drama of an author reclaiming his own otherness to himself--the source of all art--through the not-always-goodhearted impersonation of another type of person. By the end of this series, Bech and Updike are together writing the kind of satire that a new generation of Bechs, Jewish or not, should be producing but isn't.
In the sidesplitting "Bech Noir," Bech goes around knocking off his most vituperative critics, one of them an embittered academic from Seattle who has written three children's books: "Jennifer's Lonely Birthday," "The Day Daddy Didn't Come Home" and "A Teddy Bear's Bequest." "Bech Presides" is a marvelously mordant jab at the mingling of art and money, in which the villain is in real estate, a WASP who ignobly tricks the noble Bech. Imagine that, a satire on art and money in which a real estate developer is the bad guy! Perhaps you have to be a rich and famous 70-year-old author to have the courage to lance our current pieties without fearing charges of sour grapes.
Just as Cervantes came to love and then inhabit Don Quixote--the author jealously repossessing his autonomous creation--Updike does not come just to love Bech but to pass into him. Author and character become a composite creature, a WASP Jew--the beast with two Bechs. In the gorgeous coda, "His Oeuvre," Updike and Bech disappear into a world composed of each author's spiritual and aesthetic values. Lecturing around the country, the famously randy but now aging Bech characteristically sees a former lover at each talk. The visitations prompt an odyssey of characteristically Updikean memories, a chain of sensuous associations that ends with Bech recalling nights of love with a married woman on a train speeding from one end of the country to the other. While lecturing, Bech even spies a "magic lantern" illuminating the ladies' room, as if Updike was invoking the famous magic lantern in "Swann's Way" and then replacing Marcel Proust's memory-inducing madeleine with Bech's memory-inducing women.
The stories end with Updike/Bech submerged in another hybrid personality: that of Proust, the Jewish homosexual whose art has shaped the sensibility of both the real author and--Updike has told us--his creation. Appropriately, Updike evokes Bech's lover with a Proustian fluidity: Bech experiences "his companion's supine beauty as a continuous, calm, exultant entity, with rises and swales and dulcet shadowed corners. The curious silvery light of her eyes now lived all along her skin." About the pair's lovemaking in their small sleeper on the train, Updike writes, "The couple's closet of satisfied desire became nicely rank with a smell that was neither him nor her." The same consummating fusion could also be ascribed to Updike and his character. It is the greatest instance of cross-dressing and identity-swapping in American literature. But centaurs, like great impersonators, always take themselves by surprise.