More of the same

Bech at Bay

John Updike <em>Hamish Hamilton, 241pp, £16.99</em>

In Bech at Bay John Updike completes a trilogy of novels about Bech, a Jewish-American writer. These fictions constitute the less artistic part of the Updike oeuvre; they really are "entertainments" in Graham Greene's sense of the word, along with Brazil, S and The Witches of Eastwick. However, such is the quality of Updike's novelistic intelligence, so alertly does he monitor the world around him, that even when he is at his fertile worst, his novels automatically possess status as social histories of the many different kinds of American engagement with the world.

The earlier Bech novels are an astute record of an increasingly commonplace cultural phenomenon: the struggling writer who writes little, improvises his life randomly and amorally, and whose reputation rests not so much on the one or two fictionalised autobiographies with their peculiarly American mix of self-pity and boasting, as his own willingness to be turned into a cultural performer and paraded around the world.

The Bech novels can also be read as uncommonly good travel books, where the writer, catapulted into alien contexts, finds himself more inadequate than the people he meets; the double-edged irony, and frequent absurdity, of his privileged situation as an American writer is not lost on him; he is constantly assailed by the suspicion that he is a fraud, an "experiment", as Updike puts it, "whose chemicals were about to be washed down the drain".

In Bech at Bay, we encounter Bech at "that advanced stage of authorship when his writing consisted mostly, it seemed, of contributions to Festschrifts - slim volumes of tributes, often accompanied by old photographs and an uneasy banquet at the Century club or Lutece or Michael's Pub, in honour of this or that ancient companion in literature's heady battles."

Already, as you read this, you have a sense of incongruity and excess, and the feeling is something I have encountered before in Updike's novels: in Roger's Version and S, when his tone lapsed into the combative archness of Nabokov's prefaces to his Russian novels. The first-person narrators in both novels undermined their own credibility by the inbuilt exaggerations and flippancy of their prose styles. In this case, the phrase "literature's heady battles" is hardly relevant to Bech's marginal existence, his perception of himself, in Updike's words, "as a vain, limp leech on the leg of literature as it waded through swampy times".

The misapplied phrase is one of the many signs of the book's confused whimsical tone. The first chapter has him traversing familiar territory: he visits the Czech Republic, makes a pass at the American ambassador's wife, and feels his usual intimations of mortality. The next chapters show him accepting the presidency of an honorary literary forum in New York and visiting Los Angeles to defend himself against charges of libel. Much of this is done with Updike's customary fluency, but then to encounter Bech in the late 1990s is to have, for the most part, a sense of deja vu; it is to wonder why he is still around, and indeed why we should hear from him; or, to put it differently, why such a major talent as Updike should settle for such a minor achievement as Bech at Bay.

The doubts multiply in the latter half of the book where Bech abruptly turns into a diligent murderer of critics who have given him bad reviews. Among the mood-breaking scenes here, there is one that recalls the macabre comedy of Humbert Humbert killing Quilty in the final pages of Lolita. The last chapter describes a denouement in Sweden that nothing in Bech's literary career could have led you to expect.

The women in Bech at Bay, mostly literary groupies of an interchangeable sort, are not the least of the problem. Unlike Bea and her sister in the early Bech, their personalities remain obscure as they travel in and out of Bech's bed with mechanical regularity; they recall the women in Woody Allen's recent films, Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity: always very willing, sometimes overly eager, victims of an older man's insecure sexuality.

In the early novels, Bech's self-doubts at least served as plausible motivation for his compulsive philandering, the sexual over-indulgence keeping at bay his fear of a posterity that may prove to be indifferent to his life and work. The sex here seems gratuitous, when not solemnly metaphysical.

In the absence of any explanation of motive or character, it is Updike's facility with words that carries the burden of making these women interesting. Thus, we get sentences like the following, where Updike seems to be trying out a new multiculturalistic prose: "It was charming when Martina laughed, the cautious dimpling and half-smothered eruption, her Socialist conscience checking her acquired American freedom to mock."

The existential anxieties that troubled the self-absorbed Bech in the early novels seem a formulaic reflex here. Visiting Kafka's grave in Prague, he wonders: "Such blankness, such stony and peaceable reification waits for us at the bottom of things." But the thought is too well-expressed and literary; it sounds like something a young, ambitious writer might put in the mind of his philosophical protagonist as he stands over Kafka's grave.

The suspicion arises later, towards the end, as the playfulness of Updike's earlier interactions with Bech - interviews, imaginary footnotes - collapses into broad farce: that if Bech no longer sounds like Bech, it is because there is too much of Updike in him. The scrupulous distance maintained between Updike and Bech has shrunk. Updike tells us that Bech's books are no longer available at airport bookstores, but it is a fact about Updike's own books that I heard him confide recently, in a tone of wry complaint, in an interview. There are other hints of this sort that make you feel that Bech at Bay has been created out of the special discontentments and restlessness of an ageing, much revered writer, someone still writing well but increasingly concerned about the non-arrival of the Nobel, more irked than before by malicious reviews, and worried, too, by declining royalties, the indifference of the young, and the steady disappearance of an older readership.

By letting his own private preoccupations with posterity infect Bech, Updike loses the opportunity to offer Bech the same earthy integrity that Rabbit possesses, the integrity of a fictional character inseparable from his milieu and times. Bech once represented the small, often comic, tragedy of the writer who is forced to turn himself into an entertainer before a middle-class public, who is no more than a minor disposable adjunct to an overwhelmingly materialistic and philistine society. In Bech at Bay Updike doesn't completely ignore that larger aspect, which another American novel, Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, covered so magnificently. The careerist writers in America's huge cultural supermarket, the provincial insularity and petty competitiveness of literary Manhattan, foolish greedy publishers and sharkish Hollywood agents - all of these exist in Bech at Bay, often jolted into life by a stray brilliant phrase.

But there is something too bland about all the satirical detail (and Updike can pile it on): here is a writer, you feel, with too settled a knowledge of the world, and too great a beneficiary of the milieu he describes to be as offended by it as he appears. And both satire and irony lose their force in the last chapter of this farewell account of Bech's life, where Updike confers upon him a vulgarly conventional kind of success. Bech receives the Nobel prize for literature; he becomes a father. He is allowed not one but two shots at posterity; and he hits the mark both times. It all sounds too good to be true.

Pankaj Mishra is a writer based in New Delhi and Simla

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers