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Bech: A Book (1999)

Bech: A Book (1999)

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3.55 of 5 Votes: 3
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0449459330 (ISBN13: 9780449459331)
ballantine books

About book Bech: A Book (1999)

Revisiting this work after more than a decade since my first unsatisfying time through, I have reassessed it. I previously rejected it as dull, uninteresting stories about a character about whom I could care less. This time through I found it a pleasant if mostly uninspiring read, a nice period piece. I think the fundamental problem with the character of Henry Bech is two-fold. First, to some extent Bech represents the Henry Jekyll of Updike's split personality, the opposite of Harold ("Rabbit") Angstrom's Edward Hyde. Much more intellectual and better-mannered (though ironically, more frequently promiscuous) than Rabbit, Bech sounds off in elegant terms of literature and culture and the attractions of the many women he pursues. Rabbit speaks in more direct, earthier terms, and we always know what he's thinking about, which frequently involves functional body parts. Rabbit's perceptions are almost always interesting because we feel they are authentic. Bech's seem contrived, an outlet for thoughts that Updike chose not to set forth in his innumerable essays. Second, although it is repeatedly emphasized that Bech is a Jew, and a child of New York in the Thirties, he doesn't to me sound ethnic in any way. The sentiments that come out of his mind and mouth seem Waspish, New England-ish. This too has made it very hard to think of Bech as real, to care much what happens to him.I can't say that I "really liked" Bech: A Book, but I liked it. It was literate, thoughtful, amusing, a nice look back at the late 60's culture (though, to be superfluous, it was no "Rabbit Redux"). Having thought more about literature in the last few years than for some time (and having seen too many younger readers gobbling up silly fantasies and other easy page-turners at the expense of good literature), it was surprisingly pleasant to absorb the musings of a real literary mind, even if they did not stir my soul. I liked this enough that I will next tackle Bech is Back, whose pages previously proved an Everest I did not have the patience or will to climb.

Bech is an old-school American writer (i.e. sexist and racist) whose books have secured him a place in the pantheon of the greats. Ah, the days when we had pantheons! When writers had stature and respect and tabloid headlines, when adoring fans tore their knickers off over a potent metaphor or sly Greek allusion. Gone are the days! He travels the world being droll and patronising the locals for not speaking English, and looks at ladies’ ankles, thighs and calves a great deal before he sleeps with them. Oh, the writer’s life! Such toil and torment! Attached to these thin travelogues and anecdotal scenes are the usual lyrical gushings that made Updike such a honey in the New York scene—those long descriptive sentences that make critics say “master of the language” a great deal, but that in themselves don’t really say very much in particular. Still, Updike could have written a better sentence than the one I wrote there. And there. So he wins. Except I’m not dead. So maybe I win?

Do You like book Bech: A Book (1999)?

I've read more Updike novels than short stories, and I'm amazed at how dense these short stories on the life of author Beck are. Updike often strings together two or three quite pithy descriptive phrases in a sentence that really describe the people inhabiting these stories. These stories, besides the last one, find Beck travelling to portray the famous author in foreign countries, at a college, and even on vacation (where he starts a trip of a different kind). My favorite is "Beck Swings?", where Beck has been called to London to be interviewed, misquoted, and have the expected fling. Ah, the life of a famous blocked author. I'm looking forward to more.

Sometimes, I feel that books about writers tend to lean on the side of self-indulgent. Updike's Bech: A Book is an example of this done right. On one end, you see the every day happenings of a larger-than-life figure. Henry Bech's first book Travel Light is a cult classic that the author can never seem to follow up. I was reminded of Joseph Heller's Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man when reading this. Sure there are a lot of things in this book that seem to have become cliche in recent years: the way the writer copes with his writer's block, which was later used by Chabon in Wonderboys, or the neurotic jew figure that we also see in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and pretty much every Woody Allen movie that has ever been made, but this book has a lot of charm. Henry Bech is no Rabbit Angstrom, but the humor and heart that is featured in these short stories, make this book well worth your time. In the story "Bech Panics," what I saw was Updike trying to figure out how to write in the changing climate that was the 1960s. In some ways, I wondered if this collection was a way for Updike to try to figure things out. For those interested in writing, I think that this book could provide some valuable insight into Updike's writing philosophy, even if the vessel he chooses to deliver it from is a man suffering from writer's block. My intro to Updike was through the short story "A&P", so it was nice for me to get to see him practice the short story form again.
—Jeremy Sullivan

Updike is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. This isn't so much a novel as a series of vignettes about the life of New York novelist Henry Bech. Bech is notoriously unproductive, gamophobic, and Jewish; in short, he's the complete opposite of everything associated with John Updike, who is a famously prolific Ivy League wasp who's been married with children a few times over. At first, the stories are presented as though they're part of a critical overview of Bech's life but that pretense begins to dissolve as the narratives get more personal. Highly recommended.

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