Remembering John Updike: James Marcus Talks with Updike about his “Bech” Novels

by Jane Ciabattari | Jan-27-2009


National Book Critics Circle board member James Marcus interviewed John Updike in 1998 about his “Bech” novels:

In 1970 John Updike unleashed his Jewish American doppelgänger upon an unsuspecting public in “Bech.” Assembled out of bits of Bellow, Roth, Singer, and Malamud—plus, we were assured, some “Waspish, theological, scared, and insulating ironical” portion of Updike himself—this altar ego was something new for the golden goy of American letters. A dozen years later, Updike revived him for an encore in “Bech Is Back.” And now this “semi-obscure American author” returns for his third appearance in Bech at Bay. Speaking on the telephone from the Knopf offices in Manhattan, Updike chatted with James Marcus about metafiction, aging, and every writer’s propensity to break his own promises.

James Marcus: In an introduction to the recent omnibus edition of the Rabbit novels, you wrote that you always intended Rabbit Angstrom to be “a creature of fear and trembling.” What sort of creature did you intend Henry Bech to be?

John Updike: There’s some fear and a little trembling, but I basically see him as a more buoyant person who has what Rabbit lacked: a vocation. It’s true he doesn’t write very much, and hasn’t published very much. But he’s clearly identified himself as a writer. And I think it’s helpful for a man—and probably a woman, too—to know what you’re trying to be. Anyway, Bech has his moments of panic, even in this book: black moods, you could say. But he carries them off through the act of impersonation. He impersonates a president, he impersonates a visiting diplomat, and so on. All this gives him a certain verve.

James Marcus: Impersonation, of course, can produce some anxiety. At one point you write: “More fervently than he was Jew, Bech was a writer, literary man, and in this dimension, too, he felt cause for a need. He was a creature of the third person, a character.” Is this sense of unease an occupational hazard for all writers, yourself included? Or is it strictly Bech’s problem?

Updike: You know, it’s interesting to me how many of the reviews have picked up on that particular passage. It is true that Bech is a character. I’m not aware of being a character in the work of somebody else—but it could be so, and it would make you feel vulnerable, apt to be erased or revised in a threatening way. There are moments when you doubt the very fabric of your own reality, aren’t there? Philosophy has muddled away at this very problem for ages. What is real? What is not? How real is real?

James Marcus: Well, I take the passage as both a metafictional frolic and as an expression of metaphysical unease that a flesh-and-blood person might feel.

Updike: Very good. That’s right. This is a metafictional frolic, but almost all fiction, you discover, gets you into the metaphysical. Even if you hadn’t intended to bring the characters near the existential issues, just dealing with them in print does it for you.

James Marcus: Let me back up here for a moment. In a rather well-known response to the first Bech book, Cynthia Ozick argued that Henry Bech was not merely a cobbled-together Jew, but one totally lacking in any theological dimension. Did you feel there was anything substantial about her complaint?

Updike: It didn’t make me want to cancel the book or go around confiscating copies—I thought Bech was Jewish enough for the purpose. [laughs] But with Cynthia’s admonitions in mind, I’ve tried in subsequent episodes to give him more… Jewishness. Certainly in the first story in Bech at Bay, he’s very much aware of himself as a Jew visiting Eastern Europe—the site of the Holocaust—and as such is frightened. Still, although I kind of forget what past I’ve given him, I don’t believe Bech was raised as an observant Jew.

James Marcus: Not excessively observant, no.

Updike: Clearly I’m on thin ice here. Then again, maybe a fiction writer should put himself on thin ice! I don’t know what it’s like to be a Jew, but I expect it’s a little like being a Christian, in that there are many flavors, many degrees of commitment. Cynthia is one of the more committed Jews I know: she has a conscious theology, a conscious metaphysics. But I’ve known Jews who didn’t seem to have any truck with all that apparatus, and I expect Bech is of the latter sort. So I don’t feel obliged to make him into a rabbi’s son just because he’s a Jew. He’s a Jewish American who, like many Jewish Americans, has left it pretty far behind.

James Marcus: To give Cynthia Ozick her due, she seemed more comfortable with Bech’s Judaism quotient in the second book.

Updike: That’s right! I noticed that and was pleased to see it. I won’t count on her reacting even more warmly to this one, of course.

James Marcus: You call Bech at Bay a “quasi-novel,” and like its predecessors, it’s essentially a short-story collection. Have you ever been tempted to write a real novel about Bech?

Updike: There’s a jumpiness to Bech, somehow. He’s light on his feet—he tends to dart away. So, no, I’ve never been tempted. I suppose that “Bech Wed” in the second book is as close as he’s come to inhabiting a novel. There was a kind of novelistic space there: he acquired stepchildren and a house, and the domestic ups and downs that happen to other Updike characters happened to him. But that’s about as expansive as I can be and want to be about Bech.

James Marcus: Is there even a faint possibility we’ll see more of Henry Bech? The Nobel Prize has been the death of many a writer, but he’s still technically breathing at the end.

Updike: He is. He’s actually in pretty good health at the end, unlike Rabbit when last seen. But as for continuing? Not any time soon. I think four was the right number for Rabbit Angstrom and three feels about right for Bech. Still, you never know. A writer’s somewhat irresponsible and breaks his promises. And Bech is there, ready-packaged, should I need to write about a writer—maybe he’ll be called back into service on some unforeseeable date.

James Marcus: When you created Bech in 1970, he was certainly perceived as something of an anti-Updike. As you and he have aged, do you feel any sense of convergence?

Updike: We’re a little more convergent. That was true of Rabbit Angstrom, too. We all seem to be aging into kind of a common geezerhood. [laughs] Bech and I do share certain experiences. My exposure to the literary life in Manhattan is very scanty, but what glimpses I’ve had, I give to him. His becoming a parent allows us to share the reservoir of paternal affection. Then there’s that last story, in which he’s feeling harassed and inadequate in the face of his leather-jacketed publicist: I do feel that way, sometimes, in relation to the publicity department of this fine organization. So I guess Bech and I are no longer cousins. We’re getting to be brothers.

James Marcus: Reviewers seem to have reacted strongly to “Bech Noir,” in which the writer eliminates his critics with extreme prejudice. Was this an idea you’d been tinkering with for a while?

Updike: It came upon me suddenly. I got a two-volume Library of America edition of American noir writers, and I also pulled out Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. I was getting into a noir-ish mood—so I put Bech in a noir novelette, where it’s totally in character for him to go around killing those people, who are mostly just names to him, anyway. If I had a red button here and could kill certain critics, wouldn’t I push it? [laughs]

James Marcus: Remember, this conversation is being taped.

Updike: Okay, I’ll leave it at that! But I do think the wish to kill, the wish to eliminate, certainly figures in literary criticism. A sufficiently bad review wishes to eliminate the author—why can’t an author harbor the wish to eliminate the critic?

James Marcus: But do you feel much of a will to annihilate in your own criticism?

Updike: In general I try to give a book a fair shake—that’s my motto! [laughs] I try not to take off on my own hobby horses if I can avoid it. And I’ve felt that in reviews of my own work, I’m often blamed for not writing a book that I didn’t intend to write, so I try not to do that, either.

James Marcus: In a 1981 “interview” with none other than Henry Bech, you said, “We live in a coral reef smothered in a glut of self-regard.” Does the current literary atmosphere seem any less smothering to you?

Updike: I said that, did I?

James Marcus: You did.

Updike: God, I’d forgotten that. It’s kind of good, isn’t it?

James Marcus: Yes. [laughter]

Updike: Well, self-regard has probably always been a danger for writers. And in America, the writer’s role has become ever more vague—he’s no longer providing mass entertainment and enlightenment in the way that Sinclair Lewis and Steinbeck were. Who can write that kind of book now? Hasn’t it all passed over to the electronic media? So, yeah, I think self-regard is maybe what a lot of us are left with! But you know, Proust made a good thing of it, and so did Joyce. All writing, I think, that we trust, begins in self-regard. You just hope you’re able to get out of your own skin, too. D.H. Lawrence spoke of the value of fiction as broadening our sympathies. And that remains true: the writer’s limited social usefulness is that he still has control of an instrument that can broaden our sympathies.

James Marcus: So in that sense, the literary situation hasn’t changed.

Updike: Actually, I think the literary situation for a beginning writer must look very problematical. Starting out in the 1950s, at least, there were some magazines that would pay you a decent wage. I figured six short stories a year for the New Yorker would support me. Television was an infant, a very awkward little infant, and nobody knew what to do with it. Roller derby was big, Liberace was big, and neither one needed much in the way of writing. But for the young writer now, there aren’t so many… intermediate steps. It’s as if the ladder only has a few top rungs on it. How do you climb it? I don’t know.

James Marcus: Any young writers—or for that matter, old ones—you’ve been reading with particular pleasure?

Updike: Yes. I have a confession. I was asked to write the introduction to Henry James’s classic The Portrait of a Lady. Now, I’m not really a Jamesian, and I found it to be a little too much ado about not quite enough. I did write an introduction saying that, and I haven’t yet heard if they’re going to use it—but I felt guilty, like I’d given James short shrift. So I got out a book I had never finished called Washington Square.

James Marcus: That’s a nice thin one, isn’t it?

Updike: Yes, very early. I’m reading it now, and I’m loving it. What a crisp, wonderful writer he was before he got into that long-winded thing, and how coolly and effortlessly he sees things! So I’m happy to be reading something by James that I can wholeheartedly admire.

James Marcus: At least they didn’t ask you to introduce The Golden Bowl.

Updike: I don’t know what I would’ve said about that. It’s so much over the top, so static and indirect, that it’s almost, you know, good. Portrait of a Lady falls in between the early crispness and the later whirligigs—whatever they are. Arabesques.

James Marcus: Have you ever read James’s late autobiographical writings? They’re so abstract that everything—including, say, his father—ends up as merely an oblong shadow or shape.

Updike: How wonderful—to write an autobiography from which all the content has been drained! That’s a great accomplishment.

About the Critical Mass Blog

Commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors (see list of bloggers below).


Categories & Archives

Become a Member of the NBCC

NBCC Awards

Finalists for 2017

See all award winners

Find out how to submit

Read how we select

Frequently Asked Questions

Upcoming Events

NBCC Finalists’ Reading: March 13th, 2019

NBCC Awards Ceremony and Reception: March 14th, 2019

NBCC at AWP19 with Paul Beatty and Joan Silber: March 28th, 2019

NBCC at AWP19 The Future of Criticism: A Conversation with Established and Emerging Critics: March 30th, 2019

Videos and Podcasts

NBCC 2017 Awards Ceremony

NBCC 2017 Finalists Reading

All videos and podcasts.