- John Updike and the Distractions of Henry Bech, Professional Writer and Amateur American Jew
"writers are often unhappy and distracted. They have never been examined so earnestly before."—Saul Bellow, Herzog 369
For Saul Bellow, Distraction is a term charged with special meaning and fraught with peril. Its networks of paralysis include the welter of information, the large public noise, bombarding us all, but that is especially harmful for the contemplative writer; and, ironically enough, it also includes the distractions of prolonged solitude that can be equally damaging. Torn between grand declarations of power ("Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world") and characters afflicted by impotence (for example, Oblimov, Moreau, John Marcher, Leopold Bloom), creative souls suffer from what the title of Bellow's essay identifies as "The Distractions of the Fiction Writer"—namely, the uneasy feeling that "the dread is great, the soul is small, man might be godlike, but he is wretched; the heart should be open but it is sealed by fear" (381). [End Page 97]
One could argue that John Updike's Bech books are a study in precisely this sort of "distraction," indeed, that Henry Bech is the distracted writer writ large, Jewish, and befuddled. After all, what do his picaresque adventures, his furtive travels and sexual entanglements add up to if not a life made up of—yea, a writerly life sacrificed to—distractions? As Bellow puts it, "you can't build a business on inspirations," and that, apparently, is what Bech has tried to do during his protracted bout with writer's block and his ever-deeper entanglements with the distractions offered by invitations to lecture at colleges, to represent American culture at diplomatic watering holes around the globe, and to be honored for the accomplishments of his past.
But that said, distinctions must be made between the dreamy Bellow protagonist temporarily derailed from his writing desk and Updike's Henry Bech. For one thing, Updike is out to satirize the very sociological conditions that Bellow regards with an ever-increasing grimness; and more to the point, Updike means to talk about the comic landscape that serious fictionists traverse at their peril by transmogrifying himself into the emblematic figure of those times, those places—namely, the Jewish-American writer.
No doubt curiosity and a dash of healthy competitiveness accounts for at least a part of Updike's fascination. If the heyday of American-Jewish writing was the 1950s, the following decade was characterized by the trappings of literary success: critical attention, literary prizes, public recognition. Indeed, there were those whose giddy enthusiasm for the phenomenon they dubbed the "American-Jewish renaissance" knew no bounds and those who watched the proceedings from the sidelines, often with clenched teeth.
Generally speaking, Updike is a generous reviewer, as collections such as Hugging the Shore will attest; and if he is driven by the demons of rancor and plain jealousy, he keeps his rages under wraps. Still, it must have galled him to see the lavish attention paid to ethnicity in general—and to Jewish-American writers in particular—especially because the popular press took such delight in what can only be called WASP-bashing. In Updike's case, this was yet another instance of ironies piled atop ironies, for he found himself in the uncomfortable position of being touted as the WASP novel's last, best hope when the fact of the matter is that he had been raised as a Lutheran and in a small, rather declassé Pennsylvania town to boot.
Real WASPs are fashioned from sturdier stock; they do not drink boilermakers in neighborhood tavs, follow the Phillies, or listen to Reverend Kruppenbach's uncompromizing sermons about sin and its terrible, eternal costs. At the same time, however, Updike resisted the tack taken by, say, the poet Robert Lowell who made so much of his [End Page 98] "Jewish blood"—presumably passed through his deep-blue bloodlines via his grandmother—that some Jewish-American poets grew suspicious, and then worried. No, Updike was, for better or worse, a writer who took his Christianity seriously—which not only meant that he knew his Karl Barth, but also that his characteristic vision...