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Authors: John Updike

Bech

Books by John Updike

POEMS

The Carpentered Hen
(1958) •
Telephone Poles
(1963) •
Midpoint
(1969)
• Tossing and Turning
(1977) •
Facing Nature
(1985) •
Collected Poems 1953–1993
(1993)
• Americana
(2001)
• Endpoint
(2009)

NOVELS

The Poorhouse Fair
(1959)
• Rabbit, Run
(1960)
• The Centaur
(1963) •
Of the Farm
(1965)
• Couples
(1968)
• Rabbit Redux
(1971)
• A Month of Sundays
(1975)
• Marry Me
(1976)
• The Coup
(1978)
• Rabbit Is Rich
(1981)
• The Witches of Eastwick
(1984)
• Roger’s Version
(1986)
• S
. (1988)
• Rabbit at Rest
(1990)
• Memories of the Ford Administration
(1992)
• Brazil
(1994)
• In the Beauty of the Lilies
(1996) •
Toward the End of Time
(1997)
• Gertrude and Claudius
(2000)
• Seek My Face
(2002)
• Villages
(2004)
• Terrorist
(2006)
• The Widows of Eastwick
(2008)

SHORT STORIES

The Same Door
(1959)
• Pigeon Feathers
(1962)
• Olinger Stories
(a selection, 1964)
• The Music School
(1966)
• Bech: A Book
(1970)
• Museums and Women
(1972)
• Problems
(1979)
• Too Far to Go
(a selection, 1979)
• Bech Is Back
(1982)
• Trust Me
(1987)
• The Afterlife
(1994)
• Bech at Bay
(1998)
• Licks of Love
(2000)
• The Complete Henry Bech
(2001)
• The Early Stories: 1953–1975
(2003)
• My Father’s Tears
(2009)
• The Maples Stories
(2009)

ESSAYS AND CRITICISM

Assorted Prose
(1965)
• Picked-Up Pieces
(1975)
• Hugging the Shore
(1983)
• Just Looking
(1989)
• Odd Jobs
(1991)
• Golf Dreams
(1996) •
More Matter
(1999)
• Still Looking
(2005)
• Due Considerations
(2007) •
Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu
(2010)
• Higher Gossip
(2011)

PLAY
    
MEMOIRS
Buchanan Dying
(1974)
    
Self-Consciousness
(1989)

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

The Magic Flute
(1962)
• The Ring
(1964)
• A Child’s Calendar
(1965)
• Bottom’s Dream
(1969)
• A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects
(1996)

Bech: A Book
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

2012 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition

Copyright © 1965, 1966, 1968, 1970 by John Updike

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
T
RADE
P
APERBACKS
and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. in 1970.

Five of these stories first appeared in
THE NEW YORKER:
“The Bulgarian Poetess,” “Bech in Rumania,” “Bech Takes Pot Luck,” “Rich in Russia” (without appendices), and (in shorter form) “Bech Swings?”

eISBN: 978-0-679-64582-5

Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: © Sabine Scheckel/Getty Images

www.atrandom.com

v3.1

FOREWORD

D
EAR
J
OHN
,

Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than about you. Except, reading along in these, I wonder if it
is
me, enough me, purely me. At first blush, for example, in Bulgaria (eclectic sexuality, bravura narcissism, thinning curly hair), I sound like some gentlemanly Norman Mailer; then that London glimpse of
silver
hair glints more of gallant, glamorous Bellow, the King of the Leprechauns, than of stolid old homely yours truly. My childhood seems out of Alex Portnoy and my ancestral past out of I. B. Singer. I get a whiff of Malamud in your city breezes, and am I paranoid to feel my “block” an ignoble version of the more or less noble renunciations of H. Roth, D. Fuchs, and J. Salinger? Withal, something Waspish, theological, scared, and insulatingly ironical that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.

Yet you are right. This monotonous hero who disembarks from an airplane, mouths words he doesn’t quite mean, has vaguely to do with some woman, and gets back on the airplane, is certainly one Henry Bech. Until your short yet still not unlongish collection, no revolutionary has concerned himself with our oppression, with the silken mechanism whereby America reduces her writers to imbecility and cozenage. Envied like Negroes, disbelieved in like angels, we veer between the harlotry of the lecture platform and the torture of the writing desk, only to collapse, our five-and-dime Hallowe’en priests’ robes a-rustle with economy-class jet-set tickets and honorary certificates from the Cunt-of-the-Month Club, amid a standing crowd of rueful, Lilliputian obituaries. Our language degenerating in the mouths of broadcasters and pop yellers, our formal designs crumbling like sand castles under the feet of beach bullies, we nevertheless and incredibly support with our desperate efforts (just now, I had to look up “desperate” in the dictionary for the ninety-ninth time, forgetting again if it is spelled with two “a”s or three “e”s) a flourishing culture of publishers, agents, editors, tutors,
Time
niks, media personnel in all shades of suavity,
chic
, and sexual gusto. When I think of the matings, the moaning, jubilant fornications between ectomorphic oversexed junior editors and svelte hot-from-Wellesley majored-in-English-minored-in-philosophy female coffee-fetchers and receptionists that have been engineered with the lever of some of my poor scratched-up and pasted-over pages (they arrive in the editorial offices as stiff with Elmer’s glue as a masturbator’s bedsheet; the office boys use them for tea-trays), I could mutilate myself like sainted Origen, I could keen like Jeremiah. Thank Jahweh these bordellos in the sky can soon dispense with the excuse of us entirely; already the contents of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast-cereal box. It is all a matter of the premium, and the shelf site, and the amount of air between the corn flakes. Never you mind. I’m sure that when with that blithe goyish brass I will never cease to test with my teeth you approached me for a “word or two by way of preface,” you were bargaining for a benediction, not a curse.

Here it is, then. My blessing. I like some of the things in these accounts very much. The Communists are all good—good
people
. There is a moment by the sea, I’ve lost the page, that rang true. Here and there passages seemed overedited, constipated; you prune yourself too hard. With prose, there is no way to get it out, I have found, but to let it run. I liked some of the women you gave me, and a few of the jokes. By the way, I never—unlike retired light-verse writers—make puns. But if you [
here followed a list of suggested deletions, falsifications, suppressions, and rewordings, all of which have been scrupulously incorporated
—ED.], I don’t suppose your publishing this little
jeu
of a book will do either of us drastic harm.

H
ENRY
B
ECH

Manhattan,

Dec. 4th–12th, 1969

CONTENTS
RICH IN RUSSIA

S
TUDENTS
(not unlike yourselves) compelled to buy paperback copies of his novels—notably the first,
Travel Light
, though there has lately been some academic interest in his more surreal and “existential” and perhaps even “anarchist” second novel,
Brother Pig
—or encountering some essay from
When the Saints
in a shiny heavy anthology of mid-century literature costing $12.50, imagine that Henry Bech, like thousands less famous than he, is rich. He is not. The paperback rights to
Travel Light
were sold by his publisher outright for two thousand dollars, of which the publisher kept one thousand and Bech’s agent one hundred (10% of 50%). To be fair, the publisher had had to remainder a third of the modest hard-cover printing and, when
Travel Light
was enjoying its vogue as the post-Golding pre-Tolkien fad of college undergraduates, would amusingly tell on himself the story of Bech’s given-away rights, at sales meetings upstairs in “21.” As to anthologies—the average permissions fee, when it arrives at Bech’s mailbox, has been eroded to $64.73, or some such suspiciously
odd sum, which barely covers the cost of a restaurant meal with his mistress and a medium wine. Though Bech, and his too numerous interviewers, have made a quixotic virtue of his continuing to live for twenty years in a grim if roomy Riverside Drive apartment building (the mailbox, students should know, where his pitifully nibbled checks arrive has been well scarred by floating urban wrath, and his last name has been so often ballpointed by playful lobby-loiterers into a somewhat assonant verb that Bech has left the name plate space blank and depends upon the clairvoyance of mailmen), he in truth lives there because he cannot afford to leave. He was rich just once in his life, and that was in Russia, in 1964, a thaw or so ago.

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