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Authors: John Updike

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BOOK: Bech
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Here this type was represented by a stout man in a tweed coat leather-patched at the elbows in the British style. The whites of his eyes were distinctly red. He shook Bech’s hand eagerly, made of it almost an embrace of reunion, bending his face so close that Bech could distinguish the smells of tobacco, garlic, cheese, and alcohol. Even as they were seating themselves around the table, and the Writers’ Union chairman, a man elegantly bald, with very pale eyelashes, was touching his brandy glass as if to lift it, this anxious red-eyed interloper blurted at Bech, “Your
Travel Light
was so marvelous a book! The motels, the highways, the young girls with
their lovers who were motorcyclists, so marvelous, so American, the youth, the adoration for space and speed, the barbarity of the advertisements in neon lighting, the very poetry. It takes us truly into another dimension.”

Travel Light
was the first novel, the famous one. Bech disliked discussing it. “At home,” he said, “it was criticized as despairing.”

The man’s hands, stained orange with tobacco, lifted in amazement and plopped noisily to his knees. “No, no, a thousand times. Truth, wonder, terror even, vulgarity, yes. But despair, no, not at all, not one iota. Your critics are dead wrong.”

“Thank you.”

The chairman softly cleared his throat and lifted his glass an inch from the table, so that it formed with its reflection a kind of playing card.

Bech’s admirer excitedly persisted. “You are not a
writer, no. You are a dry writer, yes? You have the expressions, am I wrong in English, dry, hard?”

“More or less.”

“I want to translate you!”

It was the agonized cry of a condemned man, for the chairman coldly lifted his glass to the height of his eyes, and like a firing squad the others followed suit. Blinking his white lashes, the chairman gazed mistily in the direction of the sudden silence, and spoke in Bulgarian.

The young interpreter murmured in Bech’s ear. “I wish to propose now, ah, a very brief toast. I know it will seem doubly brief to our honored American guest, who has so recently enjoyed the, ah, hospitality of our Soviet comrades.” There must have been a joke here, for the rest of the table laughed. “But in seriousness permit me to say that in our country we have seen in years past too few Americans, ah, of Mr. Bech’s progressive and sympathetic stripe. We hope in the next hour
to learn from him much that is interesting and, ah, socially useful about the literature of his large country, and perhaps we may in turn inform him of our own proud literature, of which perhaps he knows regrettably little. Ah, so let me finally, then, since there is a saying that too long a courtship spoils the marriage, offer to drink, in our native plum brandy
, ah, firstly to the success of his visit and, in the second place, to the mutual increase of international understanding.”

“Thank you,” Bech said and, as a courtesy, drained his glass. It was wrong; the others, having merely sipped, stared. The purple burning revolved in Bech’s stomach and a severe distaste for himself, for his role, for this entire artificial and futile process, were focused into a small brown spot on a pear in the bowl so shiningly posed before his eyes.

The red-eyed fool smelling of cheese was ornamenting the toast. “It is a personal honor for me to meet the man who, in
Travel Light
, truly added a new dimension to American prose.”

“The book was written,” Bech said, “ten years ago.”

“And since?” A slumping, mustached man sat up and sprang into English. “Since, you have written what?”

Bech had been asked that question often in these weeks and his answer had grown curt. “A second novel called
Brother Pig
, which is St. Bernard’s expression for the body.”

“Good. Yes, and?”

“A collection of essays and sketches called
When the Saints

“I like the title less well.”

“It’s the beginning of a famous Negro song.”

“We know the song,” another man said, a smaller man, with the tense, dented mouth of a hare. He lightly sang, “Lordy, I just want to be in that number.”

“And the last book,” Bech said, “was a long novel called
The Chosen
that took five years to write and that nobody liked.”

“I have read reviews,” the red-eyed man said. “I have not read the book. Copies are difficult here.”

“I’ll give you one,” Bech said.

The promise seemed, somehow, to make the recipient unfortunately conspicuous; wringing his stained hands, he appeared to swell in size, to intrude grotesquely upon the inner ring, so that the interpreter took it upon himself to whisper, with the haste of an apology, into Bech’s ear, “This gentleman is well known as the translator into our language of
Alice in Wonderland

“A marvelous book,” the translator said, deflating in relief, pulling at his pockets for a cigarette. “It truly takes us into another dimension. Something that must be done. We live in a new cosmos.”

The chairman spoke in Bulgarian, musically, at length. There was polite laughter. Nobody translated for Bech. The professorial type, his hair like a flaxen toupee, jerked forward. “Tell me, is it true, as I have read”—his phrases whistled slightly, like rusty machinery—“that the stock of Sinclair Lewis has plummeted under the Salinger wave?”

And so it went, here as in Kiev, Prague, and Alma-Ata, the same questions, more or less predictable, and his own answers, terribly familiar to him by now, mechanical, stale, irrelevant, untrue, claustrophobic. Then the door opened. In came, with the rosy air of a woman fresh from a bath, a little breathless, having hurried, hatless, a woman in a blond coat, her hair also blond. The secretary, entering behind her, seemed to make a cherishing space around her with his large curved hands. He introduced her to Bech as Vera Something-ova, the poetess he had asked to meet. None of the others on the list, he explained, had answered their telephones.

“Aren’t you kind to come?” As Bech asked it, it was a genuine question, to which he expected some sort of an answer.

She spoke to the interpreter in Bulgarian. “She says,” the interpreter told Bech, “she is sorry she is so late.”

“But she was just called!” In the warmth of his confusion and pleasure Bech turned to speak directly to her, forgetting he would not be understood. “I’m terribly sorry to have interrupted your morning.”

“I am pleased,” she said, “to meet you. I heard of you spoken in France.”

“You speak English!”

“No. Very little amount.”

“But you

A chair was brought for her from a corner of the room. She yielded her coat, revealing herself in a suit also blond, as if her clothes were an aspect of a total consistency. She sat down opposite Bech, crossing her legs. Her legs were visibly good; her face was perceptibly broad. Lowering her lids, she tugged her skirt to the curve of her knee. It was his sense of her having hurried, hurried to
, and of being, still, graciously flustered, that most touched him.

He spoke to her very clearly, across the fruit, fearful of abusing and breaking the fragile bridge of her English. “You are a poetess. When I was young, I also wrote poems.”

She was silent so long he thought she would never answer; but then she smiled and pronounced, “You are not old now.”

“Your poems. Are they difficult?”

“They are difficult—to write.”

“But not to read?”

“I think—not so very.”

“Good. Good.”

Despite the decay of his career, Bech had retained an absolute faith in his instincts; he never doubted that somewhere an ideal course was open to him and that his intuitions were
pre-dealt clues to his destiny. He had loved, briefly or long, with or without consummation, perhaps a dozen women; yet all of them, he now saw, shared the trait of approximation, of narrowly missing an undisclosed prototype. The surprise he felt did not have to do with the appearance, at last, of this central woman; he had always expected her to appear. What he had not expected was her appearance here, in this remote and abused nation, in this room of morning light, where he discovered a small knife in his fingers and on the table before him, golden and moist, a precisely divided pear.

Men traveling alone develop a romantic vertigo. Bech had already fallen in love with a freckled embassy wife in Russia, a buck-toothed chanteuse in Rumania, a stolid Mongolian sculptress in Kazakhstan. In the Tretyakov Gallery he had fallen in love with a recumbent statue, and at the Moscow Ballet School with an entire roomful of girls. Entering the room, he had been struck by the aroma, tenderly acrid, of young female sweat. Sixteen and seventeen, wearing patchy practice suits, the girls were twirling so strenuously their slippers were unraveling. Demure student faces crowned the unconscious insolence of their bodies. The room was doubled in depth by a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Bech was seated on a bench at its base. Staring above his head, each girl watched herself with frowning eyes frozen, for an instant in the turn, by the imperious delay and snap of her head. Bech tried to remember the lines of Rilke that expressed it, this snap and delay:
did not the drawing remain/that the dark stroke of your eyebrow/swiftly wrote on the wall of its own turning?
At one point the teacher, a shapeless old Ukrainian lady with gold canines, a
of the thirties, had arisen and cried something translated
to Bech as, “No, no, the arms free,
” And in demonstration she had executed a rapid series of pirouettes with such proud effortlessness that all the girls, standing this way and that like deer along the wall, had applauded. Bech had loved them for that. In all his loves, there was an urge to rescue—to rescue the girls from the slavery of their exertions, the statue from the cold grip of its own marble, the embassy wife from her boring and unctuous husband, the chanteuse from her nightly humiliation (she could not sing), the Mongolian from her stolid race. But the Bulgarian poetess presented herself to him as needing nothing, as being complete, poised, satisfied, achieved. He was aroused and curious and, the next day, inquired about her of the man with the vaguely contemptuous mouth of a hare—a novelist turned playwright and scenarist, who accompanied him to the Rila Monastery. “She lives to write,” the playwright said. “I do not think it is healthy.”

Bech said, “But she seems so healthy.” They stood beside a small church with whitewashed walls. From the outside it looked like a hovel, a shelter for pigs or chickens. For five centuries the Turks had ruled Bulgaria, and the Christian churches, however richly adorned within, had humble exteriors. A peasant woman with wildly snarled hair unlocked the door for them. Though the church could hardly ever have held more than thirty worshippers, it was divided into three parts, and every inch of wall was covered with eighteenth-century frescoes. Those in the narthex depicted a Hell where the devils wielded scimitars. Passing through the tiny nave, Bech peeked through the iconostasis into the screened area that, in the symbolism of Orthodox architecture, represented the next, the hidden world—Paradise. He glimpsed a row of books, an easy chair, a pair of ancient oval spectacles. Outdoors
again, he felt released from the unpleasantly tight atmosphere of a children’s book. They were on the side of a hill. Above them was a stand of pines whose trunks were shelled with ice. Below them sprawled the monastery, a citadel of Bulgarian national feeling during the years of the Turkish Yoke. The last monks had been moved out in 1961. An aimless soft rain was falling in these mountains, and there were not many German tourists today. Across the valley, whose little silver river still turned a water wheel, a motionless white horse stood silhouetted against a green meadow, pinned there like a brooch.

“I am an old friend of hers,” the playwright said. “I worry about her.”

“Are the poems good?”

“It is difficult for me to judge. They are very feminine. Perhaps shallow.”

“Shallowness can be a kind of honesty.”

“Yes. She is very honest in her work.”

“And in her life?”

“As well.”

“What does her husband do?”

The other man looked at him with parted lips and touched his arm, a strange Slavic gesture, communicating an underlying racial urgency, which Bech no longer shied from. “But she has no husband. As I say, she is too much for poetry to have married.”

“But her name ends in ‘-ova.’ ”

“I see. You are mistaken. It is not a matter of marriage; I am Petrov, my unmarried sister is Petrova. All females.”

“How stupid of me. But I think it’s such a pity, she’s so charming.”

“In America, only the uncharming fail to marry?”

“Yes, you must be very uncharming not to marry.”

“It is not so here. The government indeed is alarmed; our birth rate is one of the lowest in Europe. It is a problem for economists.”

Bech gestured at the monastery. “Too many monks?”

“Not enough, perhaps. With too few of monks, something of the monk enters everybody.”

The peasant woman, who seemed old to Bech but who was probably younger than he, saw them to the edge of her domain. She huskily chattered in what Petrov said was very amusing rural slang. Behind her, now hiding in her skirts and now darting away, was her child, a boy not more than three. He was faithfully chased, back and forth, by a small white pig, who moved, as pigs do, on tiptoe, with remarkably abrupt changes of direction. Something in the scene, in the open glee of the woman’s parting smile and the unself-conscious way her hair thrust out from her head, something in the mountain mist and spongy rutted turf into which frost had begun to break at night, evoked for Bech a nameless absence to which was attached, like a horse to a meadow, the image of the poetess, with her broad face, her good legs, her Parisian clothes, and her sleekly brushed hair. Petrov, in whom he was beginning to sense, through the wraps of foreignness, a clever and kindred mind, seemed to have overheard his thoughts, for he said, “If you would like, we could have dinner. It would be easy for me to arrange.”

“With her?”

BOOK: Bech
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