On Cynthia Ozick’s Denunciation of Henry Bech: John Updike’s Literary Portrayal of the Jew as Schlemiel

In 1970, John Updike, the celebrated American author, decided to initiate a series of novels dedicated to a Jewish character named Henry Bech. These novels include Bech: A Book (1970), Bech is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998). The first words of Bech: A Book – which come out of a letter by Bech to John Updike – make it clear that Bech presents himself as a schlemiel:


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; than that London glimpse of silver hair glints more of a 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?

However, as one can see from the first words of this passage (and the book), this isn’t just about Bech; it’s also about Updike. The words following the above-mentioned passage make this clear:

Withal, something Waspish, theological, sacred, and insulatingly ironic that derives, my wild surmise is, from you.

Cynthia Ozick, in her review essay of the book (entitled “Bech, Passing”), tunes into this tension between the Jewish character and the non-Jewish “waspish” author. And in response to it, she argues that Bech isn’t so much a Jew as a caricature of a Jew, a “neutral Jew” or, as she puningly puts it, playing on the character’s name, an empty “becher” (a becher is Yiddish for a cup). She calls Bech “theologically hollow” and her reasons for choosing such a term and making such a trenchant criticism of Updike’s attempt to represent a Jew are noteworthy. They give us a sense of how Ozick – and others – might criticize many of the schlemiels we see in literature and film today. It also gives us a glimpse of her criterion for what makes for a plausible Jewish character in Jewish American fiction.

Ozick begins her review by pointing out how Updike’s fiction – though, of course, secular – is lined with “salvationism” and glow with a “eucharistic radiance.” He is the “Origen of the novel.” In contrast, we have his attempt to portray a Jew, Bech: “Here is Henry Bech, Jew, rising, like Shylock and Bloom, out of a Christian brain” (114, Art and Ardor).

And in this novel, the “theologian” tires to “pass” as a Jew:

The original Marranos, in Spain, were probably the first group in history to attempt large-scale passing. As everyone knows (except possibly Bech), they ended at the stake. So much for Jews posing. What, then, of a Christian posing as Jew? What would he have to take on, much less shuck off? (115)

This last question is what intrigues Ozick. What Updike “takes on,” according to Ozick, is a caricature of the Jew, a kind of mechanism: “an Appropriate Reference Machine.” Updike “reminds himself that he is obligated to produce a sociological symptom: crank, gnash, and out flies an inverted sentence.” The first words of the novel, for instance, “all a parody: ironically humorous novelist Bech addresses ironically humorist novelist Updike and coolly kids him about putting Bech together out of Mailer, Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Fuchs, Singer, the two Roths”(115). The “laugh is at the expense of the citation.”

Ozick goes so far as to dedicate an entire page to a mock-outline of Updike’s “Appropriate Reference Machine.” It includes six categories: Vocabulary, Family, Historical References, Nose, Hair, and Sex. The effect is to show that he is, as Walter Benjamin might say, a “scarecrow of determinism.” Nonetheless, Ozick argues that this portrayal is not so off if you count Beck amongst the “most disaffected de-Judaicized Jewish novelists of his generation” which Updike uses as his “sociological” basis.

Ozick’s gloss on these “de-Judaicized Jewish novelists” foreshadows her rant on what is missing not just in Bech but in most Jewish writing today: knowledge of Jewish history. But this omission is not done out of neglect so much as what Ozick calls “autolobotomy.” Wondering at this caricature of the Jew, Ozick suggests we think about how this would sound if this kind of portrayal were done with respect to real African-Americans:

So much for the American Jewish novelist as sociological source. As a subject for social parody, it is fairly on par with a comic novel about how slavery cretinized the black man. All those illiterate darkies! Beck as cretin is even funnier: they didn’t bring him in chains, he did it to himself under the illusion of getting civilized. (117)

Ozick notes how Updike’s comic portrayal of Bech leaves out the other aspect of comedy which is entrenched in reality:

Comedy springs from the ludicrous; but the ludicrous is stuck in the muck of reality, resolutely hostile to what is impossible. (118)

And what is impossible is the fact that Updike creates a character who actually little to do with American Jews and more to do with “literary Jews.” He fits better in Berlin than in America. Nonetheless, Ozick says that Beck is a “stupid Jewish intellectual. I know him well.” Ozick sees it as her responsibility to address Bech’s Jewishness, not Updike’s: “I am not asking Updike to be critical of Bech – it is not his responsibility. It is mine and Bech’s”(118).

Updike, argues Ozick, loves Bech most when he is “thoroughly de-Beched” – when “Bech is most openly, most shrewdly, most strategically, most lyrically Updike”(119). And this happens when the “Appropriate Reference Machine” (ARM from here on) breaks down. At these moments of failure, Updike the theologian takes over.

And in these moments, when the ARM breaks, there is a brief exposure to a Christeological kind of epiphany. However, this doesn’t transform Beck. Rather he returns to a kind of state that is…comical.

“He (Beck) had become a character of Henry Bech.” Which is to say, a folk character out of Jewish vaudeville, not quite Groucho Marx, not yet Gimpel the Fool. Nevertheless, unsaved….Bech’s grail is cut in half, like his name, which is half a kiddish cup: becher. Over the broken brim the Jews in Bech spills out: Updike, an uncircumcised Bashevis Singer (as Mark Twain was the Gentile Sholem Aleichem), is heard in the wings, laughing imp-laughter. (120).

This, argues Ozick, has a “whiff of Christian hell.” But, ultimately, this reflects Updike more than Jewishness. In a bold move, Ozick tells us that Updike may “theologize” Bech but he “does not theologize the Jew in Bech”(121). Updike’s Bech is mere chatter that has nothing to do with Jewishness it has to do with ARM:

But wherever the Jew obtrudes there is clatter, clutter, a silliness sans comedy. Bech makes empty data. It is not that Updike has fallen into any large scale gaucherie or perilous failures-of-tone. It is not that Updike’s American Jew is false. It is not false enough. (121)

Ozick’s paradoxical comments about falseness are the preface to her discussion of what true Jewishness is. Bech, as “Jew,” is false because he is all sociology, all manners:

As Jew he is all sociology, which is to say all manners (acquired exilic manners); as a Jews he is pathetically truncated, like his name. So Updike finds Beck as so he leaves him. Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing. (122).

What makes for Jewishness, then?

Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair. Simply: To be a Jew is to be covenanted; or if not committed so far, to be at least aware of the possibility of being covenanted; or at a the minimum, to be aware of the Covenant itself. (123)

And today:

It is no trick, it is nothing at all, to do a genial novel about an unconvenanted barely nostalgic secular/neuter: Bech himself, in all his multiple avatars…writes novels about Bech every day. It is besides the point for Updike and Bech together to proclaim Bech’s sociological there-ness. Of course Bech is, in that sense, there. But what is there is nothing. (123)

What interests Ozick more, however, is not what “Bech-as-he-is” as what “Bech-as-he-might-become.” To focus only on the former to the exclusion of the latter, Ozick argues, is “critically unjustifiable”(123).

Along these lines, Ozick argues that there is no use “objecting that Updike” and Jewish-American writers in their portrayals of Jews don’t “aim for the deepest point” of Jewishness. But there is a point in taking note of how the “deepest point” is “implicated when it is most omitted”(123). And that is what she is doing as a literary critic…and a Jew.

Musing on this omission, Ozick suggests that this may have been Updike’s point: “to attempt a novel about non-values, about a neuter man. To find the archetypal neuter man separated from culture, Updike as theologian reverts to Origen and Ambrose, to centuries of Christian doctrine, and in such ancient terms defines his Jew”(124). But, more to the point, Ozick suggests that this may be the case because, for Updike, Bech, “the Jew as neuter man,” is “in the majority, or most typical…the most real”(124).

Updike sees the Jew from the outside.

But, seen from the “perspective of Jewish vision, or call it Jewish immanence (and what other perspective shall we apply to a Jew?)”:

The Jewish Bech has not reality at all, especially not to himself: he is a false Jew, a poured-out becher, one who has departed from Jewish presence.(124)

Ozick’s words suggest that she is taking on the position, in contrast to Updike, of the Jewish theologian and from Jewish immanence. Her reading suggests a theological kind of reading of at least one variety of the schlemiel and of a sociological kind of Jewishness that she rejects and finds to be “false.” Given this reading of Updike (and the Jewish-American writers she suggests but decides not to name in her essay), we can only imagine what she would say about the schlemiels we see in film and on TV.

Piece crossposted with Schlemiel Theory

Submit a comment