- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics (1 Jun. 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0141188561
- ISBN-13: 978-0141188560
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2 x 19.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,084,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Complete Henry Bech (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 1 Jun 2006
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"A deft poke at what it means to be a writer in America. " (New York Times)
"In his extraordinarily productive career, John Updike has given us a multitude of memorable characters, but none more lovable than the high-minded, mild-mannered, rather hapless writer Henry Bech." (Chicago Tribune)
"As imaginative territory, literary Manhattan has proved irresistible to Updike the satirist, and he has done it full justice and then some in his volumes of stories concerning the doings of New York novelist Henry Bech." (The New Criterion)
"A mordantly comic look at literary life." (Time) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
The Bech stories-collected in one volume for the first time, and featuring a final, series-capping story, "His Oeuvre"-cast an affectionate eye on the famously unproductive Jewish-American writer, offering up a stream of wit, whimsy, and lyric pungency unmatched in American letters.
"One of Updike's best creations." -Life
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Students (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. Read the first page Browse Sample Pages
Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Top Customer Reviews
'The Complete Henry Bech' published by Penguin - and more on that later - contains two novellas and a short story. Bech: A Book is primarily concerned with Bech's adventures around the world, which essentially gives Updike an excuse to mention that countries major writers and to make allusions to them throughout the text. Bech is Back is the most entertaining of the trio and deals, in part, with Bech finally publishing after fifteen years silence, his often-referred to but never really worked out novel, Think Big. In between, he is married, divorces, and has plenty of literary discussions with young female editors, typists, fans, reviewers - all of whom seem remarkably enamoured with the author. Finally, there is Bech in Czech, a very short story which returns to the main conceit of Bech: A Book which, by now, has become somewhat unnecessary to the needs of the character.Read more ›
However, this is not the Bech collection to buy because IT IS NOT COMPLETE! It only contains the stories in 'Bech: A Book' (1970) and 'Bech Is Back' (1981) with an extra story from 1986, 'Bech in Czech'. Although published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2006 and trumpeting itself as 'complete' it eschews all but one of the stories contained in the third Bech collection 'Bech At Bay' (1998) as well as the last Bech story to date, 'His Oeuvre'.
I think Penguin has simply been lazy and put a new cover on an old paperback collection published in the early 1990s before Updike had rounded out the Bech saga.
Buy the beautiful (and actually complete) Everyman's Library hardcover for a quid extra. Don't let Penguin get away with this rip-off.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The Jews have done well in American and deservedly. But they don't own America, not in its literature and not in its foreign policy, at least I hope not in its foreign policy! We need more non-Jews of culture like Mr. Updike.
'The Complete Henry Bech' published by Penguin - and more on that later - contains two novellas and a short story. Bech: A Book is primarily concerned with Bech's adventures around the world, which essentially gives Updike an excuse to mention that countries major writers and to make allusions to them throughout the text. Bech is Back is the most entertaining of the trio and deals, in part, with Bech finally publishing after fifteen years silence, his often-referred to but never really worked out novel, Think Big. In between, he is married, divorces, and has plenty of literary discussions with young female editors, typists, fans, reviewers - all of whom seem remarkably enamoured with the author. Finally, there is Bech in Czech, a very short story which returns to the main conceit of Bech: A Book which, by now, has become somewhat unnecessary to the needs of the character. Rather than continuing to reveal the comic adventures of the novelist, Updike trots Bech around Czech, then ends the story. Certainly the weakest of the three.
What this collection does have going for it is the character of Bech. Like Harry Angstrom from Updike's remarkable Rabbit series, Bech has an active internal life, and is capable of describing the world around him in a way that, when it works, speaks of poetry, and when it does not, devolves into yet another comparison to sex, or sex organs - female, usually. Bech is much more literary than Harry, and refers either by name and title to other author's works - Roth, Mailer, Bellow, Salinger, Lewis, Dreiser, Vidal. These references work because Bech is an author, because he is supposed to know about writers, but a lot of the drug and women scenes ring with a hollow tone, because we have seen them elsewhere by Updike, and they were better. Bech, when he sticks to his strengths - parodying awards ceremonies, the reputation of an author, declining literary stardom, rising literary stardom, reviewers, editors, star-struck fans, greedy fans, nonchalant socialites, publishing conglomerates - works remarkably well, because the reader can't help but be aware that Updike, who himself has won many awards and has been a writer for his entire adult life, knows enough about the process and the fakery to be able to satirise with the honesty of information and sharpness of intent to really take a bite.
Some scenes are very funny indeed. For his entire career, Bech has had an admirer, Federbusch, who has tirelessly stayed by his author, collecting every edition that comes out in every language, and posting, with reply paid envelopes, to Henry Bech to sign. Bech is touched by this, so touched that when he is in the neighborhood - Cedar Meadow, Pennsylvania - he decides to pay his fan a visit. To his horror, he finds that his books are not in fact proudly displayed on Federbusch's bookshelf but instead, 'The books were not erect in rows but stacked on their sides like lumber, like dubious ingots, in this lightless closet along with - oh, the treachery! - similarly exhaustive, tightly packed, and beautifully unread collections of Roth, Mailer, Barth, Capote...' Poor Bech learns the hard way that fans cannot always be trusted, that the right reader may never be found. Later Bech is informed that a new edition of his books are to be printed by 'Superbooks', which is owned by a vast conglomerate. He is to be paid $1.50 for every piece of paper he signs for the company, for a total of twenty-eight thousand five hundred pieces of high-rag-content paper. He is flown to the Caribbean along with his wife - the company recommends a puller for maximum efficiency signing - and they spend two weeks signing and signing and signing. Bech's obsession with his own signature provides a lot of laughs, and shows again the strength of a writer parodying writers.
But a lot of the work comes tumbling down. When Updike sticks to writers, he is untouchable with Bech's touchy, arrogant, sensitive, misunderstood, concerned, literary, anxious, aged character packing all the punches and pulling none. But that other great theme of Updike's oeuvre: adultery, sex, the female body, is used far too often in a series that really doesn't need it, and can only be harmed by its addition. This creates a spotty effect for the novel, because the character of Bech can't quite succeed in the sometimes fragile, sometimes blunt ruminations on carnality for which Harry was so admired.
The Penguin edition of The Complete Henry Bech is, unfortunately, not complete. It is missing a few other Bech titles, which leaves the appreciation and criticism of the entirety of Bech an impossible feat. For all the misgivings I felt while reading about Bech, I also felt much affection for his wry speech, his witty thoughts, his complete disregard for his fans and friends. There was a lot to love, but also a lot to dismay the Updike faithful among us. I shall leave with one last question - Why make Bech a Jew? It seems to add nothing except a perfunctory trip to Israel and a few fairly standard Jewish jokes at Bellow and Roth's expense. And, given that most of Bech was written in the '70s and '80s, and set in Europe, it would be assumed that the Jewish situation there would be handled with more delicacy than it is. A confusing aspect to Bech's character, but it adds to the overall unevenness of the work - why couldn't Updike stick to his strengths for the whole work? This collection works in patches.
There is however, I'm sad to say, a big ugly boil on the butt of this otherwise handsome volume: the semi-infamous "Bech Noir", in which Updike, seemingly grown disgusted with the continuing durability of his character, jerks him through a sour ludicrous pantomime - the sheer awfulness of which makes it almost impossible to look at him the same way again. .... It's as if Frank L. Baum, around the fourth or fifth Oz book, had Dorothy move to Los Angeles where she became a crack whore. After that, the valedictory tale in which Bech most implausibly receives the Nobel Prize comes across as simply another gesture of contempt - whether towards the Swedish Academy, for honoring the even-less-qualified Toni Morrison rather than himself, or towards the reader, I can't say. All I can tell you - strange advice, I know - is to skip those two stories if you haven't been contaminated by them already.