Nineteen years ago I took advantage of a scantness of interest among my fellow grad students and began learning this language. That same year I devoted five glorious weeks to Czech grammar, Prague cobblestones, and a host of books that could only really be read at high summer, when the sun set reluctantly and the clear paved streets reflected the immaculate evenings of our eternity. And an early autumn later – the thirtieth anniversary of this watershed – roaming around this bookstore, I happened upon a copy of this "quasi-novel" whose first tale generously blends fact into its fiction.
Our protagonist is the mildly esteemed Henry Bech, a Jew, a sexagenarian, and, if he were to have died upon arriving in 1986 Prague, an odd practicant of twentieth-century American literature. Bech has had one recent and now-failed marriage, written many books including one bestseller, and bumbled about various parts of the world for book signings and conferences in that mediocre and inoffensive way unique to minor writers. Why is Bech a minor writer? Because he cannot relate in the least to the famous quote by this Argentine about the writer of genius and being right? Because he believes "the purpose of the writer is to amuse himself, to indulge himself, [and] to get his books into print with as little editorial smudging as he can"? Perhaps because each of his novels, by his own attestation, feeds off a trend of the time, or at least an historically successful trend that allows it to appear timely and topical? Without fear of perjury, it can be said that all these factors apply to one degree or another. When Bech meets a Czech man of letters once tortured and jailed for writing "like Saki, arch harmless little things," he can "think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant." When he considers his own works, he finds them all as plain and aseptic as his own life. Therein lies no danger, no regret, no anxiety. His books all linger untouched on shelves, like dust and termites – or, for that matter, Bech himself. For that reason Bech becomes quite excited, if that is really the right word, about his visit to the American Ambassador and his trophy wife only a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution.
The plot unravels as do so many works of Updike's: by a permanent discomfort between life's givers and life's takers. While Bech is most certainly the giver – he has committed his every moment to inscribing the world with its little tragedies – the Ambassador belongs to that boisterous back-slapping network of executives and executors from which many political appointments are drawn. Normally one might scoff at a businessman's ability to run an embassy since an embassy is neither moneymaking nor subject to the same elastic mobility that defines the private sector. But this Ambassador has one distinct qualification for the job: he speaks Czech, albeit humorously, a remnant of his childhood. Those who delve into the relationship between historical fact and the lilac bubble of fiction will surely note that the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s was indeed a businessman of Czech descent. In the story, the conceit allows for one very telling circumstance: Henry Bech, an emotional and absent-minded intellectual, if a bit ignorant about medieval Europe, often finds himself at the linguistic mercy of a man whom his liberal sensibilities would never allow him to approach. Bech is also the guest of the Ambassador's dishy blonde wife, and their conversations, awkward owing to her attractiveness and Bech's lack of sexual gumption, indicate that money really does make some people happy. The Ambassador, "an exceptionally short and peppy man," takes Bech to a Jewish cemetery, where his ebullient manners lead both his wife and his distinguished guest to blush. And we also get at some of Bech's malaise:
For a Jew, to move through post-war Europe is to move through hordes of ghosts, vast animated crowds that, since 1945, are not there, not there at all – up in smoke. The feathery touch of the mysteriously absent is felt on all sides. In the center of old Prague the clock of the Jewish Town Hall .... still runs backwards, to the amusement of tourists from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Later, Bech will address a student forum of eager English-speaking fans and learn that they do not value his longest and most difficult novel because, well, it is too greatly about his ethnicity and less about the rest of the world. An undertaker will also remind him, in what might easily have been a chat in Soviet Russia, that Kafka was not Czech, at least not by the strict Socialist categories that some people recall all too easily.
As Bech at Bay progresses – the five parts thrive alone, yet form an oddly cohesive whole – a startling announcement is made about our protagonist's career. The announcement is stunning because hitherto few had really heard of Henry Bech, and his general anonymity was for him more soothing than a symbol of frustration. His Czech book signings are characterized by long, unpronounceable names laden with every diacritic imaginable, and he dreams of moments when everyone in this small and delicate country could simply read his books in the original English, write him loving fan mail, and dispense with this whole Iron Curtain charade. A charade because everyone knew that hope and freedom would eventually triumph, that the whole wall would crumble and be trampled underfoot, and that once-proscribed writers would regain their rightful spots within the Czech canon. One fan, of Roma stock, even gives him a copy of a tome from samizdat:
It felt lighter, placed in Bech's hands, that he had expected from the thickness of it. Only the right-hand pages held words; the left-hand held mirrored ghosts of words, the other side showing through. He had been returned to some archetypal sense of what a book was: it was an elemental sheaf, bound together by love and daring, to be passed with excitement from hand to hand.
Bech falls in love with the book without being able to read a word, and even lusts briefly after this young gypsy, the opposite of another lust, the Ambassador's leggy wife. The only difference between this Bech, now sixty-three and hardly spry, and a younger Bech is in physical prowess since Bech has never been one to collect women like a philatelist pursues stamps. "To live a week with Henry Bech is to fall in love with him," says the Ambassador's wife. What a shame no one ever grants him that much time.