Bech in Czech

Paul Mirengoff’s tribute to the courage and the sacrifice of the Czech Olympic champion Vera Caslavska brought to mind one of my favorite passages in the works of John Updike that I have managed to read. Updike was a voluminous and accomplished writer in every literary form, though I think he was a master of the short story in particular.

Updike wrote enough stories to fill three small volumes about Henry Bech (pronounced “Beck”), his fictional alter ego. Despite the fact that it was Updike’s gift with the language for which he was usually either praised or damned, in the Bech stories Updike frequently wrote in a comic or satiric mode that displayed several other facets of his genius.

When Bech wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in the story “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden,” Updike posits the headline reporting the news in the New York Daily News: “BECH? WHODAT???” The thought was at the same time self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing. Updike was foremost among those who deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature in the past 25 years and failed to receive it.

In “Bech in Czech” (collected along with the two other stories mentioned above in Bech at Bay), Bech is sent to Czechoslovakia on a cultural exchange program through the United States government in 1986, while the country is still Communist. Bech attends a party of dissident writers, one of whom had been imprisoned. Bech reflects:

Jail! One of the guests at the party had spent nearly ten years in prison. He was dapper, like the cafe habitues in George Grosz drawings, with a scarred, small face and shining black eyes. He spoke so softly Bech could hardly hear him, though he bent his ear close. The man’s hands twisted under Bech’s eyes, as if in the throes of torture. Bech noticed that the fingers had in fact bent, broken. How would he, the American author asked himself, stand up to having his fingernails pulled? He could think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.

That paragraph, buried in the middle of the story, was the product of a deeply humane sensibility. I can’t think of another American man of letters who could have written it in the course of a story devoted to the ghosts of modern history.