“Bech Panics” (1970)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013). A comprehensive table of the complete stories with links to each story summary appears below. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.
[“Bech Panics” was written probably in 1970, never published in a magazine, and collected in Bech: A Book, and The Complete Henry Bech.]
Updike wrote many stories featuring a character’s fear of death. Much of Piet Hanema’s life in Couples is consumed with that fear. The theme is injected in Bech, No differently than if the character were named Mark, Biff or Harry. Feeling “uneasy, idle, irritable, displaced,” repulsed by his sex life with Bea, who could go from coitus to tending to her infant’s night frights in a blink and who “became slangy, bossy, twitchy, somewhat sluttish, too much home—she became in short like her rejected sister Norma,” Bech accepts a $1,000 lecture fee at an unnamed Southern college for women. But his arrival there triggers smells and fears–the smell of school (“They stank of country cruelty to him—this herding, this cooping up of people in their animal prime, stunning them with blunt classics,”) and the smell of manure, echoing the “herding” of students. The smells for some reason remind him of decay and death: “Death hangs behind everything, a real skeleton about to leap through a door in these false walls of books.”
Bech has the requisite encounters with students. He seems more interested in having curt or ironic exchanges with them than instructive ones. When asked about rhyme, he uses lovemaking as an illustration, which then has him imagine the copulations of the students, their “massed fertility” pushing out the old, like him.
Then, an interesting interlude on race. A black student asks him: “We admire your gifts of language but wonder if you aren’t, now and then, somewhat racist?” She points to his use of the word “Negress” as racist. He disagrees, saying it’s more accurate than using the word “black,” even if it’s offensive, even if he doesn’t like the word “Jewess,” though he lies and doesn’t tell students about his reservations. The passage reflects a come-back by Updike, seemingly trying to address readers’ criticism. He has used the word “Negress” in previous stories and novels, and it is grating. Here he maliciously lets Bech have the last word, reflecting after class of his “shame at having argued with a Negress,” but not shame enough not to use the word again. Take that. It’s vengeful and revealing of Updike’s intent: I’ll use whatever word I want to use, he’s telling us.
Meanwhile everything down to sleep–“foreshadow of death, the dab of poison we daily take to forestall convulsion” reminds him of death. His fear culminates in a “plenteous” bowel movement, the sort he’s been having in recent years, though when he steps outside he’s just as nauseated by what he sees, “overwhelmed by the multiple transparent signs— the buds, the twittering , the springtide glisten— of growth and natural process, the inhuman mutual consumption that is Nature. A zephyr stained by manure recalled his first flash of terror.” The story has taken on such a sinister turn that it is becoming indistinguishable from Louis Ferdinand Celine in Journey To the End of the Night. It won’t be until about six years later that Updike will write a review of Celine’s work, but the Celine theme is so strong in “Bech Panics” that it’s safe to assume Updike was reading Travels at the time. The similarities are otherwise too uncanny. Bech and Celine’s Ferdinand Bardamu speak an identical language of nihilism and rottenness around them (“la pourriture” in Celine).
His salvation? Ruth Eisenbraun, a teacher at the college for four years, Jewish, tender, downy, to whom he can confess his fear, overly explicating the story for the reader’s sake: “I’m afraid of dying. Everything is so implacable. Maybe it’s all these earth-smells so suddenly.” He is so fearful that, on his way to a poetry judging he agreed to do for Ruth’s students, he falls to earth and prays, then resents it. Of course, he sleeps with Ruth, “His phallus a counterfeit bone, a phantasmal creature , like Man, on the borderline of substance and illusion, of death and life. They establish a rhythm. Her socket becomes a positive force, begins to suck, to pound. Enough . Like Bech, we reach a point where words seem horrible, maggots on the carcass of reality, feeding, proliferating; we seek peace in chaste silence.”
Again: it could have been any old Updike character. As an homage to Celine, it’s an interesting story. As a chapter developing the Bech character, it fails, because there is nothing particularly Bech-ian here. The story diminishes Bech by making him still more an identical part of the Updike stable of characters than he already was. As an exploration of the college tour it’s too slight, but that was not its intention, though it could have been, lightening the story instead of saddling it with the undercurrent of meanness and racism Bech’s author, like Bech the author, appeared to enjoy too much.
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|