by Philip Roth
A Morality Story
A review by Benjamin Markovits
Philip Roth's first book, Goodbye,
Columbus, deserves a place with The
Great Gatsby and Bartleby
the Scrivener among the great American novellas. The title story, about a
young Jewish man from Newark, New Jersey, who dates a rich Jewish girl from the
suburbs, is exquisite -- lyrical, precise, moving and, if there could be such
a thing, pitched perfectly off-key. It is superior to The Great Gatsby,
if only in the sense that any book about prosperous American life that does not
need a gunshot to round it out is better than a book that does. Roth's story announces
the intentions on which his career has made good: to discuss secular Jewish life,
the growth and decay of big cities -- Newark's in particular -- the difficulty
of reconciling the sex urge and the love urge over time, and the painful need
to outgrow one's parents. The long novel that followed it, Letting
Go (1962), takes up all of these themes again; and though it suggested the
heavy influence of Saul Bellow, it proved that Roth lacked Bellow's extraordinary
gift, to be exquisite in quantity. Letting Go isn't a bad book; there are
other, perhaps higher, virtues than exquisiteness. And one of the things that
the novel revealed is what Roth could do when he let go of his claim to finish.
Scene-making, in particular, which he does so beautifully in Goodbye, Columbus,
requires a certain finickiness, a too nice arrangement of setting and props, to
bring out the characters' carefully chosen, subtly revealing lines. It can stop
them from giving full voice to the arguments they want to have; and those are
the arguments, Roth realized, he wanted to watch them fight out.
His career has had every kind of success, not least commercial; and he has
had the wit to make of literary celebrity just the right kind of joke. Portnoy's
Complaint (1969), which described the plight of a mother-smothered Jewish
man who released his anxieties in masturbation, made him both rich and famous.
One can imagine the difficulty a writer might face in following it up; and the
course Roth chose revealed his great gift for accepting simply, as a novelist,
the problems he has been set, and making them complicated enough. Zuckerman
Unbound (1981) tells the story of a young Jewish novelist who has just had
a big hit with a book about masturbation. It is very funny, but the joke is
not always on him. What is most striking about that novel is the line Roth keeps
between humility and arrogance. The worst thing about fame, the book suggests,
is that the strong light cast by it isn't quite false: awkward truths show up
in its glare. Roth's Zuckerman is not shy about his gifts as a writer, but he
is just as willing to mock or question his own pretensions. Each tendency serves
as ballast for the other. Among the shameful things he shows himself willing
to explore is the sly shame of immodesty; a man who can write about masturbation
can write about self-pride.
It is worth mentioning what a readable writer Roth is. Bellow's exquisiteness
-- as seen, for example, in his masterpiece, The
Adventures of Augie March -- often comes at the price of narrative drive.
Why should you turn the page, he seems to ask: there is enough food for contemplation,
for wisdom and pleasure, where we are now, on this page. But Roth, though every
bit as serious a writer, has always had the knack of drawing his reader along.
Knack is not really the word for it; readability in his hands seems to involve
a deeper skill. Though he often plays narrative games, Roth has the ease with
his tricks to make his storylines appear both straightforward and obvious. Drama
is conflict, as the writing student learns. Roth might add, that conflict is
argument. One is conscious, reading his novels, of a man who at every stage
in his life has been acutely aware of the large questions he was deciding, and
the large questions that were being decided for him. The faith implicit in his
secular doubts is just this: that there are always arguments to be had, between
husband and wife, brother and brother, father and son, mistress and lover. These
arguments shift over time, but every stage of life, every change of circumstance,
can be relied on to produce them. And the job of the novelist is to listen to
these questions and give them a voice, if not an answer.
There is a bias here, what might be called a Jewish bias, towards eloquence
in argument -that gift is the flag a personality flies to declare itself. Roth's
characters, increasingly, are defined not by the rhythm of their idiosyncrasies
but by the positions, intellectual and otherwise, they take up and defend. This
isn't to say that they have only the general neutral qualities of characters
in a morality play -- that they are Everymen and Everywomen. Their back-stories,
family roots, professions, personal charms, medical histories, talents and drives,
are essential to the arguments they make, and Roth has an extraordinary appetite
for such details. If they speak in the same voice, this seems to matter less
in his prose than it would in another writer's, because Roth's voice is capable
of rendering the points and counterpoints so clearly and subtly. He does justice
to difference in a language of sameness.
Of course, one cannot value argument without, on some level, taking sides.
If nothing else, Roth tends to privilege the sorts of life-decisions that throw
up the big questions. Adultery matters a lot to him as a writer, precisely because
the decision to commit it suggests such interesting choices: between love and
family and virtue on the one hand; and what might be called a more immediate
honesty, on the other -- at least in respect of that vital and amoral urge to
create or remake oneself that Roth considers essential to being human. He may
be guilty of another bias, here, towards the male perspective. It is certainly
true that his women come across in the sharpest detail only when seen through
the narrowed eyes of one of his men.
Infidelity in his novels hardly ranks as one of the cardinal sins. A little
bit of it, in fact, belongs properly to the conventional life of a good husband.
Fidelity poses a great problem to his muse. Nobody can keep up the intensity
of an argument when the answer to all the big questions, again and again, stays
There is another problem with his approach, one which Roth, as a narrator,
is cunning enough to make an issue out of. Writing about himself means writing
about writers. How can his narrators join honestly in these arguments, when
their main interest as novelists lies in making sure they get fought? "This
profession even fucks up grief", his narrative alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman,
remarks in The
Counterlife (1986), on the way to his brother's funeral. The detachment
of the writer, and its sexual implications, is one of Roth's great subjects.
He cannot attend any of the ceremonies of life without taking notes -- and taking
pleasure from taking notes. "This profession", in Roth's books, has
a corrosive influence; it eats into ordinary relationships, and it eats into
the desire to form them. It fucks up not only grief but fucking, too. Zuckerman,
after the success of his masturbation book, after the affairs with movie stars
run dry, after the marriages fail, accepts what time and medicine have done
to his sex life and drive. One of the questions he raises is whether the curiosity
that replaces that drive is sufficient to sustain satisfying relations with
the world; whether or not you can live, as a writer, for your work; and whether
that work can have a general interest for a readership that isn't made up entirely
of writers and the people who live with them, their children, lovers, husbands
That depends a little on how much you grant Roth's view of the writer -- his
view of detachment. Everyone who goes to a funeral attends not only as a mourner
but as something else, too, a doctor, a teacher, etc: also, as someone who must
maintain continuing relations with the living. It is not immediately clear that
the professional detachment of writers offers a different kind of escape from
these relationships'; that it makes such different demands on them. Everyone
feels the conflict between the roles they inhabit, but Roth wants to argue that
the writer feels it differently, and that that difference has something to say
about how people should live. The reader should be interested in the view of
the writer, not because they are alike, but because they are unalike; and the
reader has something to learn from the detachment the act of reading allows
him to share in. The writer, on this understanding, is someone who has opted
out, of sex as much as anything else; his books make the case for it. Kindliness
and curiosity are at odds with each other. "Niceness", Zuckerman writes
dismissively in The Counterlife, "is even more deadly in writers
than it is in other people." Of course, there is another case to be made:
that the loving view and the true view are really the same thing; that the stranger's
eye, for all its compensating curiosity, sees less deeply and sharply than love.
What novelists rely on as much as anything else is their instinct for what
they should write about. Perhaps the greatest validation for the line Roth decided
early in his career to take is the late flowering it has granted him. Part of
the credit must go to the absence of sentiment in his work: he breaks out of
comfortable habits of thought as restlessly as his characters break out of their
marriages. The Zuckerman sequence includes one of Roth's best novels, I
Married a Communist (1998); and the others in the series, though less consistently
good, are all of them driven by a sharp sense, both political and personal,
of what matters and what doesn't. (Reading Roth makes one realize how rare that
is in fiction; how often novelists are seduced by the trivial.) The gently postmodern
games he plays with his narrative alter egos belong for the most part rather
to the tradition of Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen than Paul Auster:
they simply allow Roth to continue to talk about his life in fictional terms,
without putting on too elaborate a fictional costume.
Roth's new book, Everyman, is more novella than novel; and though it
deals with old age -- the un-Happy Hour, as it were, for all Roth's favourite
themes -- he plays no autobiographical games in it. The story opens with the
funeral of its unnamed protagonist, a successful advertising executive who had
retired to condo life on the Jersey shore to take up his long-cherished ambition
of painting and teaching art. Roth uses the occasion to introduce his cast of
characters -- the wives, the children, the brother, the mistresses and nurses
-- and then tells the story of the man's life from the medical point of view.
It is a kind of portrait of the hero as a hospital patient: from the hernia
operation he has as a boy to the routine heart surgery that ultimately kills
him. Eventually, Roth writes, people's "personal biographies . . . become
identical with their medical biographies". Everyman, as this description
suggests, does not mark a return to the lyric loveliness of Goodbye, Columbus;
even so, the prose has a chilling utility that sometimes seems just about as
unexquisite as a reader can be expected to stomach. "First my mother died",
someone tells the protagonist, making conversation in a hospital waiting room:
"Six months later my father died, eight months after that my only sister
died, a year later my marriage broke down and my wife took everything I had.
And that's when I began to imagine someone coming to me and saying, 'Now we're
going to cut off your right arm as well. Do you think you can take that?'.
And so they cut off my right arm. Then later they come around and they say,
'Now we're going to cut off your left arm'. Then, when that's done, they come
back one day and they say, 'Do you want to quit now? Is that enough? Or should
we go ahead and start in on your legs?'."
Prospero retiring from his island promises that every third thought shall be
his grave -- the other two, one might suppose, to be divided equally between
the prospects of his children and the medical details of his hospital visits.
That at least is more or less the recipe Roth is following, and one cannot help
admiring again the simplicity of his narrative line. The novella, however, does
offer an occasional relief from bleakness. There are scenes set outside the
walls of hospitals, though these serve partly to explain the consolation available
to the protagonist. The great failure, for example, of his third marriage lies
in the fact that his wife -- a much younger woman, a Danish model named Merete
who had been hired for one of his advertising campaigns -- isn't up to the role
of comforter. "The woman is basically an absence and not a presence",
his doctor warns him, requiring him to get professional help. Everyman
makes you feel how much the power of such comforting counts for in life. The
ability to comfort each other (not to arouse, or interest, or amuse) is what
we finally depend on.
The great regret of his life is the break-up of his second marriage, to Phoebe,
the mother of his favourite child. Their relations had become increasingly sexless;
still, she had offered him, in her own words, the companionship of "a mature,
intelligent woman" who "understands what reciprocity is". That
he resigned it for the sake of "the little hole" at the back of a
twenty-something Danish model strikes him as particularly foolish and sets up
the problem Roth has been writing about since Goodbye, Columbus: how
can we choose rightly to live when the sexual urge overwhelms us? How can we
choose to live at all without that urge? Roth has no answer to these questions,
as usual; but he seems, here as elsewhere, to incline towards something like
chastity, when a man has the discipline for it, as the happier alternative.
Everyman is Roth's attempt to modernize The
Death of Ivan Ilych. Although it lacks the terrible grandeur of Tolstoy's
story, Roth's version might be set at a still lower temperature. Tolstoy, with
a touch of sentimental warmth, suggests that Ivan is dying because he has not
asked the right question about his life. "Maybe I did not live as I ought
to have done?", it suddenly occurs to Ivan. "But how could that be
when I did everything properly?"
This is one of Roth's favourite muddles, but the resolution to it solves less
than one might suppose. His Everyman "was too much the good boy, and, answering
to his parents' wishes rather than his own, he married, had children, and went
into advertising to make a secure living". He escapes that life through
a series of affairs and marriages, "convinced of his right, as an average
human being, to be pardoned ultimately for whatever deprivations he may have
inflicted upon his innocent children in order not to live deranged half the
time". Sticking by Phoebe might have made the end of his life a little
easier; he is wise enough to recognize that fact. Even so, Roth forces him to
acknowledge that "what he'd learned was nothing when measured against the
inevitable onslaught that is the end of life". In the past, Roth's narrators
have admitted their personal stake in the stories while remaining themselves
curiously objective and aloof. This time his own detached omniscient presence
cannot resist getting a word in now and then, of wisdom or sympathy or both.
"Old age", goes one such interjection, "isn't a battle; old age
is a massacre" -- a touching break in form from a writer who has elsewhere
taken such pleasure in watching the battles being fought. The title of the book
is drawn not only from the tradition of morality plays, but from the name of
the jewellery store, Everyman's, owned and run by the protagonist's father.
"It's a big deal for working people to buy a diamond", he tells his
sons, "no matter how small. The wife can wear it for the beauty and she
can wear it for the status. And when she does, this guy is not just a plumber
-- he's a man with a wife with a diamond. His wife owns something that is imperishable.
Because beyond the beauty and the status and the value, the diamond is imperishable."
The point, of course, is that people are not; and this is where Roth's secular
faith in the virtue of questioning falls short. His Everyman has his
first inkling of death at his father's funeral. As the mourners, according to
Jewish tradition, begin to pack the grave with earth, "all at once he saw
his father's mouth as if there were no coffin, as if the dirt they were throwing
into the grave was being deposited straight down on him, filling up his mouth".
Perhaps the only weakness in Everyman is that there isn't really, in the end,
any argument to keep up -- which is another way of saying that Philip Roth has
reached the limit of what he can be funny about.
Markovits's novel, Either
Side of Winter, was published last year.