Esteemed Members of the Swedish Academy:
Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize for Literature before he dies?
For your consideration, I present to you the Library of America edition of The American Trilogy, out just this week. The coincidence, I grant you, is a touch unseemly. One can’t help wondering if the board of the LOA chose this week to publish its handsome $40 omnibus edition of Roth’s three best-known late novels in the hope that you, the esteemed members of the Swedish Academy, would award him the Nobel Prize in Stockholm next week, allowing the LOA to bring in enough cash to float yet another edition of Henry James’s Desk Doodles. But don’t let that sway you. Just consider the work.
The opening of American Pastoral, the first book of the trilogy, with its effortless conjuring of the age of American innocence during the Second World War, is enough by itself to warrant at least a Nobel nomination. The book begins with an extended reverie about “steep-jawed…blue-eyed blond” Seymour Levov, star athlete of Newark’s tight-knit Jewish community, and a Jew who excels at all the things Jews of that era aren’t supposed to be good at: playing ball, being glamorous, loving themselves. By being “a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get,” Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede, offers his neighbors, only “a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto,” a home-grown avatar in the fight against Hitler’s fascists in Europe.
Yet in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Roth’s alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, the Swede is a plaster saint, a bland, blond cipher. The Swede goes on to inherit the family’s Newark glove-making factory; marry a shiksa goddess, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949; and buy an old stone house in an upper-crust Gentile suburb. But in a deliciously funny scene, Zuckerman finds the grownup version of his childhood hero impenetrably dull:
I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he had instead of a being, I thought, is blandness – the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him.
But Zuckerman is wrong. The Swede, like Coleman Silk from The Human Stain, the third book in the trilogy, bears a wounding secret. In Silk’s case, his secret is that he is not Jewish, as he pretends to be, but a black man passing for white. The Swede, on the other hand, has remained irreducibly himself, the great American sports god married to the beauty queen, but his daughter, now three generations removed from the ghetto and raised during the Vietnam War, has turned against everything her parents represent and, in a senseless act of antiwar protest, set off a bomb that kills a man at the local post office.
In The American Trilogy, Roth tackles the three great historical issues of his era – protest of the Vietnam War, the Communist blacklist, and racial discrimination – and in each case, he finds something profoundly original to say. In American Pastoral, Merry’s act of violence is not merely a treason against her nation, or even against her father, but an affront to the generations of Levovs who rose from poverty to respectability through hard work and pluck. In I Married a Communist, the second and weakest book in the trilogy, Roth nevertheless puts a face to devout Communist belief in the person of Iron Rinn, the six-foot-six actor who has made a name for himself playing Abraham Lincoln on the radio.
But for all the brilliance of Roth’s historical analysis, the real subject of these books isn’t American history, but the essential unknowableness of the human heart. Each of the three books is narrated by Zuckerman, who like Roth has retreated to a monastic life in rural New England following a failed marriage. In each case, Zuckerman befriends the book’s hero, makes a judgment about who that man is at his core, then learns that his original judgment is wrong. Thus the books are, in essence, love stories, in which Roth’s alter ago, desexed by prostate surgery that has rendered him impotent, is cast in the curiously feminine role of a lover who falls for a man and then has to write an entire book to figure out just who this man really is behind the mask he has built for himself.
In American Pastoral and The Human Stain, the unmasking carries special poignancy because we as readers, like Zuckerman, fall in love with the damaged, vulnerable man behind the mask. In American Pastoral, the Swede is a big, sweet American lunk who lacks the political and intellectual equipment to understand his daughter’s fury at the American war machine. Yet even after Merry’s bomb kills a man and she goes on the run, even after the Swede learns that she has joined the radical underground and built bombs that have killed more people, he still loves her. In a wrenching scene, he finds Merry living in a single rented room in the roughest part of post-riot Newark, literally starving herself as part of a crazed religious practice.
What he saw sitting before him was not a daughter, a woman or a girl; what he saw, in a scarecrow’s clothes, stick-skinny as a scarecrow, was the scantiest farmyard emblem of life, a travestied mock-up of a human being, so meager a likeness to a Levov it could have fooled only a bird.
The scene is made doubly painful by the fact that rich, capable Swede Levov can do nothing to help his daughter. He knows he should call the police, and some part of him knows this would probably save her, but he can’t do it. He is incapacitated by that most human of emotions: love.
In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk is undone by an even more human emotion: love of self. Silk is drummed out of his university job for uttering an unintended racial slur against two black students, and is too caught up in the lie he has been living for most of his adult life to save himself by telling the truth, which is that he was born black. Roth’s handling of Silk’s transition from a light-skinned black teenager to a swarthy Jewish professor of classics is a thing of beauty, but for all the power of those scenes, the book is finally less about race and Silk’s self-destructive mendacity than about the relationship between Zuckerman and his shifting understanding of who Silk is.
Silk actively romances Zuckerman – in one marvelous scene they dance together, these two impotent old men, Zuckerman with his surgical wounds, Silk who takes Viagra – but as Zuckerman begins to understand Silk’s secret, his love for him deepens. He admires Silk’s refusal to be held back by the accident of his skin color, but even more, Zuckerman loves Silk’s sheer human complexity, the fact that there is so much more to him than meets the eye.
This, for Roth, is the true human stain, that we are so much more than what people think they know about us. “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is known,” he writes. “The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” The Human Stain is set in 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal nearly brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Roth rails with great comic gusto at “the ecstasy of sanctimony” the scandal brought into public life that year. But Roth’s real beef with Clinton’s opponents is that they refused to let Clinton be a real man with human needs. “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner,” he writes, “draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other, and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.”
If I Married a Communist fails to match the other two books, it is because Iron Rinn, the being at whom Zuckerman directs his love, fails to be sufficiently complex to be fully human. I Married a Communist, which turns on a tell-all book by the hero’s actress ex-wife that ruins his life, came out shortly after Roth’s actress ex-wife, Claire Bloom, published her own tell-all book about Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House, and critics read I Married a Communist as Roth’s less-than-subtle response. Given the weaknesses of I Married a Communist, the critics may have a point. The novel is so consumed with its vitriolic attack upon Iron Rinn’s wife, Eve Frame, and her daughter, a professional musician named Sylphid (Bloom’s daughter, it is worth noting, is an opera singer) that it neglects to make Iron Rinn into the kind of multi-layered, vulnerable man worthy of Zuckerman’s love, much less that of his readers.
Which brings us to the biggest knocks against Philip Roth, and perhaps the reason you, the members of the Swedish Academy, have not already awarded Roth the honor he so plainly deserves. The charges are, to put the case bluntly, that Roth’s oeuvre is uneven, and that, moreover, he’s a sexist pig. And you know what? There’s something to both these charges. Roth has written some truly dreadful books, and in much of his lesser work, including the often puerile David Kepesh novels, a primary quest of the central character is to find a hole, any hole, into which to insert his wayward penis. Even in Roth’s greatest work, if there is an act of villainy afoot, you can bet a woman is at the root of it. I revere Philip Roth, but if I were a woman I wouldn’t get within a hundred miles of the man.
But you, my esteemed friends, must see past all that, not because Roth’s personal failings don’t affect the work, since they plainly do, or even because we must take the good with the bad, but because, in Roth’s case, the good is inseparable from the bad. A more reasonable man would have known better than to follow his actress ex-wife’s tell-all book with a bilious, score-settling novel about an actress who ruins her husband’s reputation with a tell-all book. But then a more reasonable writer, one who actually cared what we thought, would never have dared, as a white Jewish man, to write a novel about a black man who passes as a white Jewish man. A more reasonable writer never would have written, in 1969, a novel like Portnoy’s Complaint about a “cunt crazy” young Jewish guy who beats off into raw liver that his mother later serves for dinner.
The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.
If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].
It’s a big week for new books. Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is now out, as is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy, Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge, and The Funny Man by John Warner, who recently appeared in these pages. Philip Roth’s American Trilogy is getting the Library of America treatment. (Capsule previews of all of the preceding titles are available here, incidentally). New in non-fiction is Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin. And out in paperback: none other than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
How to put this delicately? Philip Roth’s fifteenth novel, Sabbath’s Theater, is [email protected]#$ing filthy. Between its covers are dispensed volumes of bodily fluids that put your average Roger Corman flick to shame, and in its frankness about the attendant pneumatics – the ins and outs, the reservoirs and receptacles – the book makes Nicholson Baker’s “manstarch” look like so much marzipan, and The Rosy Crucifixion look like Make Way for Ducklings. Even Roth’s own earlier work starts to seem prim by comparison. Take, for example, the treatment of that Rothian hobbyhorse, onanism. In 1969, Alexander Portnoy’s violation of a piece of raw liver may well have been shocking. But in Sabbath’s Theater, published 26 years later, we watch the titular Mickey Sabbath visit a moonlit cemetery to jerk off onto his mistress’ grave. Not impressed? Consider that Sabbath’s efforts to commune with the late Drenka Balich are interrupted by a fellow mourner who has come to do the same (in all senses of the phrase). And that Sabbath sticks around to watch, and to snatch the bouquet on which his rival has climaxed.
Imagine then if someone had happened upon him that night, in the woods a quarter mile down from the cemetery, licking from his fingers Lewis’s sperm and, beneath the full moon, chanting aloud, “I am Drenka! I am Drenka!”
This is on page 78. The novel is 451 pages long.
Sabbath’s assignations may often approach the “top this” rhythm of vaudeville, but the sex in Sabbath’s Theater is also, as the mortuary setting here suggests, deadly serious. As in real life, lust is tangled up in a larger complex of forces encompassing morality, mortality, politics, history, and metaphysics…not to mention personal pathology. Mickey Sabbath is, at 64, a disgraced puppeteer and the last surviving member of his nuclear family. And in the wake of Drenka’s death, “Something horrible is happening.” He is rapidly approaching the end of his second marriage, and perhaps of his life more broadly. In the days that follow that overture in the graveyard, he will attend one friend’s funeral, proposition another friend’s wife, fight with his own wife, impersonate a homeless man, and contemplate suicide, all while maintaining a vigorous schedule of self-abuse. His trajectory, roughly, is King Lear’s – a comparison Sabbath’s Theater invites explicitly. But Sabbath, a triple-threat manipulator (i.e., by trade, inclination, and compulsion), can’t quite decide if he wants to play the potentate or the court jester.
His oscillations make the book excruciatingly funny, as real transgression often is. But they also license Sabbath – as madness licenses Lear and convention licenses his Fool – to voice painful truths, of the “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” variety. Roth is monomaniacally committed to the perspective of his protagonist, and his free indirect narration (gravitating toward stream-of-consciousness) takes as its ground-note the proposition that, in the face of death, life is meaningless. But as Sabbath tests it, again and again, he somewhat bafflingly proves the opposite. In the love the novel lavishes on even the most sordid details, that is, and in the beautiful American idiom of its ire, Sabbath’s Theater amounts to a kind of perverse hymn.
This is not to say it’s pitched in a key all readers will respond to. Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” publisher Carmen Callil complained earlier this year, vis-a-vis her decision to resign in protest from the panel that had awarded him the Man Booker International Prize. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She was exactly right, of course; she just couldn’t hear that she was describing Roth’s ambitions, rather than his shortcomings. (In a just world, all future editions of Roth’s novels would carry these sentences as a blurb.)
In recent years, Sabbath’s Theater has tended to get lost in the shadow cast by its more respectable successors. The late-innings Roth revival people love to talk about gets dated to 1997, when he brought forth the first volume of what the folks in marketing tell us we now have to refer to as The American Trilogy. Which, by the way: yuck. Yet if we ignore Roth’s self-conscious, not to say obsessive-compulsive, curation of his own oeuvre (“Kepesh Books” ; “Roth Books” ; “Nemeses” (?)), the picture is more complicated. Zuckerman Bound (1979-83) is phenomenal; William H. Gass called The Counterlife, from 1986, “a triumph.” According to Leaving a Doll’s House, the tell-all memoir written by his ex-wife Claire Bloom (and published in the U.K., not coincidentally, by Carmen Callil), Roth himself felt his 1993’s Operation Shylock to be his masterpiece. (It’s at least partly his disappointment with Shylock’s reception fueling Mickey Sabbath’s eloquent outrage). If there was any lull in Roth’s powers, it was the six-year period between The Counterlife and Shylock – no longer than the period separating Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. And let us not forget that Sabbath’s Theater won the 1995 National Book Award.
It may be easier for, say, Michiko Kakutani to empathize with American Pastoral‘s Swede Levov than to embrace the rebarbative Mickey Sabbath. But it would have been just as useful to group these two together as to repackage another Zuckerman troika. Levov and Sabbath are obverse sides of the same coin – the same story, approached from different angles. Indeed, Sabbath’s foil Norman Cowan – “that impressive American thing…a nice rich guy with some depth” – looks very much like a sketch for the Swede. Comedy and tragedy, rectitude and blasphemy, responsibility and freedom, love and rage, meaning and meaninglessness and all the extremes that threaten to rip apart American life…”on and on and on about the same subject,” yes, but what a subject! And whereas its formulation in American Pastoral feels like a departure (which, on Carmen Callil’s terms, is a good thing) the savage and profane Sabbath’s Theater – this face-sitting, breath-taking brute – is Roth’s most Roth-y book. Which is to say, his best.