When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
A sure-fire way to irritate a short story writer is to ask if her stories could be turned into novels. But the stories in Molly Antopol’s debut collection, The UnAmericans, have such a deep sense of place and character, that it’s hard not to see them as novels in miniature. They are exceptionally diverse, set in the U.S., Europe, and Israel, and informed by Antopol’s lifelong interest in history and politics. Antopol estimates that each story took a year to write.
This past fall, Antopol received the National Book Foundation’s 2013 “5 Under 35” award, which annually recognizes promising young writers. (Past winners have included Téa Obreht, Fiona Maazel, and Karen Russell.) Jesmyn Ward, who selected Antopol for the award, said of The UnAmericans: “It’s so rare to read a story collection — let alone a debut — that is this big, ambitious and brilliantly realized.”
Antopol is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow who now teaches at Stanford University. I spoke with her last November, when she was visiting New York to receive her “5 Under 35” award. We met in a coffee shop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where we shared a croissant and spent an hour discussing her new collection, the joys of research, her complicated admiration of Philip Roth and her simple love of Grace Paley.
(The interview had been condensed and edited.)
The Millions: This book is informed so much by your family history. Can you tell me a little about your background?
Molly Antopol: My family from way back is from a village called Antopol in Belarus. I come from this family of storytellers and they would tell stories about everything in their lives and so the stuff that I mostly heard about growing up, probably because it was the most present, was their involvement in the Communist Party, and what it was like for my grandparents to live under that much surveillance and to be arrested and to be on list after list. And so those were the first stories I was interested in, before I was even aware of what I writing about thematically.
When I was in Israel, I wound up at this party where I met this woman from Antopol, who had known my family way back. I had never known that family and never known those stories from this village. She led me to this enormous book that basically sort of mapped out the village of Antopol, this place that was sort of mythic to me, and I was able to fill in a lot of spaces. And once I knew I was seriously working on these stories I just started applying for every grant I could get to Eastern Europe. Whenever I could I would travel and do research.
TM: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
MA: Probably when I was a kid. My mom has all these stories of me being a really nerdy kid. I was an only child and I would write my way into books, like I would imagine that I was a sibling in the books. But I think I just never thought anyone could be a writer. I knew no writers growing up. It seemed like this total pie in the sky thing. It would be like being an astronaut. I really thought I wanted to be a psychologist or a social worker. So when I was in Israel — actually, before I started living in Israel — I was doing union organizing. That’s very much like the family business. Everyone in my family was doing political stuff so it just felt easy to slip into that. I was working for United Farm Workers and I thought I would do that and just write on the side, but every time I got a little more room to write, whether it was through a fellowship or graduate school or whatever, I just found I wanted all that time, and so it just sort of ballooned out that way.
TM: And so how did you decide to write fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
MA: I write some nonfiction. I’ve done some radio stuff and I really like writing essays. But even as a kid fiction was what I loved to read, and even as a kid it was stories. I think I’ve always had this sort of deep love for short stories and so I’ve never really questioned it. I’ve had so many people say, “Oh, could you turn this story into a novel?” Because everyone wants to ask every story writer that. But to me, stories are this perfect beautiful form.
TM: I loved your stories. I’d like to describe them as miniature novels, but that’s not it exactly. They’re very compressed with a lot of exposition, but it doesn’t feel like exposition, it’s just pure storytelling.
MA: Thank you. That was something I worried about, because I think that, especially since I’d been in these writing programs, oftentimes the models are these 12-page, single-scene stories where everything takes place in a kitchen or a car ride, and I really love those stories and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to write that story, and I just can’t. I had this real fear, for years, that I wasn’t doing it right. That they weren’t novellas or these tight poetically compressed stories, so what were they? Honestly — and this is advice that I give my students but it took years to take it myself — you have to go to your favorite writers and let their work teach you. I started to read Alice Munro, and her stories are long, and there’s so much exposition. Or Deborah Eisenberg or Edith Perlman. There’s this group of people who take their time. And that was really helpful to me.
TM: You’re working on a novel now. How is it different from writing short stories?
MA: So far it’s been really enjoyable — although everything kind of is for me in the beginning. I like getting into the world. But I do feel like it’s coming naturally because I’m allowed to move into every piece of backstory that I want to.
TM: And what’s the novel about?
MA: It’s called The Afterparty and it’s set in Israel right after the fall of communism. It follows a dissident from Eastern Europe who is being groomed to become this political celebrity in Israel, because of what had happened in Europe. It’s about how that level of ambition is affecting his wife and his family.
TM: What inspired it?
MA: I have no idea! I never have any idea what inspires anything. I read a lot about politics and have been interested in it. But at the same time I’ve been very aware of not wanting to become a “political writer” that would be in any way didactic. I love the research. There’s a part of the book where a member of the Israeli secret police is following this guy because he’s coming from Russia and they were very suspicious of that. And so I’ve been interviewing people from the Israeli secret police and that’s just been totally fascinating.
TM: You do a lot of research, all different kind of research, but when you finally sit down to write the story, how do you use it?
MA: The way I do it, and I don’t know if this is right — and I read a ton of author interviews for advice, because I’m always like, someone’s going to have the magic key and then I won’t have to do as much work — but the way that worked for me, even though this takes a long time, is that I have to completely immerse myself in the world. That means watching all the films, reading as many books as I can, everything that I can find. And I read it all, but I don’t write about it or take notes. Once I’m finished, I try to take a break from it and then a couple weeks later the characters will start to percolate in my mind. By then I have the environment in my mind, so I can think about the characters and the situation. I want to know who is in the most complicated place in the situation and then I’ll see how the environment is informing their lives.
TM: It’s kind of like an actor’s process, a little bit.
MA: When a story is working, it feels like method acting. And I can tell when a story isn’t working — and those are the ones that didn’t make it into the book — because I’m still thinking so much more about the situation than the person. If the people aren’t living with me, then it doesn’t work.
TM: How did this collection come together?
MA: It was interesting. I didn’t want to finish the book until I felt like I had written from the point of view of men and women, young and old, American, European, and Israeli. It felt important to me as a writer to feel like I could do that. There are a lot of writers I really love who kind of have the voice that comes back over and over, and I admire that, but for me, that wasn’t the kind of book I was interested in writing. Some of the stories that didn’t make it [into the collection] felt like they were too much in companionship with another story.
I also didn’t have any thematic ideas while I was writing. I just kept trying to write really different stories and to try different things. And I was like, oh my god, my book is all over the place and I don’t know what to make of it! And then Tobias Wolff — he’s been my workshop teacher at Stanford — said, “Oh, these stories are all about politics.” It was so basic to him. But it had never occurred to me. Once I had that in mind I was able to move forward. I realized I was obsessed with the idea of legacies, the idea of devoting your life to something that means everything to you, but what happens when history changes and it has lost relevance? What does that do to everyone around you? And once I figured that out, I noticed it was happening in every story, even the contemporary ones, and that felt exciting, like it was a cohesive book.
TM: Were there any stories that gave you particular difficulty?
MA: All of them! I feel like whenever I talk to older writers, they say, “Every writer gets that gift, you get a story that just comes to you fully formed” and I’m like, that’s bullshit, I’ve never had that! Every one of those stories, probably from start to finish, was at least a year. One that was particularly difficult was the story, “A Difficult Phase” about the Israeli journalist who dates the recently widowed guy. I think what was hard for me was that the character was the closest to me, just in the fact that she was a youngish writer. And so I think I was just sort of sorting through a lot of my own stuff in that story. Which made it harder to write than some of these others where I could have a more omniscient sense of everything.
TM: When did you know the collection was complete? What was your road to publication?
MA: The book took me ten years to write. For a long time, I wrote with blinders on. I didn’t send my stories out and tried not to think about how the collection would come together. I just focused on trying to get each story to work the way I wanted it to.
To back up, I had started these stories when I was in grad school living here. And then after graduate school I was still living in New York and I was massively broke. I think I had four jobs. Every time I’d get on my computer I’d be on Craig’s List looking for the next job, never writing. I was also teaching ESL at night. So everything in my life was just trying to figure out how to live in New York but not really how to be a writer. It was really fun, but it just wasn’t productive for me. Once I realized that, I thought about moving back to Israel because it’s cheaper there and I had enough job contacts. But then I found out I got the Stegner.
So I thought, OK, this is amazing…this is such sacred time. I tried really hard to tune out any noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ever want to publish it. About three and a half years ago I showed an agent, Bill Clegg, some of my stories. I had only about a hundred pages ready to show him. That he wanted to work together was incredibly gratifying. Every six months or so, I’d send him a new story, and he’d give me comments and we’d go back and forth. He read my stories so carefully and thoughtfully, and didn’t seem concerned at all that he’d spent years essentially working for free.
TM: What does it feel like now to be honored as a “5 Under 35” nominee, and with your book coming out? What does it feel like to have the blinders off?
MA: It’s really great. To be honest, I think it’s just that writing is so lonely and this book was just so deeply personal. It was that book that I knew I had to write. And I kept telling myself that as I was working on it, because I wasn’t convinced that anyone would publish a bunch of historical stories about communists. I just kept telling myself, well that’s okay. I had so many talks with my friends where I said that’s okay, I have to do it for myself and not worry. And so the fact that it’s coming out and that people are interested is the most extraordinary feeling.
TM: Let’s talk a bit about influence. I recently read a book about Philip Roth’s work and I was wondering if he is an influence of yours.
MA: I love Philip Roth. I’ve read everything he’s ever written. I completely agree with what a lot of people say about his depiction of women in some of the books. I mean, there have definitely been books where I think, wow, this is such a phenomenal book except for the fact that you clearly have an axe to grind and you’re pushing it through this specific character. That can be disappointing. But I’ve admired him since I first wanted to be a writer. He’s a writer that’s been in my head the whole time. He’s so idea and character-driven, so we have such a sense of politics and history and the society around the characters, but we’re also in the character’s head in the same time, and it’s just happening simultaneously. He’s also able to come up with these alternate realities for our society that I just think are just mind-blowing. I love The Human Stain, that’s my favorite, I love American Pastoral, I love The Counterlife. Those books are going to sit on my shoulders for the rest of my life. Even the ones that I love a little less, I’m still like, wow, who writes sentences like this?
TM: Who are some of your other influences?
MA: Grace Paley is my favorite writer. My love for her is deep. I grew up in this really political home and I remember when I read her for the first time in college, I had never read anyone who wrote about kitchen-table politics, about how it happens in the home and goes out into the neighborhood and the world. And also, I had never known of a writer who writes about the role of women in these supposedly progressive places, and she does it in this gentle and really loving way. James Baldwin is another favorite writer. He was big for me because when I first started writing I was worried, a little bit, about being sappy and sentimental and overly emotional and so I was trying to write these cool stories even though it’s totally not my personality at all. And then when I read him I thought, he’s writing just what he needs to write, it’s just pure emotion, it’s passion. And that alive-ness of his writing was so inspiring to me. Every time I’m stuck, he’s the one I read, and I think, this is what it means to write: to put everything on the table and just write about what you really care about.
I went to college in the late nineties, when any mention of Philip Roth was prefaced with the label “misogynist.” As a result, I did not read him until I was out of school and attempting to catch up on contemporary fiction. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus back-to-back, expecting to be at least mildly shocked by the subject of these two controversial-in-their-time books. Instead I was more startled by the difference in tone; Portnoy’s barreling comic monologue seemed to have nothing in common with the traditional realism of Goodbye, Columbus. How could this even be the same writer? I decided I had to read more Roth, misogynist or not, and I’ve been reading him ever since. I tend to go on Roth binges, reading three or four of his books in a row. Eventually I get worn out (his books, at least for me, require a lot of concentration) and I take a couple years off until say, the New York Times publishes a list of the best American works of fiction of the past 25 years and six of Roth’s novels receive mention. Or maybe a librarian friend tells me I have to read The Counterlife, that it’s secretly the best Roth, the writer’s Roth.
Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, a new critical study of Roth’s books, brought me back to Roth again, this time to Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for several years. Pierpont has also persuaded me to take a look at a couple of Roth’s short late books, Exit Ghost and Nemesis. She’s an unabashed Roth enthusiast, so if you’re looking for a provocative critique that delves into the less flattering aspects of his career and persona, then this is not the book for you. But if you’re someone like me, someone who has read Roth on and off for years in a haphazard way, then this book may help to fill in the gaps in your understanding, both in the way it puts Roth’s work in a larger context (social, political, historical) and through its gentle (but astute) assessment of his books.
Pierpont’s approach is straightforward: she reports on each of his books in chronological order, providing reviews of the books, summaries of their critical reception, and, when relevant to the book’s subject matter or creation, details from Roth’s own life. Roth and his books are her primary sources, and in her introduction, Pierpont explains that Roth Unbound began as an essay but turned into a book for two reasons: first, because Roth had written so many books, and second, because he was willing to talk to her about them for hours at a time.
Pierpont’s access comes out of a long friendship with Roth, which began in 2002, after Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article about the anthropologist Franz Boas, someone Roth had researched while writing his (then) most recent novel The Plot Against America. Roth often writes letters to writers he admires, and in the case of Pierpont, it turned into a genuine exchange, with Pierpont eventually becoming a first reader of drafts of his novels. Pierpont’s previous book of criticism, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World, is a series of portraits of female artists, including Mae West, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Mitchell. It’s easily one of my favorite works of criticism, one that is especially sensitive to the particular obstacles female artists face. I would never have guessed that Roth would be the subject of her next book. But she is a good match for the material. In Passionate Minds, she marries biographical details to artworks in a way that illuminates both the artwork and the life, and she brings the same precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word.
Roth’s last book, Nemesis was published in 2010, capping a fifty-year career, and one thing that makes Roth Unbound interesting is that Pierpont was able to interview Roth in the first years of his retirement. You can feel Roth’s reflective, relaxed state of mind as he looks back on his career, cataloging his regrets and triumphs. His regrets mostly fall in the realm of his personal life, most significantly his first marriage, which he believes held him back, emotionally and artistically, for most of his late twenties and early thirties, years Roth now views as lost. Another low point occurred in the late nineties, when his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a memoir that included a scathing account of her marriage to Roth. The memoir had, in Pierpont’s words, “a tremendous effect on Roth’s personal reputation — perhaps more than anything since Portnoy’s Complaint.” Published in 1996, Bloom’s memoir interrupted a peak moment in his career, coming shortly after the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995, and just before American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. In retrospect, Roth sees the two books as related, novels whose “essential subject” is the “vulnerability, even of the apparently strong.” He also describes the creation of each book as an “outpouring.”
Roth’s insights into his own work are fascinating, but Pierpont’s are more instructive. She’s particularly good on describing his technique. I have always found Roth’s style difficult to grasp; is his prose playful or brutal? Is he telling a story or is he having a conversation? Sometimes he seems sentimental beneath his bluster, and at other times he seems determined to wipe every last bit of nostalgia off the face of the earth. Pierpont acknowledges these contradictions in her assessment:
His style has always been hard to characterize beyond the energy and concentration, the uncanny capturing of voices…He distrusts extended description — the glinting observations of a surrounding world that give Updike’s work its texture — and seems ever wary of the risks of pretentiousness or of diffusing the pressure of the voice.
The comparison to Updike is useful and one that Pierpont returns to several times in Roth Unbound. In one analogy, Pierpont likens Roth to Picasso, “the energy, the slashing power,” and Updike to Matisse, “the color, the sensuality”:
The essential difference in their perspectives isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus nonbeliever, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words…Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joke, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work.
It’s this mix of voices that makes Roth such an exciting (and sometimes exhausting) writer. It’s also, I think, what makes him so vulnerable to criticism. Just as his prose isn’t clearly beautiful, (as Updike’s is), his opinions are not clearly delineated. He refuses to write about his convictions, only “the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.” In fact, Pierpont reports, “there is hardly anything he considers more crucial to his work…one of the great strengths (and sources of confusion) in Roth’s novels — as opposed to his political satire — is that he rarely takes an open stand. Countervoices clutter up every discernible argument, even shout it down.”
The phrase “countervoices” is a reference to The Counterlife, Roth’s fifteenth novel, and one Roth considers a breakthrough, the book that taught him “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” Pierpont references it through Roth Unbound, as shorthand for the way Roth uses his fiction to explore the lives he might have lived, the people he might have been or known, and even the alternative histories he might have witnessed. It also alludes to the way Roth has truly lived through his work, devoting hours and days and years to the slippery task of putting his restless mind into books. There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts — his fiction — I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.
Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair.
“No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.”
I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.”
I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties.
Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant.
“Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.”
And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse.
“I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight.
The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns.
When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony.
He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy…’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.”
“Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage?
It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it.
“The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.”
Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it.
Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage…Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.”
Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.”
However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.”
The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything. “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster. Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general.
“I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood…But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998…I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.”
“And the French love you,” I interjected.
“I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn’t issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”)
He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he’s not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.”
As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.”
“It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.”
“That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived.
I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried.
Image credit: FNPI – Joaquin Sarmiento
Like many people, I was saddened when it was publicized that Philip Roth had quietly announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine. By chance, the news came near the end of a year during which my attitude toward Roth changed from appreciation to obsession. Before 2012, I had read perhaps 10 of Roth’s books in a decade. This year, I read 15 Roth novels in a row, the literary equivalent of binge-watching multiple seasons of a serial television drama. The more I read, the more I appreciated how Roth writes not only with technical virtuosity and aesthetic mastery, but also with profound spiritual intent. In this way, he reminds me of the 85-year-old Japanese master chef portrayed in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At the top of their fields and now in their twilight years, both come across as men who vacillate between narcissism and humility, perfectionists for whom life is work and work is life. As a tribute, I offer the following 10 key ideas I gleaned from Roth’s work and career. I hope these inspire fans to revisit his books, detractors to give him another try, and newcomers to read him for the first time.
1. Work hard. With 31 books in 51 years – from Goodbye Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010), Roth cranked out copy like Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Stephen King, not like a precious literary genius. He could have rested on his laurels in any of the last six decades, gone off the grid like Salinger, or found a nice sinecure at a writers’ workshop. But he just kept on writing. Roth was probably at the height of his powers in the late 90s and early 2000s, the years of the masterful trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) and The Plot Against America. But his recent books are equally elegant, the kind of short novels that demand to be read in one sitting. If you think you work too hard, think about Roth and think again. If you’re satisfied with your accomplishments, think again. Roth’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice each), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and is the only writer to have his canon published by the Library of America while still alive. The protagonist of Everyman quotes the painter Chuck Close as saying “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Indeed.
2. People are animals. Roth’s male characters cannot keep it in their pants. Their lives are filled with sex, mostly adulterous sex, mostly sex with younger women. His titles alone suggest carnality (The Professor of Desire), physicality (The Anatomy Lesson), beastliness (The Dying Animal), ejaculation (The Human Stain) and straight-up sex (The Prague Orgy). In his silliest novel, The Breast, a philandering professor David Kepesh wakes up to discover that he has become a giant mammary. For all the misery their lust causes them and their wives and lovers, these guys rarely seem to learn from – or apologize for — their peccadilloes. While these tales both celebrate and caution against lechery, they are not pornography. Roth’s books lack the soft-core aspect of Haruki Murakami or John Updike or Anne Rice sex scenes. Although many of his characters objectify and mistreat women, it’s reductive to call Roth a misogynist. If anything his characters love women too much, albeit in an oft-misguided way. As Roth writes in Deception, “With the lover, everyday life recedes.” Such characters’ urges seem motivated not by hedonism, but by the desire to slake needs, to find companionship, to stave off mortality. Following the classic writing teacher advice to take away your hero’s central desire – Roth makes his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman impotent, which only makes him hungrier for sex and more appreciative of its power. In a country where sex is still taboo, Roth’s embrace of such a core biological and psychological compulsion is not merely titillating or salacious, but refreshing.
3. We are alone and want to be known. Despite their busy bedrooms, Roth’s characters are often hermits, recluses, and lone wolves. His three major recurring alter egos – Zuckerman, Kepesh, and “Philip Roth” — are all lonely, as are many of his secondary characters, whether they are young, middle-aged, or old. Yet for all their solitude and secret lives and double lives, they still strive for the love of friends or mentors or heroes or parents or siblings or lovers. Throughout his work, Roth suggests that the deepest human longing is the desire to be known, not merely biblically, but intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Yet we are all fundamentally mysteries to each other. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: “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 not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Another character in the same novel speaks to the dilemma at the heart of Roth’s characters and perhaps of all humanity: “afraid of being exposed, dying to be seen.”
4. The flesh is weak. This is true for Roth’s characters not only in their lasciviousness, but also in their fascination with their own physical frailty and mortality. Like an episode of Law and Order or The Wire or Midsomer Murders, nearly every Roth novel features at least one death. His work is also filled with illnesses – cancer, strokes, chronic pain — and a multitude of scenes at hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. All this death – and the possibility of death — raises the dramatic stakes and adds to the existential malaise and weightiness. In The Human Stain, Zuckerman describes a crowd at a concert as “an entity of sensate flesh and warm red blood, separated from oblivion by the thinnest, most fragile layer of life.” And it’s not only old people who confront death. In Nemesis, a polio epidemic strikes kids. In The Plot Against America, the narrator’s adolescent cousin loses a leg in World War II. “The Life and Death of the Male Body” — a phrase from Everyman — seems to sum up Roth’s oeuvre. But it’s not all gloom. For all their physical frailty, Roth’s characters want to live, to love, and often, to write until their last breath.
5. Beware of ideology. In Roth’s world, personal tragedy and political tragedy go hand in hand and ideologies like communism, fascism, terrorism – and their antitheses — have deadly consequences. I Married A Communist is the biography of a radio host who falls victim to McCarthyism. The Plot Against America imagines an alternate reality where America flirts with fascism and Nazi Germany under President Charles Lindbergh. Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral is the story of a homegrown female terrorist. In The Human Stain, an aging professor battles with political correctness and professional persecution at the university as well as neo-Puritanism in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky. In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman goes to Eastern Europe, where the secret police track his every move. And in many of his novels, Roth speaks of the horrors of a century of American militarism, from World War I and II to Vietnam and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. And according to a character in The Human Stain, human history consists of two types: “the ruthless and the defenseless.” Overall, the message seems to be that any mass political movement – on the left or on the right, radical or reactionary, secular or religious – poses grave danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A eulogy in The Human Stain celebrates “the American individualist,” suggesting that people are better off when they think for themselves.
6. Prejudice is alive and well. Along with his distrust of ideology, Roth’s fiction critiques the pervasive Anti-Semitism and racism in America. Roth’s protagonists are mostly secular or atheist or agnostic Jews, but they still identify as Jewish, and perhaps more important, others label them as Jews. Roth was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, a historical fact that lingers in his books. Sometimes it’s a major plot point, as in The Plot Against America, which includes forced resettlement of Jews, or in The Ghostwriter when Zuckerman meets a woman he believes is Anne Frank, or I Married A Communist, which links anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Not that Roth spares Jews from his critical eye. The Zionist rabbi in The Counterlife and the rabbi in The Plot Against America who colludes with the Lindbergh regime are two of his most villainous and least sympathetic characters. And his narrators often vent their frustration with the strictures of Judaism. Zuckerman is often called a traitor for his fictional depictions of Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator’s mother thinks he’s eating non-Kosher food in the bathroom, when in fact he’s masturbating. And there’s one aching moment in The Plot Against America where a young boy sees his mother on the bus through the world’s eyes: “It was then that I realized…that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes – my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known.” In one of his finest books, The Human Stain, Roth adds the issue of racism through Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who “passes” as white and pretends to be Jewish to his family, friends, and colleagues. While overt anti-Semitism and racism may be less common in 2012 than it was in Roth’s youth – and an African-American is our president – Roth implies that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Given America’s history of racism and religious persecution and more recent treatment of Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutional claim that “all men are created equal” is more of a hope than a reality.
7. New Jersey is beautiful. There’s no deeper prejudice than the native New Yorker’s snobbery about New Jersey, a prejudice I share despite a dad from Hoboken, a girlfriend from East Brunswick, and a lot of time spent in the Garden State over the last two years. But let’s be honest. New Jersey deserves a lot of its bad rap: the traffic and toxic smells on the turnpike, the Guidos and Guidettes down the shore, the violence and poverty in Newark and Camden. Even the musical celebrities – Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi — are mercilessly cheesy. Yet in Roth’s eyes, New Jersey is beautiful, if not aesthetically, then emotionally. And as Roth points out in The Human Stain, New Jersey was originally called New Caesarea, a name surely suggestive of an empire. Not that Roth romanticizes Jersey: the squalor and decay of his once idyllic native Newark is recurrent, but he portrays it as a real place with complexities and contradictions, virtues and flaws. While his Jersey-born characters often escape to the culture of New York or the tranquility of the Berkshires, and Roth himself has lived in Connecticut and New York sine 1972, you can’t take the Jersey out of the kid or the books. When he dies, I hope the state finds an appropriate way to honor him. No disrespect to Woodrow Wilson, Vince Lombardi, and Thomas Edison, but I hope it’s not the Philip M. Roth Rest Stop. Then again, it might be fitting. Like that quintessential Jersey car – the Ford Mustang — that first came out in 1964, back when Roth had only two books to his name — Roth is an American classic whose styles change, but is always recognizable as itself.
8. There’s a fine line between reality, fiction, and fantasy. Many writers blur the boundary between fiction and their own lives. Roth takes this to an extreme. His characters are writers, professors, and artists who might as well be writers, and even a recurring “character” named Philip Roth. (Fortunately, Roth has the good sense to focus more on their personal lives than their literary lives). His favorite settings include his native Newark, Chicago (where he went to graduate school), and the fictional Athena College, which reads like a small town New England fusion of the schools where Roth studied and taught (Bucknell, Chicago, and Princeton). Even his more outlandish premises (The Breast, The Plot Against America) are grounded in reality. While Roth may have some literary gas left in his tank, he’s clearly concerned with events of this world. There’s no danger of him writing Nathan Zuckerman: Vampire Hunter.
9. The Power of Three. Roth’s stories are filled with grace and grandeur, fast-paced plots, and high stakes drama. He writes both linear and non-linear narratives, often with seamlessly overlapping layers of memory and reflection. While he favors first person narration, he also experiments: deception is written entirely in dialogue, essentially a play without stage directions. And beyond his subject, there is the majesty of his prose, lush but never dense, intellectual but never pretentious. His sentences can be one word or contain 23 verbs, like a sentence in The Plot Against America. One paragraph in I Married A Communist uses the word betrayed or “betrayal” 23 times. And like a character in The Human Stain, his best friend seems to be the dictionary. Full analysis of Roth’s prose would take a dissertation, so I’ll look at one signature move. Open any page of Roth at random and you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one triplet. One word repeated three times in a single sentence. The same word in three consecutive sentences. A sentence with three nouns or three adjectives or three verbs. A sentence with three adverbs or three prepositions or three proper names. Three consecutive sentences that begin with the same word or phrase (anaphora). Three consecutive sentences that consist of a single word. Three consecutive sentences of dialogue. Three consecutive questions. And permutations and combinations of all the above. One of Roth’s favored techniques is to describe a character’s outfit in terms of three items of clothing. Even when he quotes other writers – such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Anton Chekhov — he uses passages that feature triplets. Roth mentions this technique in Exit Ghost, which confirmed my suspicion that he writes triplets on purpose. Yet despite its ubiquity the technique never gets stale, because Roth’s command of grammar, syntax, and punctuation – especially em dashes, colons, and semi-colons — gives him a seemingly limitless number of ways to write triplets. After I noticed the technique, I started marking triplets with a 123 in the margins – and then using triplets in my own prose (as you might have noticed). As Joan Didion once said: “Nothing is too heavy to lift.”
10. Know when to quit. Roth’s retirement announcement was not entirely surprising. Now a few months shy of his 80th birthday, he hadn’t published a book since Nemesis in 2010, and in Roth time, two years is an eternity. He also hinted at his literary exit in 2011, when he told The Financial Times: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” Then again Roth has read plenty of fiction, including all of his own, which is more than most people, myself included, can say.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
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.
In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country. I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold.
We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America.
We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each. They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights. I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program.
Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it. Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards? Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish? No. I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it. Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis.
Still, I got a couple of gigs.
Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me. When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name. Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew. About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish. I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth.
“Are you a Jewish writer?”
That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd. It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse.
I’ve worked out different replies. The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.” Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative). But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer.
As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth. All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform. And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke. Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder. None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature.
My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive. Everyone wants to wear the cap. It’s not just Updike with his Beck books. Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot. Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.”
Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters. He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both. The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity. But that search for authenticity is not what I love.
It’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy. In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow? By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . .. Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more. By us, pike is a fish.” And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice.
What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction? Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust. Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place: I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t. Ozick’s “The Shawl” is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential. And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance. A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp: “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.” In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry.
Her writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction. And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody. I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story. And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book. So dry, they said. So bleak. It was missing something. In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit.
Bellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer. He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters. The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things. Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead. The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze.
Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost. Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews. After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all. Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy. American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested.
I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?” the writers were asked. For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered: Is this how it goes all over the country? You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?”
David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer. He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it. You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you. He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off. You need to get categorized in order to succeed.
Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky. A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance. So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer. Invite me to your community center, please!
(Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez’s photostream)