Showing posts with label Philip Roth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Roth. Show all posts

Friday, July 17, 2020

Evoking John Updike and Philip Roth

I woke up this morning and had John Updike and Philip Roth on my mind.  They are the writers I grew up admiring the most and I’ve made a point of that repeatedly in these pages.  So why am I now dreaming of them in the half light of dawn, both now gone?  The answer came as I was exercising in our pool this morning (one of the few pluses of being self quarantined in Florida): the pandemic of course.

I’ve discussed their attitudes towards death in past entries, almost as if being a dress rehearsal, and aren’t we all more acutely aware of our own fragile existence during these times? Roth’s preoccupation with death gathers momentum in his later works while Updike’s is less transparent, although Rabbit at Rest is fairly unambiguous, not to mention poems like “Perfection Wasted.”

Their demise leaves a void in serious American fiction.  Imagine what they would have to write today.  I mostly read fiction to understand our world, not to hear a “swell” story. There are other forms of entertainment for that.   Navigating COVID-19 without those heartfelt companions is almost like performing on a tight-rope without a net, such as the image from Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me:” the “bear” (the body) “howls in his sleep because the tight-rope / trembles and shows the darkness beneath.”

This sudden longing for Updike and Roth made me curious about the progress Blake Bailey has made with the biography Roth authorized before his death, giving Bailey extensive interviews and documents.   Updike’s workman like biography was written by Adam Begley and published some six years ago.

But alas, after Googling the matter, Bailey (who I thought would write the Updike biography after writing magnificent ones of John Cheever and Richard Yates) is still working on the Roth biography and it is tentatively scheduled for publication in April 2021.  
However, there was an unexpected bonus in doing this research and that is coming across an absolutely breathtaking article by Charles McGrath who, as a former writer and editor for The New Yorker, knew both Philip Roth and John Updike.  His article, succinctly entitled “Roth/Updike” and published in the Autumn 2019 issue of The Hudson Review sheds a floodlight on their commonalities and clandestine competitiveness.  An abstract of this well written and impassioned article cannot do it justice, so here is a link.  Suffice it to say these two leading American writers will be remembered and studied for centuries to come.  No wonder they are on my mind.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Goodbye, Philip Roth

I feel as if I have lost a good friend, similar to the way I felt when John Updike died now more than nine years ago.  I grieved then and I grieve now.  These are the two towering writers of my lifetime and no one, for me at least, will even begin to approach them.  They were not only the most prolific writers of our era, but were the most perceptive observers of our cultural scene, now turning into a cultural wasteland.   And they spoke personally to me in ways other writers often have as well, but never with such fecundity.

Roth was ten years older than I am (and Updike was about the same number of years older than I was when he died), a coincidence which does not fail to strike a looming chord in me.  I’ve read everything by Updike and most by Roth, noting a couple of his novels still on my “to read” shelf. 

One of my earliest entries in this blog cited the importance of both Updike and Roth to me.  Here’s just a part of what I said about Roth, still relevant today:

Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Several years ago Roth declared that he would not be writing any more fiction; believing that he had given all he had (and he did), recognizing that his creative and physical powers were declining.  Consequently I decided to reread his first major work, Goodbye, Columbus . It had been “merely” 50 years since I first read it.  This is some of what I said after the second reading:

It was a very different experience reading the book as a septuagenarian.  I see Roth as a young colt writing this novella, exploring themes that would develop over the next fifty plus years, with clear signs of the literary thoroughbred he would become.  Certainly the work foreshadows my favorite Roth work, American Pastoral.  Nonetheless, it was somewhat painful reading his youthful work, bringing up issues of my own formative years that were submerged long ago, ones I was hardly conscious of when I first read the book, crazy families’ impact on their children, the first real romantic love, and youth’s obliviousness that old age would one day arrive.  And true to Roth, it is a very funny work as well.

The title symbolizes the soon-to-be-lost youth of Brenda's brother, as he is about to be married (like me, at an early age), but still a boy, dreaming of his basketball days at Ohio State, listening to an old radio broadcast of the big game which begins: "The place, the banks of the Oentangy."  My friend Bruce and I spent part of the summer at Ohio State University in Columbus as representatives to the National Student Association from our university.  It was a different world from New York, indeed, but we, like the youth of Roth’s first major work, were ready to be swept along into the stream of life as if it was endless.

Coincidentally that same entry covers another book I read at the same time, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic masterpiece, The Right Stuff.  I had read most of Wolfe’s fiction.  We mourned the death of Tom Wolfe only a week before Roth’s.

A few years after Roth decided to stop writing fiction he gave an interview, one of his few in his later years, where he commented on that decision:  It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death. 

Indeed, the few slender novels he produced towards the end of his writing life are ruminations about death.  They are hard to read and yet mesmerizing, a phase of life for which we are all preparing. I quoted parts of that interview in this entry. Now a great voice has been silenced, but what he had to say will live into the future of American fiction and thought.

There is another coincidence to his death yesterday.  The day before my wife, Ann, met someone who revealed he was a childhood friend of Philip Roth.  How the conversation turned to Philip Roth was preternatural.  She told him how much I (and she) admire Roth.  He suggested we talk and provided his email contact.  I wrote him a long, chatty email suggesting we meet, maybe over lunch, as I’d love to hear about him as he was then.  That was yesterday, the day Roth died.  I grieve for his childhood friend and for us all.  There will never be another like him.

Fortunately Blake Bailey who wrote two superb literary biographies, one on John Cheever and the other on Richard Yates, has been working with Philip Roth on his life's story, with unfettered access to Roth’s papers, friends, and relatives.  This authorized biography will be the final chapter of a remarkable literary life.

Post Script:
Among the tributes published in the New York Times on Roth was one which quoted a paragraph from American Pastoral.  I remember reading this exact paragraph out loud to my wife when I first read it.  Great literature captures universality.  My father was not Jewish but this could mostly apply to him, as it could to almost anyone “for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between” and whose “most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything.”  Here’s what Roth wrote:
Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.

And as readers it is our job to love Philip Roth and remember him always.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

When She Was Good – and Roth is Great

The time had come to leave our boat and return to Florida.  We wanted to beat the weather for a safe drive.  Ann needed to see her surgeon because of an arthritic flare up in her knee and as much as we love being in Connecticut, seeing friends and family, living on our boat at our Club, there comes a time when the confines of the boat simply get to you and we long for the spaciousness of our home.  It’s the earliest that we’ve ever returned from our 15 years of bifurcated home/boat living, just in time for what we thought might become a Category 1 Hurricane, Erika, which thankfully disintegrated into remnants with only brief heavy rain and an eerie sunrise the day after.

Right before leaving the boat I picked up a novel I had brought (again, avoiding short stories for the time being), this time Philip Roth’s When She Was Good.  I’ve read a lot of Roth, and think his American Pastoral is one of the more important novels of my time.  I wasn’t expecting much from this novel, one often not discussed, but I was curious about it as to my knowledge Roth’s only novel with a woman (Lucy Nelson / Bassart) as the protagonist, particularly given the accusations over the years of Roth being a misogynist.  Furthermore, as Stanley Elkin’s brief blurb on the cover states, When She Was Good could be compared to Theodore Dreiser’s work ( I've read practically all his work in college and can count him among my favorite American writers), particularly in my mind his American Tragedy.

What mesmerized me is Roth’s lapidary characterization of Lucy.  This is a character, like the one in Dreiser’s other great novel, Sister Carrie, who you are unlikely to forget and it is Roth’s characterizations and dialogue which sets this novel apart. .  It reminded me of my own mother’s struggles in a man’s world.  There are two edges to this sword, though, Lucy as standing for and rationalizing what she considers “the truth” and then where her expectations stemming from” the truth” almost borders on mental illness.  Although she is described as a “ball buster” at one point, I think Roth is clearly rooting for Lucy in a world that does not reward her stalwart individualism.  Like Anita Shreve’s Olympia in Fortune’s Rocks, Lucy is a woman before her time. And like Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, this is a multigenerational novel, but with a darker view. 

Willard Carroll is from a dysfunctional family but as a young man he finds the American Dream waiting for him in “Liberty Center:”

     So at the sight of Liberty Center, its quiet beauty, its serene order, its gentle summery calm, all that had been held in check in him, all that tenderness of heart that had been for eighteen years his secret burden, even at times his shame, came streaming forth. If ever there was a place where life could be less bleak and harsh and cruel than the life he had known as a boy, if ever there was a place where a man did not have to live like a brute, where he did not have to be reminded at every turn that something in the world either did not like mankind, or did not even know of its existence, it was here. Liberty Center! Oh, sweet name! At least for him, for he was indeed free at last of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature.

     He found a room; then he found a job-he took an examination and scored high enough to become postal clerk; then he found a wife, a strong-minded and respectable girl from a proper family; and then he had a child; and then one day-the fulfillment, he discovered, of a very deep desire-he bought a house of his own, with a front porch and a backyard: downstairs a parlor, a dining room, a kitchen and a bedroom; upstairs two bedrooms more and the bath. A back bathroom was built downstairs in 1915, six years after the birth of his daughter, and following his promotion to assistant postmaster of the town.

That daughter, Myra, becomes the mother to Lucy, Willard’s grandchild.  But Myra married a man with a drinking problem and as a young girl Lucy calls the police as her mother was hit by her drunken husband, Whitey, blackening her eye.  The shame of having the police involved, and their name the subject of gossip, seems worse to Lucy’s grandparents, and even her mother, than the act itself.  It is from this action that the novel finds its themes and its energy, Lucy condemning her father, totally ostracizing him, and men in general, unless they tell the “truth” and abide by her expectations of how a man should behave, taking responsibility, doing the right thing.

These “blue threads” of shame and anger and expectations culminate in her savage condemnation of her malleable husband, Roy, with whom they now have a child, the fourth generation in the novel.  These very words could have been spoken by my own mother during the height of her own unhappy marriage to my father:

     "You worm! Don't you have any guts at all? Can't you stand on your own two feet, ever? You sponge! You leech! You weak, hopeless, spineless, coward! You'll never change- you don't even want to change! You don't even know what I mean by change! You stand there with your dumb mouth open! Because you have no backbone! None!" She grabbed the other cushion from behind her and heaved it toward his head. "Since the day we met!" ….
     She charged off the sofa. "And no courage!" she cried. "And no determination! And no will of your own! If I didn't tell you what to do, if I were to turn my back-if I didn't every single rotten day of this rotten life ... Oh, you're not a man, and you never will be, and you don't even care!" She was trying to hammer at his chest; first he pushed her hands down, then he protected himself with his forearms and elbows; then he just moved back, a step at a time.

This tirade is in front of family and in front of their child.  It is a novel that resonates with me for personal reasons.   I’ll leave it to the reader as to whether Lucy is a “ball buster” or just a person living in a world that has turned on her because “of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature” -- as experienced by her own grandfather before he fled to “Liberty Center.”

I’ll miss Roth (who has vowed to write no more) as I’ve missed Updike.  To hear from them no longer is like losing close friends.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Character is destiny, and yet everything is chance" -- Philip Roth

An absolutely fascinating, revealing, brilliant interview was given by Philip Roth to a Swedish journalist, Svenska Dagbladet, for publication there on the occasion of his novel, Sabbath’s Theater being translated into Swedish. The interview appeared in the March 18 New York Times Book Review as well.  It is almost unsuitable to quote any part of it without the whole, but I do so with the hope that by quoting the most salient points (to me), any reader of this will be motivated to read the full unexpurgated version on the NYT's web site.

Roth like Updike are in the pantheon of the authors I've followed most closely, having read nearly everything they've written.  Updike was silenced by his death a few years ago, a great loss and now Roth has decided not to write fiction any more.  I've felt his last few novels presaged that decision, being very-end-of-life focused.  Hopefully, Roth will long be a commentator on the literary scene and on the state of our nation for years to come, as evidenced by this interview.

About the main character in the novel, Sabbath, Roth says  Mickey Sabbath doesn’t live with his back turned to death the way normal people like us do.  No one could have concurred more heartily with the judgment of Franz Kafka than would Sabbath, when Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

When asked about his decision to stop writing, he said When I decided to stop writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time. You never can be sure, you know.....My conclusion, after I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis. ..... So when he was asked upon his retirement about his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”

About the often heard accusation that misogyny runs deeply in his works, he replies:  Misogyny, a hatred of women, provides my work with neither a structure, a meaning, a motive, a message, a conviction, a perspective, or a guiding principle....My traducers propound my alleged malefaction as though I have spewed venom on women for half a century. But only a madman would go to the trouble of writing 31 books in order to affirm his hatred.....It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be. Well, welcome to the subjective human race. .... Yet every writer learns over a lifetime to be tolerant of the stupid inferences that are drawn from literature and the fantasies implausibly imposed upon it. As for the kind of writer I am? I am who I don’t pretend to be.

On the subject of the men in his books, As I see it, my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired. I have hardly been singing a paean to male superiority but rather representing manhood stumbling, constricted, humbled, devastated and brought down. I am not a utopian moralist. My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are.

The interviewer then asks “'The struggle with writing is over'” is a recent quote. Could you describe that struggle, and also, tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?"
Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace....Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Asked about his generation of writers and the state of contemporary American fiction, he morphs from fiction to his feelings about the world we now inhabit.  His observations on today's world are particularly profound:  Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever....You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.

His comments on American popular culture are priceless: The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy....Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

His final thoughts in the interview are about the nature of writing itself and what it may or may not reveal about the writer.  Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist....The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

May we hear again and again from Philip Roth, perhaps not in imaginary literature, but in interviews such as this and essays.  To me he is still the reigning dean of American literature and intellectual thought.