In her laugh was the recognition that she was no longer in charge of the forces at work. In her laugh was the admission of her captivity: to Norman, to menopause, to work, to aging, to everything that could only deteriorate further. Nothing unforeseen that happens is likely ever again to be going to be good. What is more, Death is over in its corner doing deep knee bends and one day soon will leap across the ring at her mercilessly . . . The laugh said that everything had shifted on her while her back was turned, while she was facing the other way, the right way, her arms open wide to the dynamic admixture of demands and delights that had been the daily bread of her thirties and forties, to all that assiduous activity, all the extravagant, holidaylike living—so inexhaustibly busy . . . with the result that in no more time than it took for the Cowans to cross the ocean on the Concorde for a long weekend in Paris, she was fifty-five and seared with hot flashes, and her daughter’s was now the female form exuding the magnetic currents. The laugh said that she was sick of staying, sick of plotting leaving, sick of unsatisfied dreams, sick of satisfied dreams, sick of adapting, sick of not adapting, sick of just about everything except existing. Exulting in existing while being sick of everything—that’s what was in that laugh! A semidefeated, semiamused, semiaggreived, semiamazed, seminegative, hilarious big laugh. . . . Sabbath understood her state of mind, her state of life, her state of suffering: dusk is descending, and sex, our greatest luxury, is racing away at a tremendous speed, everything is racing off at a tremendous speed and you wonder at your folly in having ever turned down a single squalid fuck. . . .
“Nothing unforeseen that happens,” the hot flashes inform her, “is likely ever again to be going to be good.”
– Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater
It’s one of the odd things about literature today that it manages to seem marginalized and pervasive at the same time.
Book industry statisticians Bowker reported approximately 288,000 titles published in 2010—an increase from 172,000 in 2005—and that was only in terms of “traditional” output. Once you factor in the burgeoning world of self-publishing and micro-imprints, the total rises, dizzyingly, to almost one million new titles last year alone. Since there’s no persuasive reason to think fiction is exempt from this trend, it seems plausible that there must now be more novels and stories being published, year-on-year, than at any time previously. But on the other hand, the climate into which this work is thrown is full of interminable pessimism about the prospects of literary writing and reading: all those familiar worries that nobody reads anyone, that literature’s gone fatally out of fashion, that the money is all evaporating, that the printed word is becoming hopelessly marginalized, and so on. It’s hard to know how seriously these sorts of concerns ought to be taken (I’ve heard there’s a joke in publishing circles that the second book off the Gutenberg Press bewailed the death of the publishing industry) but clearly there’s something to ponder if self-belief is absent when there’s evidently no shortage of the desire to write.
Most probably, the enormous volume of new fiction is both a cause and a symptom of what James Wood has described as the “peculiar statelessness” of the modern novel. Literature has been pluralized to the point where it lacks definition. In some respects, this indefinity is a wonderful gift. Readers enjoy an unprecedented wealth of stories, voices, styles, perspectives, subjects, etc. But there are also difficult consequences. As an art form, fiction exists in a perpetual fight against irrelevance—that is, the battle to make the reader feel as though fiction isn’t just fiction (i.e. something false) but also a channel toward deeper and more important things. Anything that makes this harder makes it harder to take literature seriously. The superabundance of books is an obstacle in this respect, not only because it demeans the significance of any one book in particular but because in a strange way it also comes to stand in for the monolithic too-muchness of the world in general. No matter how much they take in, today’s readers are left fatally aware of what Fredric Jameson called the “unrepresentable exterior” of literature: the world beyond words—too huge and various and sickeningly complex to be understood (or even conceptualized) whole. Thirty years ago, it may still have been possible for a writer to rely on a general audience who knew the canon well enough to make experimental fiction fresh or subversive criticism compelling—today, even if we could be exact about what qualifies as the literary canon, it would take years to become familiar with even the Western, modernist counter-tradition: starting with Joyce, Eliot, Heidegger, Marinetti, Sartre, Bataille, Mallarmé, Blanchot, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, De Man, Adorno, Barthes, Jameson, Derrida . . . you get the picture. Who has the time to read all of this stuff? And who would they be speaking to if they did? Meanwhile, the new books keep piling up.
This is an essay about Philip Roth, not the state of literature. I begin with these observations because it is worth taking a moment to consider the bigger picture, and particularly for the unique standing Roth has against it. As the “About the Author” pages in his most recent novels inform us, Roth has collected the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Gold Medal in Fiction. He is a two-time winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has claimed PEN America’s two most prestigious prizes: the PEN/Nabokov and the PEN/Bellow, as well as winning PEN/Faulkner Award three times. Currently, Roth is the only living novelist to have his life’s work published in a Library of America edition. Harold Bloom has included more of Roth’s novels (six) in his Western Canon than any other living American author. After a 2006 project by The New York Times, in which a group of prominent American writers, critics, and editors were polled for the best American novel of the last 25 years, A.O. Scott commented that over “the past 15 years, Roth’s production has been so steady, so various, and (mostly) so excellent that his vote has been, inevitably, split. If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction over the past 25 years, he would have won.” Since the deaths of Heller, Vonnegut, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, and Salinger, to mention no others, Roth’s status as the grand old man of American fiction has become almost indisputable. He is America’s Greatest Living Writer: a national monument and the country’s outstanding candidate for the Nobel Prize. In other words, Philip Roth, now, is about as celebrated and successful as it is possible for a novelist to be.
He also might be the last of his kind. It is a legitimate question whether, given the saturation of new books and literature’s drastic loss of cultural authority, an American novelist will ever again be as recognized or revered as Roth is today. Roth himself has commented that he doesn’t expect literature to be widely read in twenty-five years. “To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading,” he said in an interview with Tina Brown. “I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by [now]. . . . The book can’t compete with the screen.”
Premonitions of decline and fall are exacerbated by the fact that Roth is certainly now in the late stages of his career. In recent years, Roth (or his editor) has taken to dividing his novels up into groups: the “Zuckerman Books”, narrated by Roth’s most famous alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman (nine in total); The “Roth Books”, featuring effigies of the author himself (most recently in The Plot Against America); the “Kepesh Books” (The Breast, The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal); “Other Books” (eight novels with various narrators, including Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater); some miscellaneous non-fiction; and finally “Nemeses: Short Novels”, the most recent series. It is this last set that I want to talk about—books which are in many ways ugly and bad, but which are also grimly fascinating, and, beyond that, perhaps offer us some access to the subterranean layers of why we write and read.
In his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth (2007), Timothy Parrish writes that it “is difficult to think of another American writer, with the exception of Henry James, who has been as successfully productive as Roth has been in the mature phase of his life”:
The Counterlife (1986), The Facts (1988), Patrimony (1991), Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Dying Animal (2001) . . . and The Plot Against America (2004) represent an extraordinary run of novels that any writer would envy. Yet, in 1986, such a future could have been barely imaginable even to Philip Roth. Indeed, as Roth acknowledged in The Facts and Operation Shylock, he suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s a mental breakdown that took years to diagnose and remedy. In retrospect, 1986 can be seen as a kind of turning point for Roth because he was on the cusp of what would become in effect his mature phase. Roth’s sense of himself as a writer whose career was noteworthy but not yet fulfilled is revealed in his powerful response Bernard Malamud’s death that year.
The “powerful response” Parrish refers to is the essay “Pictures of Malamud,” published in The New York Times on April 20, 1986, when Roth was 53. There, Roth recounts his long friendship with Malamud, which began with a trip to the older writer’s home in 1961, and lasted until their final meeting in Bennington, Vermont, in 1985. The summer before that, recalls Roth, Malamud and his wife had been able to make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Roth’s home in Connecticut to stay the night, but “Bern” was no longer equal to the journey. “The debilitating after-effects of the bypass surgery and the stroke of three years earlier had begun increasingly to sap his strength, and the effort not to submit without a fight to all the disabling physical problems had begun to beat him down.” The robust, “46-year-old transplanted Brooklynite” Roth had first met in 1961 “was now, without question, a frail and very sick old man, whose tenacity was just about used up.”
Before lunch on their last meeting, Malamud asked if, later that afternoon, he might read aloud from the first pages of the new novel he was writing. “I was surprised by the request,” remembers Roth. “I was also a little perturbed, and wondered throughout lunch what sort of book it could be, conceived and begun in the midst of all this hardship by a writer whose memory of even the multiplication tables had been clouded now for several years”. The story Malamud shares turns out to be as insubstantial as Roth had feared it would be. “I didn’t dislike what I heard because there was nothing yet to like or dislike,” explains Roth, “he hadn’t got started, really, however much he wanted to think otherwise.” An agonizing moment ensues:
I didn’t want to lie to him but, looking at the thin sheaf of pages in the hands of that very frail man, I couldn’t tell the truth, even if he was expecting it of me. I said simply, and only a little evasively, that it seemed to me a beginning like all beginnings. That was quite truthful enough for a man of 71 who had published 12 of the most original works of fiction written by an American in the past 35 years. Trying to be constructive, I suggested that perhaps the narrative opened too slowly and that he might better begin further on, with one of the later chapters. Then I asked where it was all going. “What comes next?” I said, hoping we could pass to what it was he had in mind if not yet down on the page.
But he wouldn’t let go of what he’d written—at such cost—as easily as that. Nothing was ever as easy as that, least of all the end of things. In a soft voice suffused with fury, he said, “What’s next isn’t the point.”
Twenty years on, in the Cambridge Companion, Parrish speculates that this meeting with Malamud was a catalyst for the great industry of Roth’s mature period. He observes, quite correctly, that there is something rather cruel about the “still quick and inventive” middle-aged Roth turning the helpless and dying Malamud into a kind of aesthetic spectacle for the sake of an essay; but Roth’s inability to lie about Malamud’s decrepitude and his inability to resist writing about it confronted him with something else impossible either to resist or ignore. “This final picture of Malamud is a confession of fear on Roth’s part that is also yet another of his peculiar self-portraits, or self-impersonations,” states Parrish. “Roth projects his own . . . nightmare on to Malamud.” The terror is of a fate worse than death: in Malamud, Roth perceived living death—undeath—life carried on past all satisfaction or use.
Perhaps for reasons to do with the intensely personal nature of writing as a vocation—one combining deep anxieties about deceit, compulsion, and self-exposure all at once—I think the fear of outliving your abilities holds a special dread for authors. In a 2005 essay for The New Yorker, inspired by a course Edwards Said ran at Princeton on the topic of “late style,” John Updike noted the standard predicament involved in reading a writer whose powers are in decline. Talent tends to go senile and die before the body does, and while work written late in an author’s life can sometimes be eerie and powerful, more often it’s just unexcitingly sad, thanks to the inescapable comparison it presents with their younger and (usually) more able self. As with elderly relatives, when a writer you love starts to fail it becomes an issue striking a balance between honesty and respect. Kindness easily slips into condescension. In “Pictures of Malamud,” Roth avoided condescension at the expense of kindness, and it raises unsettling questions about what exactly we owe to aging artists. Besides the morbid fascination exerted by work written near the end of life, for the reader there is also a tremendously powerful temptation to see late writing as supplying a type of closure, and therefore definition, to a career. In his New Yorker essay, Updike referred to Barbara Hernstein Smith’s term “the senile sublime” and quoted Eve Kosofsky Sedgwich’s explanation of it, as standing for “various more or less intelligible performances by old brilliant people . . . where the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from what had been the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness . . . even of coherent sense.” This is late work as a kind of distillation; artists are, in a way, more themselves than ever. “What someone is begins to show itself when his talent subsides—when he stops showing what he can do,” wrote Nietzsche. “Talent is also finery, and finery is also a hiding place.”
“It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift,” remarked Roth in his 1984 interview with The Paris Review.
Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to proceed from someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren’t in your line of vision you’d get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he’s most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he “is” once the curtain is down. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t.
The games Roth has played throughout his career with likenesses—all the counterparts, aliases, self-portraits, and doppelgangers populating his fiction—serve a dare to his audience. Speaking about his work, Roth has steadfastly maintained that only an insensitive reader ever equates a character with its author. Still he happily teases the idea that his heroes stand for him even as he slips identification, hiding behind a mask of his own face. To give only a few examples, shards from Roth’s two (incredibly acrimonious) divorces can be picked out of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), My Life as a Man (1974)and I Married a Communist without much difficulty. In Operation Shylock, “Philip Roth” travels to Israel to do battle with a mischief-making, anti-Zionist Philip Roth impersonator—in fact mimicking a real-life incident that occurred four years earlier when an (actual) Philip Roth impersonator turned up in the Holy Land advocating the dissolution of the Jewish state. Nathan Zuckerman, might as well be Philip Roth, which is the point: a Jewish-American novelist from Newark, catapulted to fame in his mid-thirties thanks to a salacious book featuring family neurosis and psychotherapy (Carnovsky to Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint), later making his home in isolated rural New England. The four books collected in the Zuckerman Bound series—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983) and The Prague Orgy (1985)—chart Zuckerman (and Roth?) struggling through fame, failed relationships, family bereavements and the efforts of writing. In The Counterlife the relationship between artist and art fractures into a postmodern mirror-maze: five self-referential, interconnected fictions by Roth about Zuckerman, or perhaps fives examples by Roth of Zuckerman’s stories about Zuckerman; or maybe Roth using Zuckerman as a device for recalling his own trips to England and Israel, the beginnings of his affair with Claire Bloom, his fears of impotency. Maybe something else. We’re conscious that Roth is not Zuckerman, too—of course we are—but, as he says, the effect wouldn’t be the same if we could be completely sure.
Play-actors, impostors, pretenders, frauds, performers: Roth’s whole corpus is filled with lives lived through masks, from Nikki in Sabbath’s Theater (tranquil only “when she was having to be someone other than herself”) to Eve Frame in I Married a Communist (“Underneath the smile there was nothing at all, not her character, not her history, not even her misery. She was just what was stretched across her face.”); from Coleman Silk in The Human Stain and Simon Axler in The Humbling (2009) up to Nathan Zuckerman and “Philip Roth” himself. “My guess is that you’ve written metamorphoses of yourself so many times, you no longer have any idea what you are or ever were,” writes Zuckerman to “Roth” at the end of the quasi-autobiography, The Facts. “By now what you are is a walking text.” On top of that, there’s also the elementary point that all of Roth’s characters “are” Philip Roth—his marionettes and creations, however unlike him they appear.
But plenty of authors have written themselves into spirals about the fabricated nature of identity and the impossibility of separating truth from fiction. Roth’s great talent isn’t necessarily for confounding but for how convincing he makes himself seem even while he assures us that what he’s telling us isn’t true.Perhaps the most interesting examples of this are in the novels of the so-called “American Trilogy” (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain): the books that saw the re-emergence of the Zuckerman character, eleven years after the kaleidoscope of The Counterlife. Instead of taking the lead, in each of the Trilogy’s novels Zuckerman records another man’s tragedy: the ruin of the upright Newark industrialist Seymour “Swede” Levov, ‘50s radio-celebrity Ira Goldring, and disgraced academic and “self-made man” Coleman Silk, respectively. In one sense, Zuckerman’s shift from protagonist to chronicler is emblematic of the broader change of emphasis in Roth’s work during this period. The themes of individualism and manhood and desire are all still present, but with the self-consciousness and self-obsession dimmed; the old preoccupations not so much abandoned as fused with and amplified by a newly epic conception of America.
This, at least, is the standard critical report of these three books, the central novels in Roth’s mature phase. And it is partially right. Certainly, to read the extraordinary descriptions of the Midwestern industrial vista in I Married a Communist or the hymns to Newark community in American Pastoral is to appreciate how much the ideas of national self-image and myth inform Roth’s aesthetic during this period. And yet at crucial moments in the Trilogy we are carefully reminded that this is all just Zuckerman’s version of events and so not what really happened, even inside the fictional world of Roth’s creation. Underneath the clamor, each of the Trilogy’s novels duplicates the same message: every story is a corruption. As soon as you put something into words, you immediately get it wrong. You tell another man’s tale and inevitably you misrepresent him. Beyond what’s perceived there remain “all the million circumstances of the other fellow’s life . . . that blizzard of details that constitute the confusion of a human biography”—too much for words.
“Maybe, despite ideology, politics and history, a genuine catastrophe is always personal bathos at the core,” observes one character in I Married a Communist. Indeed, the riches of the American Trilogy might essentially amount to a very cunning reframing of those bottomless identity-puzzles Roth presented in earlier books. They might be saying that all the wealth of history and the world still reduces, ultimately, to the zero-point of the self, which remains a mystery. Fill yourself up with all the greatest ideas and boldest motivations you can think of—desire, politics, citizenship, pride, industry, family, fidelity, betrayal, faith, revenge, hatred—and, in the end, you still won’t know what’s what. These grand stories about loss and love and the upheavals of a country double as tales of misapprehension and miscommunication and hopeless ignorance; the multitude of human liabilities and limitations making every story we tell irreparably false and misleading. “You get [people] wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again,” declares Zuckerman in American Pastoral.
Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? . . .getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.
All of which is to say that there’s one more duality within Philip Roth, the big double-behind-the-doubles. On one side is the Roth of epics and verbal magic, the exuberant genius teeming with self-contained multitudes, pillar of American literature—while on the other lies the Roth of mistakes, blindness, and everything permanently unsayable or unknown. “There is truth and then there is truth,” says Zuckerman in The Human Stain. “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbour figured out, there is really no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.”
If I might generalize from my own experience: there are two fundamental reasons to read Philip Roth. The first is how clearly and brutally true his judgment often seems—that aptitude for making even very ugly and detestable views feel sort of exhilaratingly plausible (what Martin Amis described as a “scarily illusionless intelligence”). The second is for the passages of boilingly forceful prose embedded throughout his work—the recollection of Coleman Silk’s first great love affair in The Human Stain, for example, or the incredible Cherry Orchard monologue in Sabbath’s Theater—writing so powerful it makes your breath taste sharp. At his best, Roth makes you realize how comparatively feeble most of the novels you read really are; how little they shake you. It’s a rare talent. Not, however, an immortal one—which brings us to the Nemeses series, the now-completed tetralogy of short novels made up of Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling, and Nemesis (2010). To this, Exit Ghost (2007)—the most recent, and apparently final, Zuckerman story—might be added as a fellow-traveler, sharing much of the other books’ thematic dread as well as their formal weaknesses.
The critical response to these novels has been mixed. Although bad reviews haven’t been uncommon it also isn’t too much of a challenge to find each of thebooks described—in one place or another—as a “late masterpiece,” or something similar. I submit that whenever you read this it is almost certainly wrong. None of the Nemeses are masterpieces or even close to Roth’s best writing. Nonetheless, they are fascinating, albeit what makes them fascinating is also very bleak and uncomfortable. The Nemeses provide a frightening examination of talent losing its means, and being aware of it. They also give an answer (of sorts) to what must be a deeply compelling question for any long-term Philip Roth reader: if we accept Sedgwich’s idea that in an artist’s decline “the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from . . . the obscuring puppy fat,” what does that mean for a writer like Roth, who has struggled for so long to avoid being pinned down?
“In the history of art”, wrote Theodor Adorno, “late works are the catastrophes.” Death is something that happens to artists, not to art. In his writing on the last works of Beethoven, Adorno speculated that this is what gives late work its irreconciled character: at once intensely personal and yet oddly inexpressive; intimate as well as distant. He laid stress on the image of the late-artist as a type of self-identified exile. Inside the tumult and disharmony of late-Beethoven, according to Said, Adorno perceived the refusal of everyday order and alienation from society, the “idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal”. Unlike these compositions, Roth’s Nemeses are not strikingly unconventional in their form. But they do carry the impression of being oddly removed from his previous work, almost as if uncanny replicas. Interestingly, although all of the books (with the exception of Nemesis) contain characters who could be taken as likenesses of Roth, none of them are writers. He is not all there.
It was my impression until fairly recently that the word nemesis meant something roughly like “arch-enemy,” but in fact this isn’t quite true. More accurately, nemesis means divine retribution; an inevitable penalty or price. The fear it inspires is the fear of what is due and what cannot be prevented—aging, decline, failure, death. Catastrophes. “Death, one would think, naturally haunts late works,” wrote Updike, “yet perhaps it does not . . . What does haunt late works are the author’s previous works: he is burdensomely aware that he has been cast, unlike his ingénue self, as an author who writes in a certain way, with the inexorable consistency of his own handwriting.” Of Roth this is only partially true. Mortal dread is what his late novels have in common, but each is also weighed with history: Roth’s New Jersey youth; those autobiographical puzzles; the enviable reputation for smut. It gets more specific. Everyman cannibalises a graveyard scene in Sabbath’s Theater. Indignation re-stages the conflict between Jewish family conscience and sexual enterprise from Portnoy’s Complaint and the earlier Zuckerman books. Exit Ghost bends back to Zuckerman’s first adventure in The Ghost Writer, reintroducing Amy Bellette, the mysterious student Zuckerman was infatuated with as a young man (now a cancerous old woman) and the specter of the idolized author E.I. Lonoff (a character with more than a passing resemblance to Bernard Malamud).
In The Counterlife, Zuckerman posited the idea that the self is nothing more than the ability to act roles. The suppressed premise was that the ability would endure, but this is one of the things the late novels return to throw doubt on. The Humbling is a very deliberate story about recursion and predictability. Each of the novel’s characters exist though practiced roles, and the story implies that the most horrible fate is not so much lacking a part but finding yourself unable to stop the performance, even as you become unable to act; to be a failed performance. The hero is 65-year-old Simon Axler, “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors,” who one day discovers that his ability to perform has evaporated. A catastrophic failure as the lead in a double-bill of Macbeth and The Tempest triggers a nervous collapse. His wife abandons him and Axler is left alone in his house in rural New York State—misery compounded by self-consciousness:
The worst of it was that he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through his acting. The suffering was excruciating and yet he doubted that it was genuine, which made it even worse. He did not know how he was going to get from one minute to the next, his mind felt as though it were melting, he was terrified to be alone, he could not sleep more than two or three hours a night, he scarcely ate, he thought every day of killing himself . . . and still the whole thing seemed to be an act, a bad act. . . .
Meanwhile, Prospero’s most famous words wouldn’t let him be . . . They repeated themselves so regularly in his head that they soon became a hubbub of sounds tortuously empty of meaning and pointing at no reality yet carrying the force of a spell of personal significance. “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.”
A few things might be noted in this passage. The first is the (albeit limited) evidence that Roth remains capable of impressively muscular bursts of prose. The opening pages of The Humbling, charting Axler’s initial breakdown, are by some distance its most vivid. The second detail is the almost too-raw bait Roth throws toward the “insensitive” reader prone to conflating authors and their characters. How much of a stretch is it to read Axler as the projection of Roth’s own panicked self-awareness?(Or in other words:at what point does invoking authorial distance begin to resemble denying the obvious?) “Let’s face it, there’s a panic that comes with age,” remarks one elderly character; “you start to feel afraid . . . to feel that you don’t have that raw live power anymore.” Given that The Humbling is plainly not the equal of Roth’s best writing, the temptation to be insensitive is all the more profound. Then there are those neon-lit references to Macbeth, a tale of supreme, nonnegotiable fate, and The Tempest, the last work Shakespeare authored alone—whose sorcerer-hero, Prospero, renounces his magic (his “art”) at its climax, a gesture sometimes interpreted as the playwright’s own farewell to the stage. Helpless doom, departure and the loss of power. The omens are there.
Everyman is the story of a life defined and steadily defeated by illness. The novel’s title is taken from a 15th century morality play with a main character named Everyman who is given, per Roth, the first great line in English drama: “Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.” It is an apt prelude to what turns out to be the Nemeses only clear theme: ill fortune. The men in these late books chase sex, renounce sex, abandon principle, abide by principle, ally themselves to selfishness, devote themselves to others—none of it makes a great deal of difference. Fate annihilates them.
The novel begins with the burial of the main character(letting us know what’sin store) and ends with a punchline dropped like a stone. As the unnamed protagonist readies himself for what turns out to be his final bout of heart surgery, the narrator explains: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest.” Next, Indignation opens with the hero, Marcus Messner, explaining that “almost from the day that I began classes at Robert Treat, my father became frightened that I would die.” What is it that makes him so crazy with worry? It’s never clear. Perhaps, speculates Marcus, the Korean War, and Messner Sr.’s fear that his son will be drafted; or perhaps it’s displaced panic over financial difficulties, or some premonition of his own death. “Whatever the cause or mix of causes fueling the abrupt change in his previously benign parental behavior, he manifested his fear by hounding me day and night about my whereabouts. Where were you? Why weren’t you home? How do I know where you are when you go out? You are a boy with a magnificent future before you—how do I know you’re not going to places where you can get yourself killed?” Fifty pages in, we discover that the father’s terror was warranted: Marcus is narrating his story to us from beyond the grave—“dead three months short of his twentieth birthday.” His indignation at having to attend chapel at college (he is Jewish) festered into self-righteous rebellion and finally expulsion. Shorn of his draft-exclusion, Marcus was called up into the army and butchered on a “steep numbered hill” in central Korea.” By way of conclusion, all we’re told is that “had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his mouth shut” Marcus would have “postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”
The word “postponed” is the significant one. It is not as though, had Marcus managed to restrain himself, things would have proceeded on with orderly sense—but the semblance of coherence would have survived a while longer. In The Humbling, after Simon Axler’s first breakdown, the actor moves into a psychiatric hospital in an attempt to stave off suicide. His condition improves, but:
He could not believe that his improvement had anything to do with pills or with psychiatric consultations or group therapy or art therapy, all of which felt like empty exercises. What continued to frighten him, as the day of his discharge approached, was that nothing that was happening to him seemed to have to do with anything else. As he’d told Dr. Farr—and further convinced himself by having tried to the best of his ability to search for a cause during their sessions—he had lost his magic as an actor for no good reason and it was just as arbitrarily that the desire to end his life began to ebb, at least for the time being. “Nothing has a good reason for happening,” he said to the doctor later that day. “You lose, you gain—it’s all caprice. The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power.”
Later, in conversation with his agent, he continues: “When I was fully honest with myself I’d think, ‘Okay, all right, I have a modicum of talent or I can at least imitate a talented person.’ But it was all a fluke . . . a fluke that the talent was given to me, a fluke that it was taken away. This life’s a fluke from start to finish.” The hero of Nemesis, Bucky Cantor, is a young gym teacher charged with running summer lessons for a group of boys and girls in the summer of Newark, 1944. A polio epidemic breaks out, maiming some of the children and killing others. At his fiancé’s urging, Cantor escapes Newark to take up a job in a summer camp in the Poconos, only for it to emerge that he is a disease-carrier himself. After his condition is discovered—though too late to stop many of the children at the summer camp falling ill, including one of the fiancé’s younger sisters—Bucky is sent to hospital, where his symptoms finally manifest. His story is retold by Arnold Mensikoff, one of Cantor’s old charges, after the two men happen into one another 27 years later.
By and large [Bucky Cantor] had the aura of ineradicable failure about him as he spoke of all that he’d been silent about for years, not just crippled physically by polio but no less demoralized by persistent shame. He was the very antithesis of the country’s greatest prototype of the polio-victim, FDR, disease having led Bucky not to triumph but to defeat. The paralysis and everything that came in its wake had irreparably damaged his assurance as a virile man, and he had withdrawn completely from that whole side of life. . . . When I told him that I had a wife and two children, he replied that he never had it in him to date anyone, let alone to marry, after he was paralysed. He could never show his withered arm and withered leg to anyone other than a doctor or, when she was living, his grandmother. . . .
And never, never since he’d left for Camp Indian Hill in July 1944, had he returned to Weequahic or paid a visit to the gym where he’d taught at the Chancellor Avenue School or to the Chancellor playground.
“Why not?” I asked
“Why would I? I was the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground. I was the playground polio carrier. I was the Indian Hill polio carrier.”
“Were you? There’s certainly no proof that you were.”
“There’s no proof that I wasn’t,” he said, speaking, as he mostly did during our lunchtime conversations, either looking away from my face to some unseen point in the distance or looking down onto the food on our plates.
Once again, the moral drawn is more or less blank. “Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not,” observes the narrator. “Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance—the tyranny of contingency—is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.”
The Nemeses are weak stories, although that isn’t exactly the same as saying they’re badly written. In particular, The Humbling is an intellectual puzzle-box you could spend a lot of time with if you wished—but it’s also not much of a novel. Consider one of the stock critical responses to a bad book by a famous author—that it’s like someone “doing a bad impression.” Axler’s story is infected with the idea of being a bad copy, a zombie-version of what you used to be. It courts the suspicion that The Humbling is itself is a deliberately poor imitation of a Philip Roth book. A great deal of the novel’s art is expended in what could be interpreted as apologies for its failings, with a result that’s an odd mixture of craft and lack of craft. Subtle allusions are cast to players trapped in roles (besides Prospero and Macbeth, there’s James Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and an almost-too-obvious nod to Chekov’s dictum about the gun seen in the First Act having to go off by the Third), and once you start parsing the various motifs of role-play, rehearsal, and façade you begin to appreciate how many interesting lines could be drawn between Axler, his author, and Roth’s back-catalog. Yet in spite of the evident skill in design, The Humbling also has a narrative that is no better than skeletal, featuring characters waved into place and barely filled. Axler’s solution to his crisis is an affair with a 40-year-old ex-lesbian, Pegeen, the daughter of old friends of his. Their relationship is intensely erotic, but Axler realizes long in advance that it will end sooner or later, and that this will destroy him. “Pegeen’s history was unmalleable and Pegeen unattainable and… he was bringing a new misfortune down on his head”. So it transpires. Pegeen cheats on Axler and then abandons him. She is written out to be capricious, inscrutable, an agent of destruction as unmanageable as chance, but also—so we’re told—an insignificant weakling. “She’s not at all beautiful. She’s not that intelligent. And she’s not that grown up,” complains one of Pegeen’s former lovers to Axler. “It’s we who endow her with the power to wreck. Pegeen’s nobody”.
Is The Humbling plausible? In one sense, yes: terribly so. The notion that an ageing man, in failing health and stripped of his self-assurance, would throw himself into an affair with a younger woman—would then desperately cling to it though fully aware that it will rip him apart—is certainly believable. That someone could suffer from senseless bad luck or be made into the plaything of his own desires is nothing if not plausible. But The Humbling defies reason, too. As a character, Pegeen is incoherent. Her sex-life with Axler is (quite literally) beyond belief, featuring effortlessly arranged threesomes and green strap-on dildos. Sub-plots and minor players arise but then come to nothing. The rest of the Nemeses have similar failings. Partly, the trouble is technical. None of the books are long enough to properly identify with. The main characters haven’t got enough in them to be genuinely likeable or dislikeable; they never earn the reader’s total engagement. Even the production—with extremely generous margins and a very low word-to-page ratio—makes the stories feel somehow flimsy, like novellas artificially extended into novels. More seriously, except in expiring flashes, the Nemeses simply lack the magnetism of their predecessors. Everything is thinner, flatter, purged of scenery; lacking a third dimension. Yet this also gives the books their strangely compelling (and appropriate) quality. The Nemeses are largely unconvincing and vigorless stories about how unconvincingly feeble any story seems when set against blind fate. If the telling was too good—as in Roth’s earlier work, say—the very bleak and unengaging point would be more easily missed. In one of The Humbling’s other significant references, we’re told Pegeen is named after a character from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, a play about how people would rather let themselves be entertained by a story than think about what it means.
Is that to say that these late novels of Roth’s are actually good instead of bad, not beautiful but somehow “serious”? It’s a genuine question, one that cuts straight down to elemental issues about what we really mean when we describe a piece of fiction (by definition, something untrue) as convincing. In Exit Ghost Zuckerman occupies himself writing a stilted erotic play about a young woman he meets in New York. The infatuation is even less reasonable than most, since prostrate surgery has left Zuckerman hopelessly impotent. His play, alongside the passages describing the exploits of Everyman’s “cunthound” hero and the chunks of porn-fiction in The Humbling are where Roth comes the closest to self-parody. (Sample dialogue: “Wait’ll the police see you in just that top and those shorts. They won’t leave either. You’ve got the prettiest cunt and the basest instincts.”) In Christopher Hitchens’s unimproveably blunt phrase, the suspicion begins to nag that Roth might really just be writing these scenes “to give himself something to masturbate about”. The Nemeses make it hard to avoid the thought that a dirty mind ages especially badly. But at the same time, Roth could scarcely fail to be aware of the grotesque impression he is making. The inability to escape desire’s humiliatingly relentless pressure (even as you become less and less able to satisfy it) is one of his tested subjects—most explicitly via David Kepesh in The Dying Animal, another short, late novel, although one that stands up rather better than the Nemeses thanks to Kepesh’s magnetically repulsive voice. “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex,” he declares. “Every last vanity will come back to mock you.”
Not too many years ago, there was a ready-made way to be old, just as there was a ready-made way to be young. Neither obtains any longer. A great fight about the permissible took place here—and a great overturning. Nonetheless, should a man of seventy still be involved in the carnal aspect of the human comedy? To be unapologetically an unmonastic old man susceptible still to the humanly exciting? That is not the condition as it was once symbolized by the pipe and the rocking chair. Maybe it’s still a bit of an affront to people, to fail to abide by the old clock of life. I realize that I can’t rely on the virtuous regard of other adults. But what can I do about the fact that, as far as I can tell, nothing, nothing is put to rest however old a man may be?
“How can one say, ‘No, this isn’t a part of life,’ since it always is?” echoes Zuckerman in The Human Stain. “The contaminant of sex, the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.” It is one thing to point out how ugly this sentiment becomes if sex turns out to be beyond your reach, but that’s not really the issue with the carnality in the Nemeses and Exit Ghost. It’s worth asking directly: what exactly is it that’s so off-putting about these scenes? Is it just that we would rather not think about withered-up genitals and decaying flesh? Or is it just that it’s not good writing? What would “good writing” be, here? Something more becoming, or entertaining—or less flat, at least? But then what is it precisely that’s engaging about being sex-starved and decrepit? While it’s hard to guess Roth’s exact purposes in publishing something as transparently bad as the extracts from Zuckerman’s play, conceivably there’s a point about the duplicity of dressing up the facts when it comes to desire and old age. The big question, then—are we only willing to hear about these things if they’re made into a “good story”? To say the least, old age is not a good story. Kepesh calls it the biggest surprise of a man’s life; an utter incomprehensibility. Exit Ghost gives bleak hints that Zuckerman is developing Alzheimer’s disease—there is one terribly spooky moment where the novelist’s memory suddenly fails, making the narrative go white. “The standard story is that age brings wisdom,” remarked Roth in an interview about Everyman. “I’m not so sure about that. I don’t feel any wiser than I was at twenty or the day before yesterday. I feel just as stupid as I’ve always been. . . . There are lots of myths about old age. There’s myth of the ‘golden years.’ But walk into a doctor’s office who specializes in older people, you’ll see how golden it is.” The hero of Everyman reflects:
On his own he had felt for a while that the missing component would somehow return to make him inviolable once again and reaffirm his mastery, that the entitlement mistakenly severed would be restored and he could resume where he’d left off only a few years before. But now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than what he was—the aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and the waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought, this is what you could not know.
This is one way of interpreting the Nemeses: as warning signals that don’t come through. That can’t. Roth’s narrative voices have typically had a hectoring quality to them, an insistent need to persuade (it’s this, among other things, that makes it so easy to forget that his characters might not be speaking for him). But the Nemeses never quite communicate. They circle compulsively around a traumatic core idea, yet it resists words. Each book repeats the denouement given to “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral, the man “whose natural nobility was to be exactly what he seemed to be,” made to learn “the worst lesson life had to teach—that it makes no sense.” Axler apprehends the same confusion in his relationship with Pegeen. “It didn’t make sense . . . Though what did make sense? His being unable to go out and act on a stage?” Bucky Cantor’s ruin, more than polio, is the inability to accept the stupid meaninglessness of what befell him (an inability which, as the narrator implies, is really just as much a matter of fortune as everything else). “Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.” “Nothing has a good reason for happening . . . You lose, you gain—it’s all caprice.” “. . . the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.” The most unsettling thing about these lines isn’t their content, but what they fail to tell us. Freud wrote that the unconscious does not register death, and something similar is at work in Roth’s late novels. The “tyranny of contingency” is incontestable—but in a way knowing it teaches us nothing, because, ultimately, it changes nothing. This is the deeply uncanny territory the Nemeses lead us into: that which is utterly unconvincing, yet undeniable. Incorrigible truth that exercises no power over the imagination.
All of which makes the theme of old age and its incoherence the more poignant, since the best analogy I can think of for reading these books is encountering the seriously senile and infirm. In one sense, what such people represent is undisguised fate—the dreadful mockery of ourselves we’re each heading towards. But in another their example simply does not impart. We can never understand. “What do they think has happened, the old fools, / To make them like this?” asked Philip Larkin. “Why aren’t they screaming?” Indeed—and since that’s what’s coming for us—why aren’t we?
Jacques-Alain Miller has said that the main product of modern society is waste. More than anything else, the relentless drive of capitalist industry creates gigantic heaps of useless, obsolescent trash—old computers, used cars, out-of-date gadgets, and so on. The same principle applies to culture. Thousands upon thousands of novels are released every year, the chief of result of which is that thousands upon thousands of novels are subsequently discarded, dismissed, or forgotten. Nemesis is Philip Roth’s 31st book, and even within the context of a career as accomplished as his one can feel traces of the entropy that’s the side-effect of overproduction. In the critical discourse surrounding Roth, the novels between Goodbye, Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint have already been semi-discarded, and something similar could be said for those between Portnoy’s Complaint and the beginning of the Zuckerman series. Time eats holes into every writer’s history as particular texts or even whole phases of work fall into neglect and disappear from public memory, and one of the ironies of literary fame is that an author’s success in some ways exacerbates this process of forgetting. As the books accumulate and recognition arrives, people stop reading Philip Roth and start to read “Philip Roth”—the Jew, the pornographer, the narcissist, the chauvinist, the Great American Novelist, etc.—so that the ideal of a pure, unadulterated reception becomes less and less tenable.
These are particularly relevant considerations for the Nemeses, not only because of the books’ concern with the difficulty, or absurdity, of shaping personal history into coherent narrative (almost the last thing we hear from Axler is the anguished recognition that all of his “failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled”) but because in their capacity as late novels they seem to hold out the promise of some new way of understanding their author. The question of what the Nemeses signify about Roth’s work as a whole presses all the more because of how bluntly the books attack the idea that there is any disguised “meaning” waiting to be dug up. Wouldn’t this make critical efforts to unpack the Nemeses (such as this) rather beside the point? But we could easily flip the question around—if the real point of the Nemeses is that there’s no point to these stories, what purpose has writing them served? As Adorno noted, the paradox of art that refuses any sort of affirmative message is that by shedding every vestige of sociability and reconciliation it sabotages itself. “Since the work of art, after all, cannot be reality, the elimination of all illusory features accentuates all the more glaringly the illusory character of its existence.”
In one of the many memorable scenes in I Married a Communist, Zuckerman describes the experience of listening to his ex-teacher Murray Ringold—an extremely old man—recounting the story of his brother, Ira, who was brought to ruin in the anti-Communist hysteria of 1950s. “Time, we know, goes very fast near the end,” says Zukerman, “but Murray had been near the end so long that, when he spoke as he did, patiently, to the point, with a certain blandness . . . I had the feeling time had dissolved for him, that it ran neither quickly nor slowly, that he was no longer living in time but exclusively within his own skin.” Murray Ringold is the novel’s secret hero, and his heroism is the ability to carry on his story. “Aging into decrepitude was not unendurable and neither was the unfathomability of oblivion; neither was everything’s coming down to nothing,” marvels Zuckerman. “It had all been endurable. . . . In Murray Ringold, I thought, human dissatisfaction has met its match. He has outlived dissatisfaction.” In The Human Stain, in a passage far more evocative than anything that appears in the Nemeses, Roth describes Coleman Silk’s brief, accidental reencounter with his first love Steena, years after they split. “Stunned by how little he’d gotten over her and she’d gotten over him, he walked away understanding, as outside his reading in classical Greek drama he’d never had to understand before, how easily life can be one thing rather than another and how accidentally a destiny is made . . . on the other hand, how accidental fate may seem when things can never turn out other than they do.” In a certain respect, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis represent the same idea. What their characters experience as sheer contingency, baffling chance, the unfathomable reasons driving their lives one way instead of another, are, in at least two senses, already written. What the Nemeses leave out (and what the American Trilogy appears to maintain) is that something important is gained in being able to fashion the chaos of fortune into art. Coleman Silk ponders his “useless thoughts—useless to a man of no great talent like himself, if not to Sophocles”; the vital point being that these ideas are to be made use of, if only by some. Isak Dinesen said that any sorrow can be endured if it can be made into a story. It is a noble thought. But the Nemeses show us how heavily that “if” can weigh, just as it did for poor Bernard Malamud, at his end, incapable of expressing himself as he would wish and yet unable to stop trying.
Recall Axler in the depths of his depression, with Prospero’s lines echoing through his head— “a hubbub of sounds tortuously empty of meaning and pointing at no reality yet carrying the force of a spell of personal significance. ‘Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.’” “Art arises, it may be, from the death-denying portion of the psyche, deeper than reason’s reach,” wrote Updike. But it is ambiguous how comforting that judgment is—and the deepest and most unnerving moral in the Nemeses is that perhaps the creative urge is just as senseless as all the other compulsions Roth has spent his career detailing; that the ultimate message behind all of his disguises and distortions and distancing measures is really nothing, or something too terrible for words. In which case, the “real” Philip Roth turns out to be not the flamboyant performer and epic storyteller but his dark double: the Philip Roth of silences and omissions; of old age (“what you could not know”), and of the insanity of lust (about which, Kepesh cries, “You might as well know nothing!”), and of the great unrepresentable, death. Within the eclecticism and superabundance of modern fiction, the late transmissions from the world’s pre-eminent English-language novelist are true anomalies: unlikeable, unenchanting un-novels. But all too real.
Ben Jeffery lives in London. His first book, Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism is published on November 25th by Zero Books.
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