Philip Roth — Sabbath’s Theater

September 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm 5 comments

If Philip Roth deifies sex, Sabbath’s Theater (1995) is his Bible. I recently saw it described by Linda Grant as “Roth at his most Rothian,” and this is the right adjective — indeed, I finished it thinking I’d had enough Roth to last me a lifetime. The novel, at 450 pages one of Roth’s meatiest, chronicles the sexual exploits of arthritic ex-puppeteer Mickey Sabbath in exhaustive and exhausting detail. The extent to which Sabbath is yet another Roth alterego is debatable — of course Roth is, in some sense, a puppeteer too.

Mickey’s dedication to the performing arts is absolute; his definition of them is loose. Seduction is his favourite form of showmanship, and he gleefully tramples across marriages and humiliates husbands — to Sabbath, the marriage is no less amoral, no less of an act, than the affair. But Sabbath is luckless: during a street theatre performance, for instance, he gets himself arrested for exposing the breasts of an audience member. Our hero crashes his way through a series of disastrous entanglements: two failed marriages; a phone-sex scandal with a student; a lurid threesome; a farcical encounter with a girl’s underwear draw; and a 13-year affair that takes place in Sabbath’s private theatre, a remote mountaintop grotto where only helicopters provide the audience.

Sabbath is something of a Rothian messiah, the ultimate, ludicrous extrapolation of that Sixties rebel stereotype: the one who Made Love Not War, who smashed the old taboos, who loved Portnoy’s Complaint first time round.

Maybe it wasn’t at all repulsion he felt but something like awe at the sight of white-bearded Sabbath, come down from his mountaintop like some holy man who has renounced ambition and worldly possessions. Can it be that there is something religious about me? Has what I’ve done — i.e., failed to do — been saintly?

This is Roth’s puzzle. I’ve read so much Roth that, from time to time, I even sympathise with his worldview. A Rothian marriage is, at best, institutionalised casual sex. But that doesn’t make lasting relationships meaningless. On the contrary — they’re all we have. Sabbath thinks of sex as a performance — until he sees that (just as he observes of his actress wife Nikki) it’s when he’s in character that he’s truly himself. His sexual relationships are his real life, his sole reason to stay alive. When Drenka, his lover of 13 years, dies, he breaks down:

And this brought forth Sabbath’s third round of tears. He had cried like this only once before in his life, over Nikki’s disappearance. And when Morty died he had watched his mother cry worse than this. Hospitalized. Until that word had been spoken he had believed that all this crying could easily be spurious, and so it was a considerable disappointment to discover that it did not seem within his power to switch it off.

Poignant moments such as this are few, and the novel’s disjointed structure undermines its credentials as a morality play. But lives are like that. In the novel’s present moment, Sabbath is ruing his fate after a lifetime of failure. The resultant tale is something like Herzog on crack — not literally, mind you: Sabbath gets high on copulation alone. This is a work of evil genius, at once ragingly serious and outrageously silly:

He had learned to stand with his back to the north so that his icy wind did not blow directly on his dick but still he had to remove one of his gloves to jerk off successfully, and sometimes the gloveless hand would get so cold that he would have to put that glove back on and switch to the other hand. He came on her grave many nights.

A study as lavish and comprehensive as Sabbath’s Theater could do with at least a vaguely likeable figure at its centre. Yet Sabbath is deeply unsympathetic — not only to all around him but to the reader too. He’s misogynist, racist, grotesque. This is, of course, Roth’s intention: a deliberate bid to affront liberal orthodoxy. But at times I wished I was reading the real Herzog, the one without the crack. Bellow’s is a work of poise and restraint; Sabbath’s Theater exudes an excess of ink and semen.

It’s overlong, filthy and mean-spirited — but Sabbath’s Theater is still a formidable piece of writing, peppered with set pieces of raucous comedy and touching sensitivity. It’s the sublime and the ridiculous, in a single package. Lives are like that.

So then, this had been his existence. What conclusion was to be drawn? Any? Who had come to the surface in him was inexorably himself. Nobody else. Take it or leave it.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Roth Philip. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Self  |  October 2, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I absolutely hated this book. I have to immediately qualify that however by saying that I read it twelve years ago when it first came out in paperback, and it was my first Roth. This is no first-timer’s book – Roth, I now realise, is an acquired taste (one I now can’t get enough of) and this is hardcore – literally.

    Of course since then every Roth fan I know has said what a masterpiece it is. I am almost afraid to reapproach it. I shall acclimatise myself first by going through the rest of his back catalogue.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  October 2, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Good idea! I don’t know if I’d call it a masterpiece. American Pastoral seems to me to be rather more touched by greatness. But it’s probably the purest expression of Roth’s worldview, and his fullest exploration of it — so perhaps one day it’ll be thought of as Roth’s most important work.

  • 3. Trevor Berrett  |  October 4, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    I’m saving this one for a while. I have no qualms about it, and I think I’ve acquired my taste for Roth. Still, it’s a little ways down my list of what-Roth-to-read-next. I’ll return and let you know how I feel when I finally get to it. Your review, however, is encouraging.

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  October 6, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Good luck with your Roth odyssey! Perhaps this is one to save till last…

  • 5. Marilynne Robinson — Gilead « underthought  |  June 29, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    […] of its characters. In a time when many authors (including many of my favourites — Philip Roth, for example) plumb the depths of taboo-smashing libertinism in search of a good story, few deal […]

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