Posts tagged ‘jewish’

Philip Roth — Indignation

By nine in the evening two feet of snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, magically snowing, now without a wind howling through the streets of Winesburg, without the town’s old trees swaying and creaking and their weakest limbs, whipped by the wind and under the burden of snow, crashing down into the yards and blocking the roads and driveways — now without a murmur from the wind or the trees, just the raggedly clots swirling steadily downward as though with the intention of laying to rest everything discomposed in the upper reaches of Ohio.

So it begins — one of the silliest episodes in Philip Roth’s devilishly silly recent offering, Indignation (2008). Spurred on by the winter wonderland newly formed around them, the boys of Winesburg decide to raid the girls’ dormitories. Their long-term goal: to augment the snowfall, by rooting around in the girls’ drawers for pairs of white panties and tossing them out the window.

This odd occurence is not out of place in this surreal novel, which showcases the best and worst of Roth, and which is far, far dafter than mainstream reviewers have let on. It’s predominantly a tale of campus naughtiness in the 1950s, with a sick and ingenious twist: the narrator, 19-year old Marcus Messner, is “under morphine”, on the brink of death in a Korean war hospital. In the blackly humorous Hellerian insanity of the 1950s Christian Mid-West, the rules are simple: respect authority and don’t indulge in “thoughtless fun” — or we’ll send you off to be eviscerated by Commies. We know that poor Messner will eventually end up on the wrong side of the “or”.


Messner — a hardworking butcher’s son from Newark, determined to come top of the class in everything — makes an inept libertine, but even the iota of independent thought he allows himself — his objection to attending Christian chapel services — is enough to mark him out as a troublemaker in the deceptively serene surroundings of Winesburg, where the deceptively caring Dean of Men is all too ready to chuck students into the waiting jaws of conscription. College students are exempt, but expelled students are not. In a blazing row with the Dean, as Marcus teeters on the brink of expulsion, his pride is overpowering:

I inwardly sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: “In-dig-na-tion!”

As Messner recounts his typical studenty experiences — his awkward sexual encounters, his clashes with roommates, his in-dig-na-tion whenever he’s told off — there is a dark subtext, since we know that such comic escapades can be indirectly fatal, and we know that, for Marcus, one of them will be. Messner learns the hard way how “one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result”.

But, though it hammers home this lesson, it would be quite wrong to interpret Indignation as a deep philosophical work — or even as a particularly serious work. After all, the framing device is simply wacky — a morphine-sedated soldier recounting his memories in choronological order via eloquent, witty, Philip Roth sentences? Why not?  But more than that, the novel’s events are just too irrepressibly Rothian to be taken for real. Panties, fellatio, nymphomania… the Roth stalwarts are all present and correct. When Marcus is bedridden in hospital with appendicitis, he is visited by his sex-crazed classmate Olivia:

There was a gently erotic sway to her gait as she slowly approached the bed pointing a finger at my erection. “You are odd, you know. Very odd,” she told me, once she’d at last arrived at my side. “Odder than I think you realize.”

“I’m always odd after I have my appendix out.”

“Do you always get as huge as this after you’ve had your appendix out?”

“Never fails.” Huge. She’d said huge. Was it?

I won’t describe what happens next. Roth’s penchant for literary porn has always limited his appeal, and always will. Sometimes I wonder why such an incorrigibly silly author continues to draw such critical fawning — and continues to bring me back, again and again. But the answer’s simple: it’s the prose, stupid. Flowing and furious, vivid and lucid, Roth’s sentences, as the passage at the top of the page makes plain, are as irresistible as ever.


August 11, 2009 at 4:26 pm 6 comments

Michael Chabon — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

It’s 1939. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are young Jews in New York. Joe is a Czech newly evacuated from Nazi-occupied Prague. Sammy is his American cousin. Strapped for cash, the pair take to writing comic books.

Their work, like many comics of that “golden age” for the artform, poignantly conjures up a vision of the world as it ought to be, but isn’t. Their superhero, the Escapist, is a godlike figure, metering out salvation and justice in lieu of the official God, who is apparently out for lunch.


Michael Chabon’s lengthy Pulitzer-prizewinner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), evokes this lost world in intricate period detail, evincing a wealth of careful research. It’s one of those books that’s terribly eager to win historical brownie points, to the extent of chucking in cameo appearances from Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí.

Yet it’s far from a bland historical document. Chabon tells a story that’s just a little bit larger than life in every dimension, full of dramatic incidents and strange coincidences. I don’t have time to recount the 650 pages of twists and turns. Suffice to say, it’s compelling, but at a cost. It’s just slightly implausible, all the way through, not so unlike a comic book. It’s then jarring when Chabon includes genuinely tragic moments, which end up feeling like just another plot twist.


Chabon teases out the similarity between comic book superheroes and the Golems of Jewish folklore: mythical clay monsters who, when teased into life, kill the oppressors and save the oppressed:

The shaping of a golem, to him [Joe], was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of the vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straightjacket of physical laws.

Of course, all this talk of heroes can only end in pathos. Golems and superheroes are not real. No one could save the Jews from Hitler. We know that already. When Kavalier goes to war — in a short, surreal interlude  — he tries to play the Golem for real; but, posted to Antarctica, his utter impotence against the juggernaut of history is brought home to him in devastating fashion. Joe comes to realize all the more keenly the need for escape.

The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble and necessary service in life.

The novel is an unsubtle, extended argument that, despite its unreality, comic book escapism really is worth something. Myths keep hope alive.


Did I like it? Well, I got to the end, which is a testament to Chabon’s silky, flowing style. The book is a pleasure to jump into. But, for me at least, the novel shows the limitations of historical fiction. Reading their highly novelistic “adventures”, I became acutely aware that Kavalier & Clay are no more real than Batman & Robin.

I think there’s something to be said for fiction that’s a little less showy than this, and tethered a little more closely to reality — fiction rooted in the author’s real, lived experience, rather than in a mountain of meticulous research.

May 27, 2009 at 11:48 am 8 comments

Philip Roth — The Ghost Writer

No one writes books about Philip Roth quite as well as Philip Roth. Sometimes I feel as though I know more about what it’s like to be a male Jewish writer from Newark than I know about what it’s like to be me. The Ghost Writer (1979) is one of Roth’s many semi-autobiographical fictions, and the first to feature enduring Roth alterego Nathan Zuckerman.


… I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman

Zuckerman, an up-and-coming literary star of the 1950s, stays one night in the remote home of his reclusive literary idol, E. I. Lonoff. He’s joined by Lonoff’s emotionally frayed wife, Hope, and his beautiful young possible-mistress, Amy Bellette.

Lonoff is an aging man weighed down by the burden of his art, and the ruin a lifetime of “turning sentences around” has inflicted on his marriage. Zuckerman is a young man weighed down by the burden of Jewish identity. His father has turned on him, accusing him of betraying the Jews by portraying them in a negative light. Roth suffered similar criticism after the publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959).

During the night, strange things happen. Lonoff has a spectacular clash with Hope and a mysterious erotic encounter with Amy. Nathan, an accidental spectator to Lonoff’s bizarre private life, mulls over how to win back his father’s support.

Outrageously, he starts to harbour the delusion that Amy is Anne Frank, living in America under an assumed name. This, he thinks, will solve his problem: if he marries Anne Frank, people won’t be able to call him a bad Jew any more.

The Ghost Writer is a wry and touching portrayal of the pitfalls of literary life. An old writer who seems to have everything turns out to be trapped and miserable. A young writer who seems to have everything turns out to be cracking under the weight of expectation.

It’s a slim novel telling a simple tale, and as such lacks the monumental significance of Roth’s later masterworks. But in its own discreet way, it’s every bit as touched by greatness. I think of Roth’s writing hand as some kind of wild animal, loosely tethered to the genius in his head. Like all Roth’s best work, The Ghost Writer is scabrous, irreverent, wacky and witty. Unlike most of Roth’s best work, you can read it in a spare afternoon.

February 25, 2009 at 10:35 am 2 comments

Philip Roth — Sabbath’s Theater

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.

September 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm 5 comments