At the beginning of Philip Roth’s 1979 novella The Ghost Writer, the twenty-three-year-old narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, tremulously approaches the secluded New England home of a famous but reclusive Jewish writer, E.I. Lonoff. Of this Lonoff we are told that he has long ago forsaken his urban, immigrant roots—the cultural soil from which, we are meant to understand, his vaguely Bashevis Singeresque fiction sprang—for “a clapboard farmhouse…at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires.” Long out of circulation, he is considered comical by New York literary people for having “lived all these years ‘in the country’—that is to say, in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.” Still, young Nathan, an aspiring novelist, admires Lonoff extravagantly, not only because of “the tenacity that had kept him writing his own kind of stories all that time,” but because
having been “discovered” and popularized, he refused all awards and degrees, declined membership in all honorary institutions, granted no public interviews, and chose not to be photographed, as though to associate his face with his fiction were a ridiculous irrelevancy.
A young man’s admiration; a young man’s perhaps self-congratulatory idealization of a figure who, it is all too clear, he would like one day to be.
If, thirty years ago, readers felt safe in identifying the ingenuous, ambitious, hugely talented Newark-born Nathan Zuckerman with his creator, anyone familiar with Roth’s recent biography will find it difficult not to identify the author today with Lonoff. Like the fictional writer, Roth is a novelist whose work is profoundly rooted in Jewishness (however much Jewishness may be questioned, berated, and rejected in it); like Lonoff, Roth has ended up living “in the country”—not far from the Berkshires, in fact (whence the elderly, ailing Nathan Zuckerman also eventually repairs, in a much later novel); as with Lonoff, the recent biography suggests an aversion, if not to honors and awards (of which Roth has many), then to the whirl of New York literary life, to the ridiculously irrelevant ephemera of being a major figure in the culture. A recent profile of Roth in The New York Times, timed to coincide with the publication this month of the short novel Everyman, his twenty-seventh book, makes a point of noting that the new book is one of the rare ones in which Roth has permitted an author photograph to appear.
And as with Lonoff, there is a sense of the literary lion become, suddenly, the lion in winter. There is, to my mind, a kind of caesura in the Roth corpus that falls exactly in the middle of the 1990s. The first half of the decade saw the publication of two novels that, between them, embody the major themes of Roth’s work. In 1993 Roth published the dazzling Operation Shylock, a brilliant parable about the meaning of identities Jewish, artistic, and cultural: in it, the narrator, ostensibly Roth himself, sets out to find and confront a Philip Roth impersonator who is also a prophet of something called “Diasporism,” an ideology promoting the return of Israelis to their European countries of origin. (All this, to raise the stakes even higher, is set against the trial of the concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk, charged with being Ivan the Terrible, “the butcher of Treblinka.”) The connection between eros and art, always a crucial one in Roth’s fictional world, was subsequently explored, with equally outré gusto, in Sabbath’s Theater(1995), whose protagonist is a one-time puppeteer and self-described “dirty old man.” The former book won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the latter, the National Book Award for fiction.
Since then—starting in 1997, when Roth, then in his mid-sixties, published his Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral (the first installment of a nostalgic trilogy largely about the failure of the American Dream which also included I Married a Communist, a look back at the Fifties, and The Human Stain,in part a sour indictment of political correctness)—the roiling, libidinous energies and aggressive intellectual dazzle of what could be described as Roth’s middle period, the period that culminated in Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater, have yielded more and more to a distinctly elegiac mode. It’s not that the books necessarily have any less vivacity, any less imaginative brilliance (the latter amply demonstrated by the publication, in 2004, of his counterhistorical Nazified America fantasy The Plot Against America); it’s merely that they seem, suddenly, to be written by someone who’s closer to the periphery than to the center of things, who’s looking back in resignation, or anger, or both.
However vivid its depiction of the tumult of Sixties political fervor, the dominant note sounded in American Pastoral was one of idealized nostalgia—hardly untypical for this author—of the Depression-era work ethos recalled from his childhood, the ethos that was frayed during the decade the novel depicts. Similarly, in The Human Stain there was a tension between grouchy disdain for the novel’s present-day fictional setting (politically correct academia, circa 1990) and a golden-toned reverie about the solid values of the past—in this case, the values of an aspiring black railway porter, father to the protagonist, values that have been upended and mocked by the sanctimoniousness of the present.
It occurred to you, as you read these novels and those that followed—particularly The Dying Animal (2001), which finds a recurrent Roth hero, the libidinous cultural critic David Kepesh, “nearing death” and, even worse, appalled to realize that the voluptuous Cuban-American student with whom he carries on an obsessive affair is mortal, too—that they were the work of an author facing his seventies. An autumnal frost had set in.
Roth himself has been outspoken, of late, about his preoccupation with death. In the Times profile he talked at length about the “gigantic shock” of finding himself at an age when his friends are dying, it would seem, en masse (in the book, he indeed describes old age as a “massacre”):
“This book came out of what was all around me, which was something I never expected—that my friends would die,” Mr. Roth said. “If you’re lucky, your grandparents will die when you’re, say, in college. Mine died when I was a schoolboy. If you’re lucky, your parents will live until you’re somewhere in your 50’s; if you’re very lucky, into your 60’s. You won’t ever die, and your children, certainly, will never die before you. That’s the deal, that’s the contract. But in this contract nothing is written about your friends, so when they start dying, it’s a gigantic shock.”*
That the subject is one of great urgency to the author just now is made clear by the fact that this heartfelt sentiment closely echoes a passage from The Dying Animal:
The loveliest fairy tale of childhood is that everything happens in order. Your grandparents go long before your parents, and your parents go long before you. If you’re lucky it can work out that way, people aging and dying in order, so that at the funeral you ease your pain by thinking that the person had a long life. It hardly makes extinction less monstrous, that thought, but it’s the trick that we use to keep the metronomic illusion intact and the time torture at bay: “So-and-so lived a long time.” But Consuela had not been lucky….
The repetition is oddly moving—as of someone dazed by a sudden blow, walking around in circles. According to the Times profile, the worst of the blows suffered by Roth was the death of his old friend and mentor, Saul Bellow. The author disclosed that it was on the day after Bellow’s burial that he sat down to write something that would, more directly than any of its predecessors, confront the specter of death itself—as the new book’s title, with its allusion to the medieval morality play about a visit by Death to a nameless “everyman,” makes clear. “I’d just come from a cemetery,” Roth said, “and that got me going.”
“Got me going” can, of course, mean “started me on my way”; but it can also mean “worked me into a frenzy.” The latter, I suspect, is the more apt here. For although what we know of Roth and how he came to write Everyman promises that here is a book in which we will get to witness a great novelist facing, head-on, the great subject, the book itself is surprisingly thin—in every way. This is not to say it lacks intensity: every page of this account of an ordinary man’s physical disintegration and eventual death bears witness to a bitter outrage, constantly reiterated in that same dazed way, against the simple but devastating fact that the body, eventually, fails—that, in time, people’s “personal biographies…become identical with their medical biographies.” But although the bitterness is a sentiment few would argue with, it is not clear that this powerful emotion has translated here into a powerful work of fiction.
Like the late medieval work with which it shares its title, Everyman proceeds episodically. In the play, the ordinary mortal, referred to simply as Everyman, is called to account for his life before the seat of Judgment. There he finds that he has been abandoned by Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods in rapid and rather depressing succession; but he is saved, in the end, by the intervention of Good Deeds, Knowledge, Confession, Discretion, and so on. The drama, unsurprisingly, ennobles the abandonment of material goods and ephemeral ties (friends, family) in favor of more abstract, spiritual values.
The ruthless, almost sadistic stripping away of material goods and common pleasures, at any rate, is replicated in Roth’s book. Everyman self-consciously seeks to rewrite the pre-modern dramatization of a stark and terrifying confrontation with Death but without the moralizing and Christianizing—which is to say, the comforting and redeeming—elements. “It’s told from the Christian perspective, which I don’t share,” Roth remarked while explaining how he came to write the book; “it’s an allegory, a genre I find unpalatable; it’s didactic in tone, which I can’t stand.”
Still, like its medieval model, this tale begins with the demise of its hero—in this case, a thrice-divorced retired advertising executive—and thereafter seeks to account for his life in a series of scenes from the dead man’s past, episodically presented. But because of its relentless rejection of spiritual abstractions and its compensatory emphasis on the failure of the corporeal self, these vignettes, in Roth’s Everyman, are in every case connected to either a medical crisis or a funeral. Hence, for instance, a narrative of the hero’s early childhood is pinned to a description of a hernia operation he had at the age of nine; the collapse of his second marriage is pegged to his mother’s death; and so on.
The structural relationship between everything that happens in the book and scenes of illness, hospital stays, medical procedures, and deaths is meant to underscore a glumly reductive theme:
Charles McGrath, "Roth, Haunted by Illness, Feels Fine," The New York Times, April 25, 2006.↩
Charles McGrath, “Roth, Haunted by Illness, Feels Fine,” The New York Times, April 25, 2006.↩