“Literature got me into this and literature is gonna have to get me out.”
—Peter Tarnopol, in My Life as a Man
Nathan Zuckerman, thrice-married son of a foot doctor, is not just a novelist who likes to quote Flaubert and invoke the powers of Art. No, as Philip Roth intimates in the title of his new novel, Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan has a great mythological predecessor, Prometheus, whose own story was told by Aeschylus in a similarly titled tale. Zuckerman, of course, does nothing so dramatic as stealing fire from Zeus for the benefit of human civilization. All he does is write a book.
In fact, as we know from Roth’s own previous book, The Ghost Writer, that is all Nathan Zuckerman has ever wanted to do. The narrative is Nathan’s tale of his youthful journey to receive the Word at the feet of E.I. Lonoff—distinguished author, consummate literary craftsman. “I had come,” he explains, “to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E.I. Lonoff’s spiritual son”—being on the outs with his own father for a rather indiscreet piece of fiction about family life.
But as Zuckerman Unbound tells us, in 1969, thirteen years after that meeting, Nathan writes a book that might have shocked his spiritual father as much as his real one. That book is Carnovsky, a book very like Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint. It is bursting with a Jewish son’s sexual anxiety; it is a manic masturbatory outburst. Carnovsky, it seems, is like some Promethean gift of literary fire, brought down by Zuckerman from the Olympian heights of literature, not to civilize man, but to free him and the author as well.
The carnal heat is hardly contained between the book’s pasteboard covers. Carnovsky stirs the public into a frenzy. It is singlehandedly responsible for the boost in sales of black silk lingerie; it is debated in rabbinical sermons and canasta groups. And if “Tzena, Tzena,” the Israeli folksong, might, according to Nathan’s father, “win more hearts to the Jewish cause than anything before in the history of the world,” this piece of popular literary material obviously threatens to do just the opposite.
So Nathan, after laboring for years at the altar of Art, has become rich and famous—though not quite in the way he might have imagined. Everywhere he goes he is taken for Carnovsky. He wants to buy a bed in Bloomingdale’s, and word gets around that Carnovsky is trying out mattresses. The Con Ed meter reader comments on his sex life. “Hey, careful, Carnovsky,” come shouts in the street, “they arrest people for that!”
Nathan is accosted by strangers, most notably Alvin Pepler, a landsman from Newark who recognizes the author of Carnovsky in a delicatessan, eats half his sandwich, and imposes on the author his own sad story. Nathan arranges for an unlisted phone number, an answering service, and still gets calls threatening to kidnap his mother—now famous as the crazed matriarch of Carnovsky. He has to coach…
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