ROFL (Reviewing Our Favourite Literature) is a blog series intended to help you get to know the mysterious faces behind the UBC English Students’ Association. All the execs will share their favourite book or author and this week we are introducing Javier. Like Sir James Augustus Henry Murray—polyglot, philologer, lexicographer, and primary editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary—Javier Ibáñez is a human being. Additional accomplishments include serving as President of the English Students’ Association, being a fourth-year student in the English Honours program, and having been named Best Editor of The Garden Statuary, an honour that he just made up.
Last summer I decided that I would remedy what I now see was a two-years-old dereliction. I read Philip Roth’s first published volume, Goodbye, Columbus, in 2011 for a first-year English course at Langara and I was blown away, but since I didn’t quite know what to do with it, I ended up writing my term paper on Carson McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Café—another great book, by the way. And though I am not a big reader of contemporary fiction—to my own loss, I suppose—I knew that sooner or later I would have to come back to Roth.
So back in July I picked up a VPL copy of the first edition of Zuckerman Bound, a 784-page hardcover with a pleasantly minimalistic red, white, and black cover design, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1985. The title is variously playful: it is of course an allusion to Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, but it is also a reference to the fact that the volume consists of a trilogy of previously-published novels (plus an epilogue) literally bound together. In addition, it plays on the title of one of those novels—Zuckerman Unbound—which, in turn, alludes to Shelley’s dramatic poem. And Shelley’s poem—you can see where this is going.
Each novel in the trilogy zooms in on one moment in the life of the narrator, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, a version (and this qualification should be emphasized) of Roth. In the fist novel, The Ghost Writer (1979), set in 1956, Zuckerman, in his early twenties, spends a night at the home of his reclusive literary idol, the fictional E. I. Lonoff, who lives with his wife in the Berkshires. Zuckerman has published a handful of stories that his family and community neither approve of nor understand—a fictional parallel to the reaction to Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus—and he is hoping to find in Lonoff both a mentor and a father-figure. Amy Bellette, a young and talented woman and a former student of Lonoff’s, is also staying at the home, working on the author’s files and trying to convince him to give his manuscripts to Harvard, where she works. That night, Zuckerman lies in bed reading Henry James and thinking. Is Amy sleeping with Lonoff? Is she—somehow—Anne Frank?
Thirteen years later, in Zuckerman Unbound (1981), Zuckerman is dealing with the unexpected fame and notoriety resulting from the success of his latest novel, Carnovsky (Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint), which meets with even more disapproval from his now-elderly parents. His mother is hurt and dejected, his father curses him from his deathbed, his brother disowns him. On his way to a diner, he is recognized and approached by Alvin Pepler, an obnoxious and garrulous fan. (A truly funny character, reminiscent at times of Larry David’s cousin, Andy, on Curb Your Enthusiasm.) Alvin’s lunacy becomes increasingly apparent with subsequent encounters: he claims that Zuckerman has stolen his life and demands that he tell the whole story in his next novel so that he may be vindicated. Zuckerman locks himself in a hotel room, he receives hate mail, he receives death threats, he misses his ex-wife.
The Anatomy Lesson (1983), the last novel in the trilogy, revolves around the unfathomable mystery and apparent meaninglessness of bodily pain. Zuckerman, now middle-aged, suffers from an incapacitating pain, running from his right ear to his shoulder, that keeps him from writing and that none of the numberless physicians he has consulted have been able to diagnose correctly or to alleviate completely. Bedridden and bored, he occupies his hours with recollections, conversations, and sex. As the despair becomes unbearable, he conceives the plan to relinquish his pathological need to turn his life and those of others into stories, and, absurdly and hilariously, to return to his alma mater, the University of Chicago, to pursue a degree in medicine in order to cure himself.
In the “epilogue” to the trilogy, a novella called The Prague Orgy (1985), Zuckerman travels to Soviet-occupied Prague in order to bring back to America the unpublished manuscript of a brilliant but unknown Yiddish short story writer apparently murdered by the Gestapo. Zuckerman gains perspective on his own artistic struggles when he meets several of the artists and writers of Prague, whose voices have been silenced or safely redirected by a totalitarian regime, paradoxical evidence that here, of all places, art’s immense power is fully recognized. Zuckerman must not only locate the manuscript’s guardian, the estranged wife of the author’s son, and convince her to hand it over to him, but must also slip it past Soviet authorities on his way out of Prague. But is he really labouring on the side of the forces of art if he detaches these works from the urgency of their own context and repositions them at a safe aesthetic distance?
I don’t have space to talk about the other big book of Roth’s that I read last summer, The American Trilogy, the seventh volume of the Library of America’s edition of his collected works, which contains the novels American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). Suffice to say here that the memory of my experience of beginning American Pastoral at the bus stop, and of acquainting myself with its protagonist, Swede Levov, over a total of about two hours on various buses and skytrains, overshadows the other important event of that day, namely, my failure to write the GRE due to my inability to find the test centre (in my defence, it was inside a mall).
Roth is a deeply intelligent and masterful writer and his prose flows with a beautifully organic ease. His long, winding, and yet crystal clear stream of consciousness passages are particularly impressive, and they reveal the mind of their subjects with such an intense immediateness that, to quote Wilde, our living friends, by contrast, are reduced to shadows, “and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades.” Another important aspect of Roth’s style is his humour. “Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends,” he helpfully revealed in an interview with Joyce Carol Oates; “it is with them that I take those walks in the country at the end of the day.” He then proceeded to channel Polonius: “I am also on friendly terms with Deadly Playfulness, Playful Playfulness, Serious Playfulness, Serious Seriousness, and Sheer Sheerness.” I mentioned Alvin Pepler above; other remarkable instances of Roth’s talent for comedy include Aunt Gladys’ conversations with Neil Klugman in Goodbye, Columbus, Nathan Zuckerman’s impersonation of his nemesis, literary critic Milton Appel, in The Anatomy Lesson, and the funeral for the shoemaker’s canary in I Married a Communist. And, for all his undeniable cynicism and irony, Roth is immensely compassionate towards his characters, sometimes even dangerously so (see Swede Levov in American Pastoral and Lester Farley in The Human Stain, for example). Recurring themes in his fiction include the rejection of family and traditions, the parasitic and solipsistic nature of authorship, life as literature (and vice versa), the precariousness of identity, the radical unknowability of others, sex, post-war America, and Newark, New Jersey.
Roth announced his retirement from writing a couple of years ago. Regarding fiction, he now says, “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” This is not unexpected if one has read the Zuckerman novels. In fact, one rather wonders how he managed to keep at it for so long. A couple of months prior to the announcement’s being made public, a waiter approached Roth at a New York diner and presented him with a copy of his recently-published first novel. Roth congratulated him and said “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” If you want to have some quick fun, read a couple of the first articles that came out covering Roth’s retirement and his encounter with the young novelist, and then read Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliantly clueless attempt at joining the conversation. Her piece is literally unbelievable. I’ll leave you with only one of her many gems: “[S]eriously—is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally—but is it that much more difficult than other things?” Well, of course, if the product of that writing is Eat, Pray, Love, then the question can only be rhetorical. But when asked of an author such as Roth, it acquires a profundity that cannot but be unintentional coming from Gilbert. In a much more real sense than the phrase is usually meant, Roth has given the greater part of his life to literature. I suspect he has not done it for us, but we should be grateful nonetheless.