Monday, May 3, 2010

Philip Roth’s First and Last: Goodbye, Columbus and Everyman

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could have been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it. She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-cropped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside me. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes watery though not from water. She extended a hand for her glasses but did not put them on until she turned and headed away. Her hands suddenly appeared behind her. She caught the bottom of her suit between thumb and index finger and flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged. My blood jumped.
With this first paragraph of Philip Roth’s first book, a career begins, resoundingly. It evokes youth, beauty, hope — mostly hope of love. All are embodied in Brenda, the cool, self-assured water nymph. But this naiad wears glasses, and her last name turns out to be Patimkin. That she is a mere vulnerable human like us all, with her virtues and flaws, deepens her appeal. I felt that appeal when I first read the book, as a teenager. Now, rereading it many years later, I felt it again.
It is Neil who is given the honor of holding Brenda’s glasses, and it is he who tells the story. He does so with a bright clarity — the youthful Roth’s prose has a freshness to it, an original snap — as in Brenda’s cheeky catching of the bottom of her suit and flicking “what flesh had been showing back where it belonged.”
Goodbye, Columbus spans one summer. And no more. The fervent glow of love that Roth captures so well does not survive the complexities of life. A diaphragm is the purported devise that leads to the breakup. I say “purported” because the end of the affair feels imposed on the plot (with Neil being the author’s co-conspirator). On the closing page, after leaving Brenda in a hotel room, Neil thinks, “I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there I knew I couldn’t any longer. And I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her. With anyone else, could I summon up such a passion?”
But absent from his musings are despair and fear and doubt. It seems that, in leaving Brenda, Neil is making a decision: saying goodbye to one life — the conventional and enveloping one he doesn’t want to be part of, the world of the Patimkins — and resolutely turning toward another.
In this light the title, Goodbye, Columbus, is meaningful. Ron, Brenda’s older brother, attended Ohio State University and was given a record when he graduated. He plays it for Neil. A Voice intones: “Life calls us, and anxiously if not nervously we walk out into the world and away from the pleasures of these ivied walls. But not from its memories . . . .” “We shall choose husbands and wives, we shall choose jobs and homes, we shall sire children and grandchildren, but we will not forget you, Ohio State . . . .” The record ends with a litany of goodbyes: “goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye . . .”
Because Philip Roth has, over the years, been a strongly autobiographical writer, I cannot but think that there was a Brenda in a summer of his youth. And though, in the novella’s last paragraphs, Neil gazes through the window of a darkened library, closed for the night, looking at a wall of books, it is not the dull life of a librarian that the young man is seeing in his Brenda-less future.
What life was beckoning to Philip Roth? It turns out that twenty-seven of the books in the world’s libraries would be written by him. Roth’s life would be one of tremendous literary success. Goodbye, Columbus was published in 1959, when Roth was twenty-six. The five stories that go with the title novella appeared in elite magazines: Paris Review (where Goodbye also appeared), The New Yorker, and Commentary. The book received the National Book Award. Out of the starting blocks, Philip Roth was a major novelist.
Not only was he a uniquely-talented early bloomer, but he was ambitious, focused, intelligent. At the age of sixteen he went to Bucknell University and got a degree in English. From there he moved on to the University of Chicago, where he received a M.A. in English Literature and then stayed to teach creative writing. It was while in Chicago that he met his mentor, Saul Bellow. Roth taught creative writing at various universities, including Iowa. He made all the right moves. But that’s what you have to do. And, in his case, there was that talent.
Philip Roth has lived almost fifty years since Brenda dove into the pool. In his long career the achievement he will be ever-associated with is Portnoy’s Complaint. That comic masterpiece, that howl of rage, in all its glorious vulgarity, plumbs themes that preoccupied him his whole career — sex and Jewishness. Tangled themes for him, and from inside the tangle not much light escapes.
I heard him interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” in 2001, and he talked a bit about his personal life. I learned (as I drove through a rainy night) that he had some serious illnesses, including heart bypass surgery. He had a terrible bout of depression but was saved by medication. He sees no purpose to Life and has no religious beliefs (indeed, he is strongly anti-religious). His two unhappy marriages, which were childless, were not mentioned (of course they weren’t, though both have provided material for Roth’s novels). I got the impression that he lived alone.
He was a difficult interviewee. At times he would respond to a question by questioning Terry about her question. He did this in an intimate, gently toying manner. I found his subversion of the rules of the interview refreshing. (Keep the questions intelligent and straightforward or you’re going to get them back.)
He said that he writes, writes, writes in his home in the Connecticut countryside. It seems that writing is his reason for living — his saying to himself and to the world: I can create, I exist. It is a way to stave off the darkness.
Philip Roth may produce many more novels, but in a way Everyman is his last. It’s about the end of life, a goodbye to life. How much time is left to him? He is not the young man of Goodbye, Columbus, with a fresh new world stretching ahead.
I wonder if he sees a form of immortality in the worlds he has created. People a hundred years from now may read his books, and his characters and situations will come alive in their minds. Brenda will rise from the pool, Neil’s blood will jump. Does the author come alive too, in some sense?
Everyman begins at a graveside. I had wanted to start this section with Everyman’s opening paragraph, as I did with Goodbye, Columbus. But it’s a long paragraph, and it doesn’t have the immediate accessibility (nor that “snap”) that the other one does. I don’t mean that it isn’t good writing, or that it’s boring. It’s entirely appropriate to the novel’s subject matter. But young love and death are poles apart, and, let’s admit it, we’d rather be at the poolside than the graveside.
In fact, I had qualms about reading this book. I thought of it as an ordeal I would have to suffer through.
I was surprised. The book was not grueling to read. I know Roth can be raw, but he chose not to be. For example, the unnamed narrator (I’ll have to call him Everyman) has open heart surgery, but the gory details of that surgery — the sawing through the rib cage, the removal of veins from the legs — are not described (though Everyman must surely have thought long and hard about the procedure). He has scars from the operation, and Roth simply states that fact.
In this short novel Roth explores, with care and honesty, the emotional state of a man facing the end of life.
On the surface this is not an autobiographical work. Roth’s Everyman is not a successful author. He’s a man who had a lucrative career as a commercial artist, and upon his retirement he turns to painting. But he realizes that he has no real talent. He acutely feels the hollowness of not having the consolation of being able to create art. He is left with nothing — just “the aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing.”
 That said — that Roth does not use many outward facts from his own life — there is an emotional authenticity. After all, is Roth not Everyman? Despite his considerable success, and the purpose his writing must give to his days, Roth must face what his character does.
His Everyman lives alone, is lonely; he has a loving daughter (who, though supportive, does not live near him) and a dear brother (who he breaks from, in “a sick man’s rage” at the happy, ever-healthy, contentedly-married Howie). Those two — daughter and brother — will be the only ones at his graveside who deeply care for him. He has regrets, remorse, mostly concerning his failed relationships with women and his long estrangement from his two sons. He is beset with desire for the young women he sees jogging as he sits on the boardwalk, a desire that he knows must go unfulfilled. More loss — that of sexuality. Nothing can answer his needs, for he has the elemental need to be what he once was.
He fears helplessness and death. For this Everyman, who has no religious beliefs, death is oblivion, simply Not Being anymore, and the void terrifies him.
“You just take it and endure it,” Everyman thinks; the novel shows how very hard it is to do that.
Yet the book is not all grimness. Other feelings are elicited in the reader. Everyman is a decent, compassionate man (the scene with the suffering Millicent is especially touching). And, since I mentioned a scene, there are others that are done masterfully — Everyman’s encounter with the young female jogger and his talk with the gravedigger. Howie’s farewell speech at the gravesite (beginning with “Let’s see if I can do it. Now let’s get to this guy. About my brother . . .”) is a moving monologue in which Howie does indeed “do it.” There is pleasure for the reader in such prose. There are some graphic sex scenes, and a burst of rage at his unforgiving sons — parts that, for me, struck a discordant note — but these are exceptions to the rule. At one point Everyman muses that his “combativeness had been replaced by a huge sadness.”
One refuge for Everyman are memories of the distant past. He must go back — back past his adulthood and his teenage years — to a time when he was capable of a purity of emotion. His father, mother and Howie kindle tender memories. He feels a nostalgia for his father’s jewelry store. During his many angioplasties he distracts himself, as they insert the arterial catheter, “by reciting under his breath the lists of watches he’d first alphabetized as a small boy helping at the store after school — ‘Benrus, Bulova, Croton, Elgin . . .’”
And he repeatedly remembers riding the big waves of the Atlantic, sunlight blazing off the water. The vitality of the boy with the unscathed body in its exhilarating struggle.
Ah, Life! Everyman sees, as if peering through the jeweler’s loupe engraved with his father’s initials, “the perfect, priceless planet itself — at his home, the billion-, the trillion- , the quadrillion-carat planet Earth!”
Then the author extinguishes it forever. As he must.

(Originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Arts and Opinion and the The Philip Roth Society Newsletter)

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