Saturday, July 9, 2016

Philip Roth’s Final Quartet

            I don’t know if the last four novels Philip Roth wrote were planned as a quartet. I also don’t know if, when he wrote the first one, he foresaw the end of his career. (Something he announced after the publication of Nemesis; so far, he has kept his word.) But a decision was made — which, at the very least, was sanctioned by Roth  to issue the books in uniform editions. If you line up the hardbacks, the similarity of their appearance is striking. All are about an inch shorter than is the typical size, all the cover illustrations are minimalist, relying on colors and lettering. Open any of the four and you’re looking at a page that looks exactly the same as that of any other. One notable aspect is the extra wide margins and wide spacing between lines. Given this text-scrimping format, only the longest, at 280 pages, qualifies as a full-length work. Everyman and The Humbling are under two hundred pages.
            Do the novels share any commonality as to content? Is there some point being made, collectively?
            The first, Everyman, is about a man who has undergone multiple procedures for his failing heart. It evokes his fearfulness (he sees death as his complete annihilation). The book opens at his funeral and ends with his death from cardiac arrest on an operating table.
            The next to follow was Indignation. The main character is a nineteen-year-old who begins college during the onset of the Korean War. Marcus is healthy, death is not in the picture (he has a student deferment that protects him from being drafted). Yet on page fifty-four this first person narrator announces that he’s dead; he’s writing about events that led to his being expelled from college and winding up on Massacre Mountain.
            The Humbling is about a sixty-five-year-old stage actor who can no longer perform, so the death of talent is an issue. He’s transformed by sexual love; that this love turns out to be a demeaning aberration constitutes another form of death (after this, no love affair would be possible). In his final act he does what he had been contemplating from the beginning of the book: he commits suicide.
            In Nemesis a young man at the height of his physical powers is broken by polio. He withdraws from life and continues to exist as a crippled shell of what he had been. What occurs is a death of the spirit. But the polio epidemic that ravaged Newark in 1944 claimed many lives. Bucky believes that he may have been a carrier, and so blames himself for some of those deaths.
            Every one of these four novels is about death, though it comes in different forms. Death is one of literature’s great subjects, and that Roth tackles it is to his credit.
            But the next question concerns how successful he is in doing so.
            For comparison of the prose we must look to Roth’s masterpiece, Portnoy’s Complaint. That novel is all voice; Portnoy’s prolonged rant has exuberance; it flows, uncheckable. None of the Quartet novels come anywhere near it. In three of them there are scenes that are evocative; mostly they involve idyllic memories of boyhood (such as Marcus in Indignation remembering working in the butcher shop beside a father he loved and respected). The prose in Everyman is more supple than in any of the subsequent novels. Though the works that followed are highly readable, a stilted quality sets in, a plodding formality; sometimes the voices of his characters seem computerized, as in a GPS device. This is most evident in the two middle novels, Indignation and The Humbling.
            A few other aspects of Portnoy’s Complaint need to be mentioned. Humor propels that book forward, but humor is something the Quartet novels are almost devoid of. Death isn’t a laughing matter, whereas sex is. When I recommend Complaint to others I warn them, It’s a filthy book. To me it is, though it’s redeemed by the strength of the writing. Everyman has some raunchy parts — memories of sexual relationships and an angry, obscene rant, but these attempts by Roth to be the Roth of old strike a discordant note in a novel whose proper tone is a muted melancholy. Only in The Humbling do we get explicit and lengthy sex scenes, and here it’s unredeemable. Clinically repellent, it emanates a sickness. Making matters worse, no real people are involved; just robots. Which is peculiar since it’s the only one of the four books whose main character is an artist. Roth, an artist himself, humbles his empty creation by taking away his talent, and then by taking away his self-respect.
            To sum up: Everyman was successful in its unflinching depiction of a man facing loss in its various forms. The next book, Indignation, was an evasive, makeshift performance, though initially some sympathy was generated for the main character. The Humbling was a disaster.
            A mixed bag, artistically speaking.

            Is it emotionally healthy for an aging author to sit in his studio and write about death? And — like his suicidal actor who could no longer act — Roth must have felt the pain of not being able to perform as he once had.
            These factors possibly led to his decision to stop writing. But how to bow out? Surely not with the third of the Quartet — The Humbling. Surely not that. I think he thought hard about what his final act as an author would be.
            In Nemesis he creates a person who can be described, without condescension, as noble. At the playground where Bucky taught phys ed the boys saw him as “easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular.” To them he was both exemplary and revered, and they were in awe of him. I came to believe in Bucky and found his downfall (crippling polio, guilt, rejection of love) to be heartbreaking. The woman he loves is Marcia (the last in a memorable line of appealing Roth women, beginning with Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye, Columbus); they have sex, but love is motivating them, and the scenes are handled with extreme respect and restraint; they’re chaste. At the end Bucky rejects Marcia, though she struggles to hold on to him; he will not allow her to tie herself to a cripple.
            The two nemeses Bucky cannot defeat are the fiend which inflicts suffering and death (he calls it God) and his own uncompromising sense of justice. Yet Roth chooses to close Bucky’s story with him in his glory, as seen by the boys he once taught. And it was also a choice by Roth on how to end his career.
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.

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