Once described as a great writer you’d never want to shake hands with, Philip Roth’s genius will far outlive his 85 years. Vale, indeed.
One can’t possibly gain enough of an understanding of an author’s overall milieu, their intentions, or place in the cultural canon from three samples of their work. But I’ll try. Woody Allen has, according to some, made a hatchet job of Philip Roth’s life with his 1997 film Deconstructing Harry – presenting the titular character as played by Allen himself as a spiteful, vulgar, libidinous, whoremongering misanthrope. So you take a page from that metaphorical-if-cinematic book, and then having digested The Dying Animal (alongside its film adaptation, Elegy), then Portnoy’s Complaint and now Letting Go, and a picture slowly emerges. One that you don’t really want to come to full colour. Like a Polaroid whose full horrors are discarded before you might shake it into bursting luminescence.
My exposure to Philip Roth began with Elegy. As a film, it is a narrative about a fear of intimacy rendered out of a book describing Kapesh, a commitment-shy (at best) misogynist (at worst) of an author and university professor. Its edges softened by the deft hand of a woman as director, Isabel Coixet and two entirely superb and sympathetic performances from Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz. Whereas a novel, The Dying Animal, was harsh, unpleasant at times; somewhat shocking in its frank sexuality (The New York Times, in its review of Letting Go in 1962 called Roth out for similar – if far more restrained matters: ‘It is nasty in spots because Mr. Roth is still so young he wants to shock.’). Its title change also reflects the film’s calmer interpretation, alluding to its more sombre musical interludes. An elegy is soft, it flows as haunted piano music should. The dying animal is brutal, sad, visceral. There’s a difference in the wording, and it informs the rest of the text.
Then there was Portnoy’s Complaint, one of those books that was originally banned because our conservative overlords thought it to be a corruptible influence, but in doing so the great irony is (and always is with these things) that banning something makes it all the more sought after, mostly from those for whom the censorship is aiming to protect. My father had a copy and was clearing out his bookshelves, so I managed to snare it lest it go to the front verge for ‘bring out your garbage’ day. A brilliant, rich character study framed as a stream of consciousness confessional to a therapist, it was (for its day) edgy in its frank sexuality, and remains confronting because so little is left out. It’s a soul laid bare in front of you; each and every miniscule nugget is right there. Portnoy once used a piece of liver as a masturbatory aid; the piece of flesh was later served to his family for dinner. That’s a soupçon of the kind of upfront, honest, unreserved material we’re dealing with here.
The thing that stands out about Letting Go is that close to everyone in this voluminous tome is perpetually miserable. Therein lies part of the man’s talent – Roth writes a novel about small, personal experience, revolve it around a small cadre of characters, spreads it over 600 pages and makes them all peri-suicidal. Yet, it remains captivating. Challenging to read, but enthralling all the same.
Roth’s characters are borrowed from the author’s own life – sometimes literally (as inThe Plot Against America, seen through the eyes of the author at seven), but he himself distances the character from reality; the fiction is just that. The idea that he is in fact simply rendering his own thoughts and neuroses on the page is anathema to him, as he said in The Guardian back in 2010. But authors tend to do that – Woody Allen (again) continues to this day to remove himself from the characterisations on screen; he writes nebbish, straight, sports-loving lapsed Jews because it’s what he knows best (they always tell burgeoning writers to “write what you know”). Although, Allen claims that his portrayals are not autobiographical.
Lena Dunham, another chronicler of the alt-middle class New York existence, spoke on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast of her growing up with an obsession with Goodbye, Columbus – Roth’s first published work. That one seems harder to come by, but is on my to-do list, just like your mum.
Letting Go leaves the impression of massive scope, all the while maintaining a degree of character intimacy. You’d have to – as an author – in order to take the commonplace activities of a small cadre of characters and span 600+ pages. It’s like Dickens in that way, but with more provocative prose – Roth is in many ways an heir-apparent to Henry Miller. But the ever-present mood it conveys is that this is a novel about people who are perpetually miserable. The character Martha Raganhart has a free spirit quality to her, but the passion and heated sparks between her and Gabe subside when tragedy befalls her. The tragedy itself, while not specific, seems imminent. It’s a perpetual threat; vaguely looming around every narrative corner.
I eventually finished reading Letting Go, weeks after a pair of cross-continental flights ought to have assisted the bulk of it, having found few other novels so impenetrable, yet still so very good. Compelling reading it is, and at the same time, isn’t. The value of Roth’s prose, characters and narrative sleight-of-hand keeps you going, despite what appears to be a lack of narrative urgency. There are moments throughout where major narrative points aren’t signposted in a traditional manner, but referred to in passing. An injured child is spoken of being in hospital, and then referred to in passing when one character had not seen another since the boy’s funeral. Which is disconcerting, and in its own way devastating in its emotional distance – front and centre in the protagonist Gabe, whose frequent emotional aloofness borders on the sociopathic.
It’s a tough nut to crack, what Roth does. The Guardian ran a piece on him surrounding his then-new work, 2010’s The Plot Against America, which nailed it: “Style, in the formal, flowery sense, bores him; he has, he once wrote, ‘a resistance to plaintive metaphor and poeticised analogy’. His prose is immaculate yet curiously plain and unostentatious, as natural as breathing. Reading him, it’s always the story that’s in your face, never the style.”
True words, them. And as my literary scope broadens, I take in all facets of the craft.
Roth does nothing short of keep you fascinated.