11 February 2012
1 – The Maestro
It’s always strange to start on one of these iconic American books. This is the first of the Zuckerman novels, full of that cocksureness and the self-referencing details I so often find off-putting in mid-20th Century US writers. The Manhattan and New Jersey that Zuckerman describes, the Jewish family histories, the confident womanising…. How bothered am I? Roth is a wonderful writer – I’ve laughed out loud more than once – but, well, Jesus. Roth’s world, Zuckerman’s world – they seem to be the same – are not the whole world. And here I am, at sea. I don’t know whether E I Lonoff, the great man that Zuckerman is visiting at his huge country retreat of a house in New England over 20 years ago, is a satirical version of some Great American Writer. And is Abravanel, the big Californian novelist who makes an appearance in a long flashback, a sly version of somebody else that readers are expected to recognise? How should I know? Why should I care?
Zuckerman, narrating this in the late 1970s, is describing his 23-year-old self in the mid-50s. He tells us mockingly that this is a Bildungsroman – but the mockery doesn’t mean he isn’t being serious. The four stories he’s had published have got him noticed, and now he has an audience with the great man. And the big thing he discovers is that the great man thinks his own life – his writing, his success, everything – is pointless. Writing, for him, is moving one sentence around in the morning and another in the afternoon. (Some time after telling Zuckerman this, he says with astonishment that Harvard would like to make an archive of his efforts to move sentences around. Amy Bellette, the oddly striking young woman who helps him, has found a story that went to 27 drafts.) Other than this, Lonoff promises him, he knows nothing of life. His seven highly regarded novels are, he says, fantasies. What else would they be?
This is Roth doing that other thing that these novelists always seemed to be doing: writing about writing. Is there a kind of heroism in the lonely, selfless drudgery of it? Is there really any point to it? Does any of it amount to more than a hill of beans? Jesus, again.
There are elements of plot among the navel-gazing – this, however autobiographical the references might be, being also a novel. Lonoff’s wife is being driven slowly insane – in a restrained, quiet way, obviously – by his obsessive, one-dimensional life. The great man understands this perfectly, feels rather sorry for her… but what’s a man to do whose whole life is programmed like his? Amy Bellette, the young woman who helps, is – who, exactly? Why is she there, and not doing something more worthwhile? Zuckerman thinks it won’t be easy for him to get her on the floor – his shorthand for the kind of pelvis-pinning sex he likes with any fanciable woman who comes his way – but, well, a man can dream. We find out about the way he’s gone through more or less all his live-in girlfriend’s women friends in this way – and how he regrets having told her the truth when one of them spills the beans. Writers of fiction get into trouble when they start telling the truth, ho ho.
So, flawed young turk coming up against flawed old master and… I’m no more sure than he is what he’s finding out, if anything. It’s got a dated, macho feel to it – but then, Roth is writing about a period that was already in the past in 1979. As if that’s any kind of excuse.
2 – Nathan Dedalus
How many stories within stories are there in this chapter? Or stories within stories within stories? A Bildungsroman needs a dark night of the soul, and this is Nathan Zuckerman’s. He’s sleeping over on the day-bed in Lonoff’s study – how close to greatness can you get? – except sleep is the last thing he can do. He reads two literary quotations, both grandly referencing the artist as outsider, and… feels strengthened enough to write the letter to his father that he needs to write. It’s about – well, what do you think? Specifically, it’s about his father’s reaction to his latest story, the one he wants his family to be as proud of as they have of all the others. But, in his naivety, he has used elements from a seedy family dispute – which, when his father reads it, leads to a row.
And the Jewishness that’s been hovering in the background throughout Chapter 1 is brought right to the forefront. His father’s problem with the story isn’t about the shame of having the dirty family laundry brought out in public, it’s about the dirty Jewish laundry. In the difficult conversation he had to have, his father has spelled it out: what single word will the goyim think of when they read it, with its self-serving uncle and its seedy law-suit about an inheritance? When his son doesn’t answer, he says it: kike. The story will let them say, This is what they are like. When the 23-year-old refuses to budge and has returned to New York, his father contacts the judge whose testimonial might (or might not) have helped the young Nathan into a top University. We get the judge’s letter verbatim, complete with a ten-point questionnaire. The first question is, ‘Would you have written this story in Nazi Germany?’ and the others are no less charged.
So, while satirising the endlessly self-referring Jewish obsession with their fragile status in an anti-Semitic world, Roth indulges it. We recognise all the tropes based on the proud, hard-working New Jersey family and – and it becomes the issue that the young Jewish writer is going to have to face. Does loyalty to his heritage come before all else? Or not? Where are those quotations again, one about a Chopin piece revealing, among all its great qualities, a Byronic ‘contempt’, the other from a James story about the ‘madness of art’? He wants to believe, obviously, that all those petty, worldly issues like loyalty and family love have no meaning for this questing soul, that he’s far above it….
But he gives up on the letter after six attempts, and his self-image as a soul in artistic torment is undermined by the eavesdropping he indulges in next. Ridiculously, he climbs on the great man’s desk to listen in on a conversation in the room above. He even uses the book of James stories he’s been reading to get a couple of inches higher (and this in a novel in which he has already high-mindedly eschewed the easy metaphor of a door closing against his father). And what he hears seems to be Lonoff heroically fending off what Amy Bellette knows he would love: to be in Italy with her. To her he’s ‘Dad-da’, and she sounds like a child….
And Zuckerman has to face an unwelcome truth – one that has Roth with his tongue so far in his cheek it must be causing blisters: he couldn’t make stuff like this up. He has no choice but to write about the true stories that have come his way. But, as the chapter ends, he wonders whether, having decided to write the honest truth in this way, he can really face ‘being hated and reviled and disowned.’ Gulp.
First few pages of Chapter 3
Not short on plot, this novel. And we find out why Roth has had the judge referring to the newly opened Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank: Amy is claiming to be her. Cue more stories: how she got in touch with her teacher, Lonoff, after having seen the play and, now, how Anne Frank has supposedly come to be living incognito in the USA. What we don’t know yet is whether this is Roth the iconoclast poking fun at another sacred Jewish cow, holding up for satirical examination that habit of bewailing past injustices… or something else. I’ll let you know.
Chapters 3 and 4 – to the end
Did I say plot? To that, add metafictional games, more stories within stories, versions of identity, drama-queen posturing and the search for validation and forgiveness. That’ll do for now.
Chapter 3 is Femme Fatale. It’s the only one written in the third person, and it’s the only one not about Zuckerman. At one level it’s the Amy Bellette/ Anne Frank story, told absolutely straight. But, even as we read, we’re wondering who’s supposed to be telling this. Zuckerman? But it’s the story that Amy has told Lonoff, and there’s no time for him to have passed it on. Is it just (ahem) the truth, as told to us by an omniscient narrator? If so, where did this entity spring from? Or is it, as seems increasingly likely, Zuckerman’s own fantasy, one that will enable him to offer proof of his Jewish credentials and gain forgiveness from his family? What better route back into his family’s affections than to win the hand of, yes, the Anne Frank?
Yep, it’s Roth having fun at the expense of sacred Jewish cows. So that’s all right. What else is it? As I’ve said, the Anne Frank story is told absolutely straight, aside from the ‘what if?’ tweak Roth has given it. He’s imagined as thoroughly and respectfully as he can a scenario in which Anne Frank really has survived – and why she might keep her identity a secret. He has at least two different things going on: a quite careful critique, complete with dozens of quotations, of how the diaries reveal the development of the young writer; and a satire on the importance of the Anne Frank myth to post-war Judaism. To this he adds another layer: the fact that it’s a fantasy, that the convenient burn on Amy’s arm that supposedly hides a concentration camp tattoo does not in fact exist.
The chapter ends, and it’s next morning. Among other things, we see Zuckerman slyly checking out his fantasy with her. Has anybody ever mentioned how much like Anne Frank she looks? (Yes.) How did she manage to survive the war in Europe? (Luck.) And so on. But the main action of Chapter 4, Like Living With Tolstoy, is focused on the oldies. We know about the quiet desperation of Lonoff’s long-suffering wife – it’s another of Roth’s little jokes that she’s called Hope – and we see it again now. Amy is clearly getting ready to leave, and Hope is utterly relieved. But then she opens, with Lonoff’s permission, one of many letters to him. She reads it aloud, and it’s from a student who would just love to be his helper…. And suddenly she can’t take it any more. She goes upstairs and makes a big thing of packing her own bags and dressing for a long journey. She tells Amy she’s welcome to find out what it’s like to look after Lonoff for the next 35 years, then goes out to try to start the car.
Lonoff pleads with Hope in what sounds a long-suffering way, as if this is a scene that’s been played before. She ignores him, but the battery turns out to be flat and Amy is the one who drives off, in her own car. Scales seem to have been falling from Zuckerman’s eyes since the previous night, and now he sees almost nothing heroic in the great writer. Is the little scenario with Amy part of a pattern? Has he been sleeping with her all this time? Does he go through these starry-eyed young helpers like this – and does Hope know all about them, and the fantasy of an idyllic life in a villa above Florence? Is his hero (gulp) merely human? As Hope carries on making a big show of leaving, Zuckerman can finally see that their lives really are as rigidly confined as Lonoff has been trying to tell him. The novel ends, with Lonoff saying enigmatically that it’s like being married to Tolstoy, as he goes after his wife, who has set off hopelessly on foot.
So, what’s all that about? Is the young Zuckerman, as portrayed by himself when twice as old, simply an ingénue, a Candide who has it all to learn? We see him as the callow youth in Chapter 2, trying to justify the way he’s raided family history simply because it’s there, and better than anything he could make up. And we’ve seen the grand old man, no grander than anyone else in this sorry tale, doomed to what he sees as a plodding existence – and doomed to take Hope with him. Writers? Don’t make me laugh.
This novel was close to receiving the Pulitzer Prize the year after it was published, but was pipped by a work by a different New Jersey macho egoist, Norman Mailer. He’s Jewish, too. I imagine that Roth would have been incandescent, but I’m guessing.