When, in 1951, Philip Roth affixed decals to the rear of his father’s Chevy – “one proclaiming the name of my new university, the other the Greek initials of my fraternity” – his uncle, a drycleaner, took to calling him ‘Joe College’. It was a name that stuck even after Roth scraped the decals off, no longer wanting to be identified by the “unpretentious civility” of a small college in a Republican town “at the dawn of the Eisenhower era”. In the space of a year, his efforts at self-invention had been transferred to the literary magazine he and two friends founded in the spirit of EE Cummings. Although Et Cetera fell far short of Cummings’ maxim to be “fearlessly obscene”, its protests were risky enough, in 1952, to land Roth before the college’s Board of Publications. It was an experience that sent him straight to Mildred Martin, the convenor of his elite reading seminar. “Oh yes,” she tells him many years later, when he’s writing The Facts (1988), “when you came to my house you were nearly in tears.”
The chapter ‘Joe College’ in that sharp, funny, self-appraising “novelist’s autobiography” makes instructive reading alongside Indignation (Jonathan Cape, 256pp; $45), published last year, the most recent in Roth’s astonishing run of novels – his seventh work in the decade since American Pastoral (1997). There it all is: Bucknell College, Pennsylvania, transposed to Winesburg College, Ohio – its name borrowed from the title of a Sherwood Anderson novel. At Winesburg, as at Bucknell, there are fraternity houses and dress codes and segregated dormitories. There’s the Dean of Men, and the brick paths and green quadrangles, even the campus panty raid. The urge to freedom of its few rebels might be closer to the “semi-selfconscious struggle” of an Anderson character than to Berkeley, 1968, but indignation had its place at Bucknell, Pennsylvania. And at Winesburg, Ohio.
If you know a subject, Roth has said often enough, mine it. It might be the maxim of Roth the writer we have come to know, but in ‘Joe College’ he makes much of the fact that while he was straining against every stricture and taboo, the stories he was writing at Bucknell, “mournful little things”, were “set absolutely nowhere”, striving for literary refinement, “elevated into realms unknown to the lower-middle-class Jews of Leslie Street” in Newark, New Jersey, where he was raised.
At Winesburg College, Marcus Messner wishes only to get straight As and stay out of the army – it’s 1951, the Korean War – and out of range of his father, a kosher butcher in Newark, whose sole desire is to guide him away from anything – pool, cars, girls; the list is long – that might land him dead like his cousins Abe and Dave, killed in World War II. This young man of studious habits, with no literary ambitions, is soon out of kilter with his roommates, bewildered by an unsteady, fellating girlfriend and outraged by the requirements of compulsory chapel. There is much cause for indignation. It’s a word that becomes, to Marcus, “the most beautiful” in the English language; he stresses it inwardly – in-dig-na-tion – as he rallies himself with a verse from the Chinese revolutionary anthem while enduring chapel, or disagreeable roommates, or the insufferable Dean of Men.
Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
... Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!
In a magnificent set piece in the dean’s office, these lines swell inside Marcus even as he quotes large slabs from Bertrand Russell in defence of his objection to chapel. To Marcus, this fighting song, combined with the mighty words of “one of the world’s foremost logicians as well as a philosopher and a mathematician”, puts him on the surest and most sophisticated of ground. But to the dean, Bertrand Russell is “an immoralist ... four times married, a blatant adulterer, an advocate of free love, a self-confessed socialist dismissed from his university position for his antiwar campaigning ...” Et cetera.
“But what about the Nobel Prize!”
Indignation! Arise! Arise! Arise!
In the inevitable logic of fiction, it’s indignation that is Marcus’s undoing. He is expelled from Winesburg, drafted into the army and sent to Korea, where his father’s worst fears are realised. Marcus is killed on “a spiny ridge” in a battle that leaves the 12 survivors of his company “crazed and crying”. In Newark, his father will never recover. It is March 1952. In another reality, Philip Roth is facing the college publications committee.
Winesburg might ‘be’ Bucknell, but Marcus Messner is not Philip Roth anymore than Zuckerman – Roth’s most famous character, that curmudgeonly, sex-driven writer – is Philip Roth. ‘Joe College’ makes such an interesting countertext (to use a Rothian term) to Indignation because it lets us glimpse the complex movements of experience and imagination as they shadow-dance the binary of fact and fiction. The chapters of memoir that form the core of The Facts – taking Roth up to the end of his disastrous first marriage, and the writing of Portnoy’s Complaint – are prefaced by a letter from Roth to Zuckerman, asking his opinion of the memoir. His intention, Roth says, is to trace back through the self-inventions to “how it had all begun”, in order to “transform himself into himself”. Zuckerman is not impressed, and the book ends with his blistering response. Roth, he reckons, has betrayed himself again, this time by “the falsifying requisites of ‘candour’“, and should stick to the greater truth of fiction – which is, of course, the only place where he, Zuckerman, can exist. Anyone who thinks there’s an answer to the question Did it really happen? should read The Facts.
“Am I Roth or Zuckerman?” Roth says testily in an interview with an unfortunate Danish journalist. “It’s all me. You know? That’s what I normally say. It’s all me. Nothing is me.”
“The things that wear you down,” Zuckerman tells Roth in his letter at the end of The Facts, “are the things that nurture you and your talent.” The advantage of the writing life is that the flame of imagination can be turned up under rebellion, or unbridled desire, or self-invention, personified through fiction, and pushed to an extremity. In life, where experience is personalised, the things that wear you down might also nurture you, but beware: pushed to their extremity, they can endanger your life. Literally, in the case of Marcus’s indignation; or metaphorically, in the case of Roth’s first marriage.
Roth’s characters are never victims, or if they are, the extent to which they are acted upon is inseparable from the double edge of character and belief that can so easily turn clarity to blindness, strength to defeat. Marcus Messner dies the senseless death of youth, brought about as much by his own urge to freedom as an adult in a great republic as by the Chinese troops advancing in the name of a different freedom, their “bugles blaring ‘Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves.’“ In The Facts, the young Roth finishes college and escapes Korea – but not himself. He becomes snared in the most banal form of entrapment while struggling to free himself from the refinement of the literary father – Henry James – as well as the actual father, worrying away back in Newark. In Zuckerman’s opinion, it was the wearing down of Roth in his marriage that forced him up against his own unrefined experience – and into Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), not Roth’s first novel, but the first Roth novel.
Like most young women of my era who were bent on literary and sexual emancipation, I loathed Portnoy’s Complaint. Indignation is hardly the word. When I went back to it last year, I found it funny, but also somewhat tedious; after 30 pages, it begins to read as if stuck in first gear. Imagination had got to work on experience, but experience hadn’t yet begun its work on imagination. What I had missed in my first reading of the book was the significance of its last line – the “PUNCH LINE” – when the analyst says, “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
What began there with the raw experience of brash, vigorous masculinity has brought Roth, all these years later, to his recent, scarifying novels about old men. After the grim brilliance of those works, a good few critics and interviewers have been bewildered by Roth’s leap back to the furtive sexuality of 1950s campus life. Indignation is a long way from Exit Ghost (2007), the novel that finishes Zuckerman off – his penis reduced to a “spigot of wrinkled flesh”, leaving him with little but imagination, sitting up at night doing it on the page. Not sex – forget that – but the flirtation, the conversations that girls are no longer interested in having, even with him, the celebrated writer by whose attention they are at first, momentarily, flattered. Or the nameless old man in Everyman (2006), who makes the pitiful mistake of speaking to the young woman he watches run each day, after which she changes her route.
Or the lecherous Kepesh – the most confronting of Roth’s alter egos -whose spigot of flesh, at 62, still seems invincible. In The Dying Animal (2001), even he is finally brought down by his own excess, when the young woman who slides under his predatory guard is struck down by cancer in that most desirable of places, her beautiful, beautiful breast. Even for Kepesh, sex is stripped of triumph as he is forced up against the great drama we all live out between the fear of death and the fantasy of endlessness that, for Roth’s men, until they are rendered incapable, has always been enacted in sex. “Because only when you fuck,” Kepesh muses, “is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself ... Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death.”
Or is it? Marcus Messner’s experience beyond the grave – given to us 50 pages into Indignation – is of the most appalling form of unchanging endlessness, in which, if anything, death has its revenge on sex. Maybe it is only the fate of the young who didn’t live to hand over the facts – as in fiction, or analysis – to the work of imagination. Marcus’s bewilderment with the fellating girlfriend is ever before him in this horrifying vision of no respite, ever, from a recollected past, which is all that exists – “not recovered, mind you, not relived in the immediacy of the realm of sensation, but merely replayed”. It is the living death of a life that never becomes experience, a kind of thwarted analysis where the only direction is back. “And the judgement is endless, though not because some deity judges you, but because your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself.”
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