Again—A Philip Roth Redux!
By Sy Schechtman
Philip Roth is now three quarters of a century old and has just published his twenty ninth book. Indeed In the last eight years his publishing pace has accelerated; about 7 new works have appeared. Some of them are not as long as some of his previous masterpieces, such as the Counterlife, American Pastoral and the Human Stain but his latest, -- “Indignation” --- makes for very powerful reading. His advancing age has certainly not dimmed his ability to tell a tale combining the fate of a small Jewish family from his ever seminal Newark background – his ever initial orbis mundi--- his center of the world. A faithful but fearful and ultimately paranoid father, a strong, loving and quietly dominant mother and the counter, somewhat blurred but very compelling gentile girl friend. Shakespeare had his Ophelia, who Hamlet rather cursorily told to “get thee to a nunnery” and in this tale of Roths’ we have Olivia who undoubtedly would have benefited from that safe harbor of life.
These two women bracket young Marcus Messner’s life at home and in college, and are among the most empathic and believable women in his fiction. His mother understands and condones his attraction to the beautiful gentile woman in her beloved son Markie’s college life but not the evidence that the scar on her wrist belies. That she had alcoholic and sucidal tendencies that weigh heavily in the balance against long term stability and balance in a domestic relationship. Throughout the crucial initial interview of the mother’s emergency visit to her hospital bound son, recovering from an appendectomy at the distant college he attended, she never called Marcus’s girl friend Olivia anything but the cool and distant “ Miss Hutton”.
But Marcus is very much involved with Olivia. A totally benign and almost innocent high school youth, whose most powerful motives were to make the dean’s list with continual straight A’s to vindicate his parents financial sacrifices and finally also lose his virginity. The Korean war is a background compelling factor, too, for if he did poorly academically the dread chance of his being expelled and losing his college draft exemption was a nightmarish tinge that colored his usually over achieving but still insecure psyche. Part of that mental state was unsettled most positively by Olivia on their first and only date. After a pleasant interlude of dinner, in the back seat of the borrowed spacious La Salle of his room mate, Olivia willingly and expertly performs fellatio on an astounded Marcus, who later ascertains that she had at least done a similar deed on one other classmate. Thus, despite her good looks and intelligence, to some people her reputation is questionable. Described as a slut or worse, or another four letter word of contumely still below the dignity of most acceptable civil discourse.
But Marcus, perhaps mainly excited by the sexual aspects of his encounter, which is repeated once again later on, becomes seduced by her total persona, flawed as it is, as he also learns about her episodes of emotional trauma and unstable emotional behavior. But his mother, seeing the scar on her wrist, instinctively divines the pitfalls that could lie ahead. She tries to gently and tactfully change his already deep seated Olivia obsession.
She changes her original deep seated intent of leaving her obsessed, paranoiac husband and enduring his fearful attitude, if Marcus will also agree to leave his “Miss Hutton”. “Some times tears are good…and healthy…..but can you have the strength to withstand a tearful woman in suffering pain when you must break up for everyone’s good….when you will feel most guilty and vulnerable….and she most weak and helpless……?”
Marcus agrees to this bargain, but as events unfold, and his resolve weakens, only Roth, still a master story teller, lets the inevitable flow of events suffice to resolve this tragic human dilemma. In the mix is an incongruous, very large old fashioned panty raid on the still off limits girls dormitory, several scenes with the dean of the school, who functions as the grand inquisitor and keeper of the sacrosanct bourgeois culture of Winesberg College in middle America. Where chapel attendance once a week is mandatory and where Marcus Messner, finally tries to break free of all the sacrosanct strictures of the school by having a paid stooge stand in for his weekly chapel presence, as he has discovered many of his classmates cynically do.
Along the way he has his dialogues with Dean Caudwell. Marcus, finally becoming indignant about his atheism versus the avowed Christian background of the college, Marcus quotes his current intellectual hero, Bertrand Russell, Nobel Laureate, famous for his lecture of l927, “Why I am not a Christian”. Marcus quotes Russell as deriding religion as ruling through fear and terror and that only reason and science can uplift the lot of humanity. The Dean’s response is measured but still constructively conservative, applauding Marcus’ debating skills, but pointing out that all colleges have dissent and ferment. “There are always one or two intellectually precocious youngsters on every campus….who feel the need to feel superior to their fellow students or even professors, and go though the phase of finding an agitator or iconoclast to admire on the order a Russel or a Nietzche or a Schopenhauer.” Caudwell then alludes to Russell’s libertine personal life of many marriages as the true test of the failed hedonism of Russels dictums. But he applauds Marcus’ great lawyerly debating skills. The scene, however, ends physically disabling for Marcus. Rising indignation over crossing intellectual swords with the dean he throws up and soon has an appendicitis attack.
At the end of the book Roth alludes to the l970 era, where student unrest was treated differently. By that time panty raids were not the answer, but wide spread unrest and sit ins and disrespect were common and even tolerated as part of the evolving educational scene. Roth manages stylistically to include this afterphase by having a sort of after glimmer of suspended retrospection after death, where Marcus tries vainly to call out to “Ma! Dad!, Olivia! I am thinking of you! ……the urge to be heard, and nobody to hear me! For I am dead.”
For Marcus Messner was the only one of his classmates to be killed in the Korean War essentially because he ultimately refused to continue weekly chapel attendance after his ruse of stooge attrendance was discovered and he refused to comply with weekly attendance. For this he was expelled, even though his straight A academic path was still intact. And probably his status as class valedictorian. Thus he finally acquired one ultimate lesson “…..what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along: of the terrible, incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comic choices achieve the most disproportionate result.”
A most disproportionate non result is Roth’s continued failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is many years now and still counting. But he has won most every other world wide literary award and is well recompensed financially.
No doubt part of the tale of the Bush legacy of revulsion, and anti Israeli feeling of the Swedish Nobel anti semites.