December 2008

            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.