So, I'm a good pile of Roth into my summer reading, and so it's time for an update before moving totally takes over. A few caveats first:
Most of what follows is fairly raw, unfiltered and impressionistic. To give you a sense of what goes into writing a review like this, I'm pulling back the curtain on the "mulling things over" stage. It's the point in the process when I'm reading the author's previous works and simply noticing things. They might not be profound, they might not be important, they might not make it anywhere near the final review. But I notice them nevertheless, and it's too early to know what will count. One of the pitfalls I work hard to avoid is developing a thesis too early, and then looking for the facts to back it up. I prefer my thesis to emerge at the end of my reading. Perhaps that belabors the obvious, but the point of this exercise is to take nothing about this process for granted.
I'm about to sit down and read Indignation for the first of what will be at least two times. My deadline on this piece is September 2, but since I am leaving for Australia on August 24, I'm aiming to have a solid first draft by then, so I am only polishing language on the road.
So what I have sussed out so far? Well, years ago, I went to see The Marriage of Figaro at the LA Opera, and when it was over, I called my mother – my opera going companion in my New York days – and marveled that I'd managed to forget it was a masterpiece, and just listen; and in listening experienced precisely why it was a masterpiece. My time with Roth has been a bit like that. He's become such a literary institution, nearly embalmed in his reputation, so that it's become easy to accept his brilliance without allowing ourselves to experience it firsthand.
Re-reading Portnoy's Complaint was a revelation, and it felt surprisingly fresh, its scathing humor still plenty sharp and effective. What has changed, of course, is the coarsening of the culture around it (some might argue it led that transformation), so one challenge was trying to imagine its impact on readers in the late 60s, trying to grasp how transformative it must have been. (Aside: When I was around 12, I asked my mother if any books in the house were off-limits. She said only one: The Odessa File, a potboiler that, of course, I made a beeline for. Why she chose this one, I don't know – she was probably trying to spare me Frederick Forsyth. But the shelves were filled with Roth – Portnoy included – all of which were apparently fair game.)
In addition to the early titles, I've now read the Zuckerman books, and the Kepesh books and something that has struck me is how unapologetically Roth declares his literary ambitions. Giants are name-dropped unselfconsciously in a way that I suspect most contemporary novelists would avoid. And his books are often as much about writing and the writer's lot – the burdens of creativity, the strange duplicity of every moment in an artist's life (is this experience or is this material?) – as they are of anything, including the Jewish American experience.
Additional impressions: It's mildly unnerving how accomplished his debut Goodbye, Columbus is, all the more so when compared against most of today's debuts. Similarly, it's weirdly reassuring when he drops a real clunker, like this one from The Anatomy Lesson: "... Milton Appel had unleashed an attack on Zuckerman's career that made Macduff's assault on Macbeth look almost lackadaisical." And for sustained awfulness, one can't ask for much more than Our Gang, his satirical misfire which follows the travails of "Trick E. Dixon" and his cabinet.
Of particular interest to me is the question of "indignation" itself. The word appears in Portnoy, as he recalls a Chinese marching song learned in school:
And then my favorite line, commencing as it does with my favorite word in the English language: "In-dig-na-tion fills the hearts of all of our coun-try-men! A-rise! A-rise! A-RISE!"
Thinking about it, there's really a strain of indignation burning through so much of Roth's work; it seems to have transformed over time from the Indignation of the Outsider (the Jew among the Goyim) to the Indignation of One's Mortality (never handled better, I think, than in the magnificent Sabbath's Theater, which I am saving for the end). But there I go, seeking grand themes too early. I'm filing that one away, and the next step is to settle down with the new novel, before returning to the backlist. More to follow. Moving this Sunday.
(UPDATE: Since posting - and correcting, thanks to Richard Beck - this post, I've read enough of Indignation to find it refers to exactly the same song noted in Portnoy, in a nearly verbatim passage.)