Hysterical Vigour

Frank Kermode

  • Indignation by Philip Roth
    Cape, 233 pp, £16.99, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 224 08513 7

The title of this novel comes from the Chinese national anthem:

Arise, ye who refuse to be bondslaves!
With our very flesh and blood
We will build a new Great Wall!
China’s masses have met the day of danger.
Indignation fills the hearts of all of our countrymen,
Arise! Arise! Arise!

Marcus Messner silently recites these lines, which he had learned by heart in grade school during the Second World War, as a way of enduring compulsory chapel at the small Ohio college where he had fled from a humbler establishment in his home town, Newark, New Jersey. As an atheistic Jew and disciple of Bertrand Russell, studying in what he had understood to be a secular school, Marcus was indignant. And to a young man of his explosive temperament that meant trouble: trouble so serious that, as he tells his story, it becomes evident that he is already dead, killed by Chinese bayonets in South Korea.

Roth’s young men often come from New Jersey and are the sons of middle-class Jewish fathers: insurance salesmen, say, or jewellers. In this instance the father is a kosher butcher. Marcus helps in the shop, and unless seeking a career in that profession one could hardly want to know more about it than we get from Marcus’s description of the day’s work. So the story begins and ends in blood. Yet the hard-working family is happy enough until events, local and international, cast sinister shadows on its path and the butcher’s solicitude for his son becomes oppressive and unhealthy.

When Marcus enrols at a Newark college, the father, his peace and livelihood already threatened by the proximity of a new supermarket, begins to be haunted by fear for the boy’s safety, whether fear of the draft – thousands of American conscripts are dying in Korea – or more generally fear for his son’s stability in an adult and not comfortably Jewish world. The father may not be as crazy as he sounds; when asked to explain his anxiety, he replies: ‘It’s about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences.’ ‘Oh, Christ,’ Marcus says, ‘you sound like a fortune cookie.’ He will come to see that his father knows best. The rift between them grows wider. Marcus is locked out for coming home 20 minutes later than ordered, so he flees to another college at Winesburg, Ohio, 500 miles away, with a name redolent of supposedly safe, democratic Middle America.

Though a model student, Marcus is soon in difficulties, first with Jewish roommates who are noisy at night when he needs his sleep, or are offensive in other ways. Another roommate proves dismayingly silent and grim. When he escapes to a room of his own Marcus is summoned by the dean and politely asked to explain his restlessness. The interview that follows expresses as well as any the nature of Roth’s world. Marcus, brought up to respect authority, cannot help addressing this odious man as ‘sir’, even though condescendingly requested not to; indeed the sly official kindness of the dean’s manner ensures an indignant overreaction from Marcus. They argue about details; the dean dismisses his complaints about roommates as proof of his intolerance, and Marcus silently cries: ‘Indignation!’

When the dean starts to quiz him about girls Marcus rises, inspired by the Chinese anthem, to protest against this intrusive interrogation. Enraged, he now inopportunely registers a protest against compulsory chapel and follows it, even less opportunely, with a tirade based on Bertrand Russell’s 1927 lecture ‘Why I am not a Christian’: ‘If you were to read his essay,’ he tells the dean, ‘and in the interest of open-mindedness I would urge you to do so, you would find that Bertrand Russell, who is one of the world’s foremost logicians as well as a philosopher and a mathematician, undoes with logic that is beyond dispute the first-cause argument, the natural-law argument, the argument from design, the moral arguments for a deity, and the argument for the remedying of injustice’ – the Christian assumptions of the dean and his like. The speech is long, impassioned, educated, silly, and very funny.

This is one of many passages in Roth’s work in which a just sense of outrage against some quite ordinarily oppressive act is expressed with disproportionate, indeed hysterical vigour: in some cases the climax passes beyond language into action, and the whole body of the protester gets involved. Here Marcus vomits copiously over the dean’s furniture; however, it turns out that he has appendicitis, so this event is not of the same order as others in Roth’s work, in which a great deal of excremental matter is distributed in the wrong places. An event fitting that description does occur later in the book, but it is the act of an enemy of Marcus’s, cold-blooded as Marcus could never hope to be.

He has by now dated a well-off woman student and she has quite unexpectedly fellated him in a borrowed car. Totally without sexual experience, Marcus is astonished; but when she visits him in the sickbay they rashly misbehave and are observed. The girl has a history of alcoholism and a scarred wrist from an attempted suicide: just, it might appear, the kind of woman Marcus’s father was afraid his estranged son would fall in with. The liaison ends when Marcus’s mother arrives. The girl is removed; Marcus is falsely accused of making her pregnant. He is then expelled from the college for bribing another boy to sign him in at chapel. Having lost his exemption from the draft, he now lies dead in Korea.

His last days at college coincide with a spontaneous student uprising, an old-style panty raid that gets out of hand. The dean and the president react with all the power of their offices and with the support of the national conscience and passion for rules. Henceforth the rules will be enforced: compulsory chapel attendance, strict parietal rules, including sexual segregation. ‘Human conduct can be regulated, and it will be regulated!’ the president says, reminding the chastened students that while they fooled around with girls’ knickers thousands of their coevals were dying horribly in Korea. ‘And so conspicuous was his abhorrence of “rebellious insolence” that he might have been enunciating the name of a menace resolved to undermine not just Winesburg, Ohio, but the great republic itself.’

A final Historical Note reminds us that by 1971 the ‘social upheavals and transformations’ of the 1960s at last reached Winesburg. On the 20th anniversary of the great White Panty Raid students occupied the offices of the dean of men and the dean of women, and shut down the college for a week. When classes resumed no one was punished, compulsory chapel was abolished, and all the rules and disciplines which for Marcus’s dean had the authority of the natural order disappeared overnight.

The panty raid is not represented as wholly admirable, and Roth credits the dean and the president with genuine abhorrence, and also a certain rhetorical power and control that contrast with the young man’s intemperate responses. Some of Marcus’s accumulating troubles arise from his saying ‘Fuck you’ at inappropriate moments, which they would never do. But we remain on his side, admiring his determination to resist improper rules and discipline, including those which afflict the GI. (Good rules, such as obtain in a kosher butcher’s shop, are another matter.) Why should he not demand liberties that ought to be guaranteed by his being American? Yet the power of the enemies of freedom is also central to Roth’s thinking. His way of introducing American history into narratives that could, on the face of it, proceed without it, has often been remarked, and the effect is stereoscopic. But human liberty, the body’s right to full expression, is the greater subject, for then the enemies are no longer political: they are the miseries of disease and old age and dying, tougher opponents than the most cunning dean. They are all on show in three of the four books published by Roth right before this one: The Dying Animal, Everyman and Exit Ghost.

The Dying Animal is ‘a Kepesh book’: that is, the ‘I’ of the novel is David Kepesh, remembered from The Breast and The Professor of Desire. Now the lecherous Kepesh is old enough to suffer impotence, to fall victim to jealousy, and to witness the assault of cancer on the breast of a youthful lover’s body. The story is set at the time of the Millennium celebrations, and Kepesh still revels in the ‘carefree sexual conduct’ of young girls, the right to which was ‘won by the amazing victory . . . achieved in the 1960s through the force of atrocious behaviour’. This suits Kepesh, who regards sex as ‘the revenge on death’. The novel is a brief and brilliant addendum to a great book, Sabbath’s Theater.

Everyman treats of fate, failure and the death of friends; it opens with a funeral – ‘our species’ least favourite activity’ – and ends, Hamlet-like, with a conversation between a bereaved son and a black grave-digger. In Exit Ghost Nathan Zuckerman, the most important of Roth’s narrators, is the victim of a prostatectomy. As one would expect, his condition and its embarrassments are described with pitiless accuracy (‘A man in diapers!’). After a long absence he returns from his country retreat to New York, where he meets an old friend, Amy Bellette, mistress of the deceased novelist E.I. Lonoff. Amy has a brain tumour and is being pestered by a young man who wants to write Lonoff’s biography. He must be prevented, for biography is regarded as ‘a second death’, and a way of fixing in people’s minds a false image of the man, and his conflict with death. It’s a fate that will also threaten Zuckerman if the biographer has his way. Behind much of this novel there lies an earlier work, The Ghost Writer, where Lonoff seems to be the mask of the novelist Bernard Malamud (though the resemblance doesn’t seem close) and Amy is imagined to be possibly Anne Frank, rescued and resettled in America. Strange identifications echo round Roth’s collected works, and they aid the creation of narrative and biographical ambiguities that serve to protect the freedom of the imagination.

In The Facts, an autobiographical novel, Philip’s verisimilar narrative is subjected to hostile criticism by Zuckerman, who advises against publication. Much the same sequence of events is the subject of My Life as a Man, which also covers the story of the first disastrous marriage. The names of the woman are different, and the victim is the novelist Peter Tarnopol, not Zuckerman but his creator. Roth says that ‘probably nothing else in my work more precisely duplicates the autobiographical facts’: ‘to reshape even the smallest facet would have been an aesthetic blunder.’ We are left with a comfortable margin for ambiguity. That is always essential, still allowing for ‘reality shifts’ and fabrications – Tarnopol, Zuckerman, Kepesh, ‘Philip Roth’. It permits the writer to return when necessary to the shadowy Lonoff and to the terrors of the first marriage with ‘Josie’ or ‘Maureen’, or to the hated biographer, Kliman.

All these characters, these masks, testify not to narrative poverty but to ambiguity and energy. They are ‘metafictional’ devices and, like the prose style or styles, have a certain aggressiveness. Roth is, notoriously, not without enemies. Long ago it was (rather surprisingly) Irving Howe who campaigned against Roth for the damage to American-Jewish culture said to have been done by Portnoy’s Complaint. The best response was to call this a misunderstanding and cite the abundant evidence that the truth was in fact the opposite. Now the recent crop of books has engendered more hostility to Roth. He ought to be past caring, but it isn’t always easy, given the man’s temperament, to overlook the meanness of spirit that characterises the attacks, determined as they are to ‘get’ him. He is a writer of quite extraordinary skill and courage; and he takes on bigger enemies in every book he writes.