Sabbath’s Theater 
by Philip Roth.
Cape, 451 pp., £15.99, October 1995, 0 224 03814 1
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Portnoy complained that his life was a Jewish joke, and Philip Roth himself once suggested that American reality beggared the imagination of even the most extravagant novelist. Who could have invented Eisenhower, he asked, and no sooner had he invented a caricature of Richard Nixon in Our Gang than Nixon turned out to be caricaturing himself in the same way, locker-room slang and all. ‘No a man’s character isn’t his fate,’ Roth writes in Operation Shylock: ‘a man’s fate is the joke that his life plays on his character’ – and a person in that novel is described as ‘a woman forged by the commonplace at its most cruelly ridiculous’. Life doesn’t imitate art. Life disgraces art; art, for all its slumming, has no idea how far life will go, how low it will sink.

Even suicide, or the thought of suicide, enters this perspective in Roth’s new novel:

Now, the note. Coherent or incoherent? Angry or forgiving? Malevolent or loving? High-flown or colloquial? With or without quotations from Shakespeare. Martin Buber and Montaigne? Hallmark should sell a card. All the great thoughts he had not reached were beyond enumeration; there was no bottom to what he did not have to say about the meaning of his life. And something funny is superfluous – suicide is funny. Not enough people realise that. It’s not driven by despair or revenge, it’s not born of madness or bitterness or humiliation, it’s not a camouflaged homicide or a grandiose display of self-loathing – it’s the finishing touch to the running gag ... For anyone who loves a joke, suicide is indispensable.

There is panic as well as levity in this stuff, of course; there’s nothing funny about realising which things are funny. And the character whose manic inner monologue we are catching here is not going to commit suicide anyway, even if he thinks about it a lot, and the second part of the novel is called ‘To Be Or Not To Be’. How could he commit suicide? ‘Everything he hated was here,’ as the last words of the book say.

He is Morris Sabbath, and the theatre of the title, literally recalling his career as a puppeteer and forgotten director of a lamentable King Lear and a creditable-sounding Cherry Orchard, metaphorically names the show he puts on for 450 pages, cracking up in the wake of the death of his mistress. First she wanted him to go straight, and to sleep with no one else; then it turned out she had cancer; then she died. This is too much for Morris, better known as Mickey. He falls out with his wife, leaves his home in northern New England; stays with an old friend and colleague in New York, attends the funeral of another old friend. He is swamped with memories; of his brother, killed in the Philippines in World War Two; of his mother who never recovered from this loss; of his first wife, missing since the mid-Sixties; of his miserable, angry second marriage and his alcoholic wife; and above all of Drenka, the mistress, the respectable Yugoslavian woman who became an innkeeper’s wife in America – before she suddenly appealed for monogamy-in-adultery she had demonstrated startling talents for delighted and guiltless sexual misbehaviour. ‘This piece of human sunlight,’ as her husband calls her, was ‘a conventional woman who would do anything’: ‘Her crudeness was the most distinguishing force in her life – its distinction. What was she otherwise? What was he otherwise? She was his last link with another world, she and her great taste for the impermissible. As a teacher of estrangement from the ordinary, he had never trained a more gifted pupil.’ The ‘teacher of estrangement’ is just Sabbath being portentous; he probably taught Drenka only what she knew already. The key words here are ‘last link’. What will he do once his connection to the impermissible is gone? Permit himself everything? Settle for the conventionally permitted? His great fear is that he will have to settle for the possible, which may not be much.

Sabbath is 64, and he thinks his sexual end is nigh. Sex is an obsession and a principle with him, an instrument of perpetual misrule. He’s even more tiresome about erections and insertions and emissions than Portnoy was, and the book gets tiresome with him; but he’s older than Portnoy, he’s fading fast and you have to admire his distaste for the settled life he won’t live. He’s never short of a snappy apologia:

Most men have to fit fucking in around the edges of what they define as more pressing concerns: the pursuit of money, power, politics, fashion, Christ knows what it might be – skiing. But Sabbath had simplified his life and fit the other concerns in around fucking. Nikki had run away from him, Roseanna was fed up with him, but all in all, for a man of his stature, he had been improbably successful.

‘Many Americans hated their homes,’ Sabbath thinks. ‘The number of homeless in America couldn’t touch the number of Americans who had homes and families and hated the whole thing.’ Sabbath enjoys ‘the simple pleasure ... of making people uncomfortable, comfortable people especially’; but he is also eloquent about secrecy as a form of human right – not the right to privacy but the right to deviance, to the long party to be held with the skeletons in the cupboard. His wife, back from an AA meeting, says: ‘You’re as sick as your secrets’. Sabbath is outraged by this ‘pointless, shallow, idiotic maxim’, and takes off: ‘Wrong – you’re as adventurous as your secrets, as abhorrent as your secrets, as lonely as your secrets, as alluring as your secrets, as courageous as your secrets, as vacuous as your secrets, as lost as your secrets; you’re as human as ... ’ That’s as far as he gets before his wife interrupts him with another cliché.

We understand Sabbath best, or at least most sympathetically, when we see him understanding his New York friend’s wife. He’s projecting his feelings onto her, but he’s probably not wrong. Sex is not only, in this view, the one sure pleasure, it is an abandonment of the self to disorder, to the dishevelled realities that time can only take away. The managed life is not worth living.

Everything is leaving her except for her behind, which her wardrobe informs her is broadening by the season – and except for this steadfast prince of a man marked by reasonableness and ethical obligation the way others are scarred by insanity or illness. Sabbath understood her state of mind, her state of life, her state of suffering: dusk is descending, and sex, our greatest luxury, is racing away at a tremendous speed, everything is racing off at a tremendous speed and you wonder at your folly in having ever turned down a single squalid fuck.

The counterpart to this understanding, the bleak consequence of the commitment to misrule, is Sabbath’s first wife’s disappearance, because she could take only so much chaos. He remembers telling her that the chief character in The Cherry Orchard was ‘a woman in flight from disorder ... Yet she carried the disorder within her – she is the disorder.’ More soberly, in the present moment, surfacing from this recollection, Sabbath thinks: ‘But I was the disorder. I am disorder.’ He is the Falstaff the comfortable world must disown; but also the unhappy destroyer of the comfortless. He would like to see himself as the human creature in Yeats’s poem ‘Meru’, conveniently placed in the book for him by Roth in the form of a photocopy from a girl’s literature class:

Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality

But even desolation is a joke in Roth’s world; as Sabbath is having his breakdown he’s half-convinced he’s faking it, and could call it off if he wanted to.

Is Sabbath an artist? He thinks there was a kind of art in the way he seduced his students (before a scandal lost him his teaching job) into the world of sexual pleasure, or as he puts it, ‘in the way he was able to unshackle his girls from their habit of innocence’. ‘Unshackle’ is wonderful, and reminds us that Sabbath is a fraud as well as a rebel. More memorably still, he is the portrait of the artist as a nobody – or as everybody who never managed to do anything much.

He’d paid the full price for art, only he hadn’t made any. He’d suffered all the old-fashioned artistic sufferings – isolation, poverty, despair, mental and physical obstruction – and nobody knew or cared. And though nobody knowing or caring was another form of artistic suffering, in his case it had no artistic meaning. He was just someone who had grown ugly, old and embittered, one of billions.

This is Sabbath in an unusual moment of self-pity, not the whole or the final truth about him. But he is among other things the rogue we can’t romanticise. We can make an allegory out of his life – as Roth suggests in Operation Shylock we make allegories out of everything – we can use him, as he uses himself, as a stick to beat the comfortable classes with. But that’s not going to help him, or anyone like him. Indeed the very notion of ‘help’ belongs to a condescending vocabulary that refuses the depths of the disorder we can’t understand.

There is some wonderful writing in this book, as I hope my quotations have shown, and Sabbath’s insatiable sexual interests – his eagerness to wrap young girls’ underwear around himself, for example – are meant to bother us as well as entertain us. But they do finally shut him and us off from the world beyond the private parts. This exclusivity is part of his pathos as a figure, what makes him worth a novelist’s attention; but it also often turns him into an old bore as well as an old rogue; a sort of of rustic Sade with a limited repertoire. When Sabbath visits Drenka’s grave for one of his masturbating sessions in honour of her memory and his grief, he discovers that others of her lovers are doing the same thing. ‘An abomination,’ he thinks, and his indignation is very funny. But the set-up does suggest that the sexual world is a small place.

The manic is always interesting, and Roth is at his best when he sends his characters off on manic flights, as in Portnoy passim, as in the great riffs of fantasy in The Ghost Writer and The Anatomy Lesson, as in the wonderful argument, in Operation Shylock, about what Irving Berlin did for the Jews by terminally schlockifying Christmas and Easter in popular song; as in Mickey Sabbath’s visit to an alcoholics’ clinic modelled on Poe’s House of Usher. But mania itself, sexual or otherwise, is pretty repetitive; it mostly goes round and round. Sabbath’s Theater sometimes seems to think it can compete with life after all, invent the unlikely Eisenhower – forgetting that what was unimaginable about him was his dullness. Secrecy is a right, but not much fun if everyone has the same secret, the same revealing polaroids hidden in their chest of drawers. They just weren’t screwing or getting screwed enough. Of course, Roth has foreseen this objection, even courted it. He’s already there, lurking in the critics’ cemetery, setting up his limitations as one of life’s tautologies, suggesting that fate’s best joke might well be a mangled proverb: ‘If only things had been different, everything would be otherwise.’ Can’t argue with that.

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