by Philip Roth.
Cape, 182 pp., £10, May 2006, 0 224 07869 0
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This brief, disconsolate and in certain respects disagreeable novel starts with the funeral of the anonymous (eponymous) hero and ends with his death. The circularity in the narrative is a powerfully expressive feature of a book whose formal intricacy could be thought the most interesting thing about it. Of course, we only fully appreciate the novel’s structural virtues once we have finished reading it, and if we came to it fresh from the invigorating experience of Sabbath’s Theatre or the American Trilogy or The Plot against America, and were hoping for something less well-behaved than structural virtue, we will have had a lot of adjusting to do. Resolute about facing up to the bleakest facts of the human condition (the progressive deterioration of the body, the miseries of illness, the humiliation of old age and, at the end of it all, death’s unrefusable invitation to oblivion), Everyman defines itself in Roth’s ebulliently productive oeuvre precisely by what is missing from it of his irreverence and vitality.

Roth’s writing in the novels of the past decade has been distinguished by a powerfully propulsive energy. Reading Roth, when he is in the groove, is exhilarating because of the way one feels caught up in the swing and drive of the prose as it sweeps forward into the future of the text. His great interest has been in states of extreme mental and emotional excitation – notably rage and lust – and his writing has found a way to embody these states, whether in impassioned speech or wild interior monologue, with an intensity unrivalled in modern fiction. The style of his prose is oratorical. The rhythms of his sentences, the phrasing of his paragraphs, the pacing of episode and scene, derive their force from the control of emphasis and accent, what we might think of as the gesticulatory aspect of writing. His prose makes much expressive use of its hands. A favourite stylistic habit is to build momentum through the accumulation of appositions within a strongly delineated grammatical logic. Roth’s mastery of this technique allows him to develop long wave-form riffs that build and break and build and break again. Something of the way they work can be observed even in a short passage, such as the following, taken pretty much at random, from American Pastoral:

He had the talent for it, had what it took to avoid anything disjointed, anything special, anything improper, anything difficult to assess or understand. And yet not even the Swede, blessed with all the attributes of a monumental ordinariness, could shed that girl the way Jerry the Ripper had told him to, could go all the way and shed completely the frantic possessiveness, the paternal assertiveness, the obsessive love for the lost daughter, shed every trace of that girl and that past and shake off for ever the hysteria of ‘my child’. If only he could have just let her fade away. But not even the Swede was that great.

This is terrific and it’s pretty much par for the course where the great Roth novels of the past decade are concerned. It’s interesting that, when he speaks, Roth can build paragraphs this way too. Here he is, for example, talking about Coleman Silk (the protagonist of The Human Stain) to David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, in a TV interview filmed in 2003:

He wants to separate himself from the predicament into which he was born. Not the first person to want to do that. You needn’t be black to want to do that. You needn’t be Jewish to like Levi’s rye bread, they used to say. Many people in America particularly have had the opportunity to abandon origins they didn’t want to bother with; that they felt imprisoned by, that they felt compromised by, that they felt ashamed of, that they felt were encumbrances of one kind or another. And who is to say that people have no right to throw off skins if they can throw them off – in pursuit of happiness; especially in a country where it was very possible to disappear. People disappear in America. So he has a background which is right in the American grain, Coleman Silk.

Uttered without significant pause or correction, the fluency of this little speech is amazing, and it perfectly illustrates the controlled inventiveness, the improvisatory fertility of Roth’s habit of thought. In his novels, such sentences seem to irrigate the page and make it bloom under our eyes.

Everyman has none of this propulsive linguistic exuberance. Its energy is of a quite different kind. It is a funerary portrait, a short account of a man’s life cast in the bias of a preoccupation with bodily decay. The story is told in retrospect, the mood is valedictory and morose. Most stories we read or listen to are told in the past tense, but we forget this and experience them as though they were happening now; wondering what happens next is what keeps our attention. In Everyman nothing happens next, not just because the protagonist is buried in the opening scene, but because what we learn of his life comes to us mainly through what he remembers. The novel’s governing tense is the pluperfect, the past tense of the past tense, the tense that declares everything to be unchangeable and finished with:

Though he had grown accustomed to being on his own and fending for himself since his last divorce ten years back, in his bed the night before the surgery he worked at remembering as exactly as he could each of the women who had been there waiting for him to rise out of the anaesthetic in the recovery room, even remembering that most helpless of mates, the last wife, with whom recovering from quintuple bypass surgery had not been a sublime experience.

We arrive at this, straight, as it were, from the Jewish cemetery in Newark, New Jersey, where, together with his relatives and friends, we have just said goodbye to the man who is the subject of this densely involuted sentence. We are on page 15 and the story is over. The sentence before this one is, in a sense, the final sentence of the novel. So, the protagonist’s story begins at the moment when his life energy has ebbed away for ever. Moreover, the sentence which launches his story, far from carrying us swiftly into the stream of things, thwarts our wish for forward movement. Everyman is preoccupied with time and transience, and much of what it has to say on the subject is thrown up at the fault line where the chronology of the text – the order in which we read the words – and the chronology of the story meet. For example, the construction of the sentence just quoted entirely disorganises the historical sequence of the events it recalls. The historical order is as follows: 1. he has quintuple bypass surgery; 2. he comes round from the anaesthetic; 3. he recovers with the ‘last wife’; 4. he divorces the last wife; 5. he spends ten years getting used to being on his own and fending for himself; 6. he lies in bed the night before his next operation; 7. he has the operation. The sentence rearranges this sequence in the order 5,4,6,7,2,3,1.

There are many sentences like this in Everyman: like sperm that can only swim in circles, they are incapable of fertilising the page. Their effect is to disorientate our sense of temporal flow and draw us into the desultory movements of an individual mind as it weaves to and fro across the past. Often, what is recalled will itself be a state of mind suspended between past and future, such as regret or hope, guilt or anxiety, loss or apprehension, disappointment or expectation. Memories are nested within memories, tense within tense: ‘A lifetime later, he remembered the trip to the hospital with his mother for his hernia operation in the fall of 1942, a bus ride lasting no more than ten minutes’; ‘her words soothed him as no woman’s had since his mother sat and talked to him in the hospital after the hernia operation’; ‘Suddenly he was remembering the rush of emotion that carried him down and down into the layers of his life when, at the hospital, his father had picked up each of the three infant grandchildren for the first time’; ‘For the first time since she’d begun the class he could see unmistakably how attractive she must have been before the degeneration of an ageing spine took charge of her life.’ Where the text settles into third-person narrative and gives us direct speech, our awareness that this is the memory of a memory doesn’t leave us. ‘Do the work, finish the job, and by tomorrow the whole thing will be over,’ his father says to the nine-year-old boy to encourage him before his first serious operation, but the energy of the imperatives, and the uplift of the happy prospect of it all being over tomorrow, are inactive – they are fossil matter, the tensions of a present moment embalmed in the past.

Beneath the curlicues and flourishes, the wayward elaborations of memory and association, the basic narrative of Everyman is a chronological sequence: the history of the protagonist’s illnesses, hospital stays and operations since he was a boy. The dates are precise: 1942, aged nine – hernia operation; 1967, aged 34 – burst appendix; 1989, aged 56 – quintuple bypass surgery; 1998, aged 65 – operation to remove obstruction to the renal artery. At this point, about a third of the way through the novel, we move quickly to 2001 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the tempo becomes much slower. The last four years of the protagonist’s life take up the remaining two-thirds of the book.

Ten weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Roth’s Everyman leaves Manhattan and moves to the Starfish Beach retirement village on the New Jersey shore. ‘I have a deep-rooted fondness for survival,’ he tells his daughter, Nancy; but, in any case, he is eager to fulfil a dream he has had since his days as art director at a New York ad agency – to devote his retirement to painting. Living is affluent and easy at the retirement village, but the man is lonely. He dutifully paints every day and keeps fit by running and doing light weights. To make more friends and maybe find a mate, he starts a painting class for the amateur painters among the other pensioners; but there’s no one he fancies and, when his most talented pupil, Millicent Kramer, kills herself, unable any longer to bear the pain of her collapsed spine, he finds an excuse to stop giving the class. He loses interest in painting (‘I’ve had an aesthetic vasectomy,’ he tells his daughter) but cannot lose interest in girls. He makes a fool of himself trying to pick up a girl he regularly sees jogging at the beach (he calls her the Varga girl* – ‘small as she was, she might have been taken for 14’). Humiliated by this ridiculous play ‘for the last great outburst of everything’, he decides to return to New York and ask his daughter and granddaughters to move in with him. But his second wife, Phoebe, has a stroke, and it becomes clear that Nancy will have to look after her when she comes out of hospital. Further surgical procedures must be endured. A succession of phone calls bringing him news of the death and dying of old friends and colleagues darkens his mood. On impulse, on his way to New York to see Phoebe, he turns off the highway to visit his parents’ grave in the Newark Jewish cemetery. He communes with their bones and takes heart from what the bones tell him. He talks to a gravedigger and watches him dig a fresh grave. A few days later, he goes in for another minor operation on his heart, this time opting for a general anaesthetic. This is the anaesthetic from which he will not come round.

Everyman takes its title from the medieval morality play and we are evidently meant to read it as an update for our times of its famous precursor. Both play and novel are about mortality, but that’s about as far as any similarity goes. Medieval Everyman believes in Heaven and Hell, so when Death taps him on the shoulder his immediate thought is for the state of his soul. Roth’s Everyman, ‘looking hungrily back at the superabundant past’, is distressed about what he is losing (he longs ‘to have it all all again’), and since he isn’t expecting a supernatural audit, he is basically unconcerned about whether his books balance. He sees that he has fucked up, particularly in the conduct of his three marriages, but his regret is more self-interested than moral. It isn’t so much the hurt that he has caused others – especially his second wife, Phoebe – that upsets him as the fact that his misdeeds have left him beached at the end of his life with no one to comfort him as death approaches. His view of himself is generally complacent. Not long before he dies, in a painful fit of self-reproach, he recognises how much he has destroyed of what was good in his life, and how he has become someone he does not want to be, but he still manages to exonerate himself: his mistakes, though stupid, were ‘inescapable’; the things he destroyed, he destroyed ‘against his every intention, against his will’.

In the medieval play, when Death shows up, Everyman exclaims, ‘O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind,’ a line which Roth has called ‘the first great line in English drama’. In its spontaneity and directness, the way it bursts out of Everyman before he has had a chance to think, the line wonderfully conveys the sense of someone suddenly waking up, as though roused by Death, from the dream of life. By contrast, Death finds Roth’s Everyman moping about at a loose end in an affluent retirement village in New Jersey, disaffected with life and obsessed by oblivion. ‘O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind’ is the thing he is least likely to say: one way or the other, he has been expecting death all his life. Since boyhood he has known that ‘life’s most disturbing intensity is death.’ As a nine-year-old, lying in bed the night before his hernia operation, he is unable to sleep for thinking that the boy in the next bed is going to die and then for thinking about the body of a German seaman washed up on the New Jersey shore the previous summer. Years later, walking at night under the stars with Phoebe, the love of his life, he is oppressed by thoughts of death. Phoebe is rapturous at the beauty of the night, but for him, as for Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach, the ‘dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars’, speaks of eternal nothingness:

The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away – and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water – made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cosy, lighted, underfurnished home.

Roth heads up Everyman with four lines from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (‘Here, where men sit and hear each other groan’ and so on), but it would have been more apt to have quoted Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, to which Roth on the subject of fear of not-being hasn’t got a lot to add (as who could?):

the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Roth’s Everyman has defended himself against the fear of death with the conviction that he will never die (‘I had thought – secretly I was certain – that life goes on and on’). His best argument for immortality has always been sex. To live has been to fuck and to fuck has been to live. As the chances fade for dynamic sexual relations with a woman so does his sense of being alive. Without a woman, Roth’s Everyman is discovered to have no sustaining resources. Women are there to be made love to, when he is well, and to look after him when he is ill (his third wife, Merete, is written off as ‘helpless’ because she cannot help him). At the foot of every sickbed, there must be a woman to say: ‘Good morning, darling. How’s my brave boy?’ First, it is his mother, then his second wife, Phoebe, then the zaftig Maureen Mrazek, the duty nurse whose physical vitality is the nourishment that hastens his recovery from heart surgery (getting ‘a good look’ at Maureen ‘in her close-fitting polo shirts and short skirts and summer sandals’ rejuvenates him). When a relationship is no longer good for sex, he leaves it. Once he stops having sex with Phoebe, it’s only a matter of time before he is fucking his secretary on the floor of his office, but it is a Danish model he picks up on a photo shoot, 24-year-old Merete, she of the divine arsehole, who brings his second marriage to an end.

How much of this are we meant to take seriously? The elements are there in Everyman of an amusing and affectionate satire on post 9/11 affluent American man (i.e. men), but it isn’t at all clear that that’s what Roth has had in mind or what we get. Osama bin Laden’s taunt to the Americans after 9/11 was that they would never win their self-created War on Terror because they were too afraid of death. A deeper observation, though one that might have been less catchy, would have been that the Western fear of death is really a fear of life. To live is to take risks, to enter the stream of time and let it take you somewhere, accepting that wherever it takes you will be closer to death. If living leads to dying, the best thing to do is to try not to live, to avoid risks, to keep safe, to stay healthy; to eat well, drink little, stay at home and leave Manhattan when the terrorists bring down the World Trade Center:

If her father could have had his way, Nancy and the twins would have moved to the shore too. She could have commuted to work on the Jersey line, leaving the kids with nannies and babysitters costing half as much as help in New York … They’d all be living beside the beautiful sea and away from the threat of al-Qaida … The thought of his daughter and her children falling victim to a terrorist attack tormented him during his first months at the shore, though once there he no longer had anxiety for himself and was rid of that sense of pointless risk-taking that had dogged him every day since the catastrophe had subverted everyone’s sense of security and introduced an ineradicable precariousness into their daily lives. He was merely doing everything he reasonably could to stay alive. As always – and like most everyone else – he didn’t want the end to come a minute earlier than it had to.

Everyone’s sense of security? Like most everyone else? How can he be so sure? And what of ‘ineradicable precariousness’? What could it possibly mean to eradicate it? Whose words are these? Everyman’s or the narrator’s? The whole passage is surely a gentle send-up, and yet, then again, maybe it isn’t. This uncertainty about where the book stands in relation to its own content is pervasive.

By calling his novel Everyman and declining to give its protagonist a name, Roth invites us to search it for general truths about what it might mean to be human. But if we are to learn from Roth’s Everyman, then we must be able to walk around him and look at him from all sides, and this can happen only if the novel places him in a frame, if there is a perceptible gap between the character’s view of himself and the novel’s. After the funeral overture, the idiom of Everyman settles down to a mixture between third-person narrative and style indirect libre (as in the passage just quoted); but since so much of what is narrated about the protagonist is what he felt or thought or remembered, we tend to conflate his perspective with that of the book. Other points of view are represented: we get an honourably ventriloquistic rendering of Phoebe’s complicated disgust and pain at her husband’s betrayal of her for Merete’s arsehole; and elsewhere, he allows us to hear his sons’ assessment of him as an ‘underhanded, irresponsible, frivolously immature sexual adventurer’ (‘as anything but a cunthound, he was a fake through and through’). But the book lets the protagonist roll with these punches, always giving him the last word or letting him co-opt criticism with a disarming admission of fallibility; as if to say: ‘Yes, he’s less than perfect, yes he’s prone to narcissistic self-justification, yes he’s made a mess of things in some ways, but, if we are really honest, isn’t that the way we all are? Isn’t this man all of us? Isn’t he, in being all this, Everyman?’

The question of how we are to ‘take’ Everyman is most insistent where the novel represents human suffering and death. When he walks by the ocean at night with Phoebe, Roth’s Everyman hears the stars tell him ‘unambiguously’ that he will die. In the burial of his father, he recognises death’s ‘brutal directness’. As Larkin puts it in ‘Aubade’, ‘Death is no different whined at than withstood.’ There are, so to speak, no two ways about death. Art, on the other hand, is precisely the domain of the two ways (whether we call this irony or ambiguity) and art is one of the things we do and one of the places we go when faced with death’s brutal directness. Art is also one of our ways of giving death the finger. Laughter is another. If death were not a laughing matter, life would be intolerable. A death, on the other hand, is not at all a laughing matter, which is where art comes in. The trouble with Roth’s Everyman, it seems to me, is that none of the suffering and death in it is singular enough to move us, perhaps because Roth has wanted, out of respect for his subject-matter, to lay art and laughter to one side.

The novel tells us much of pain and illustrates much grieving: Nancy’s migraines, Phoebe’s stroke, Millicent Kramer’s agonising back pain, Gerald Kramer’s brain tumour, Brad Karr’s suicidal depression, Clarence Spraco’s myocardial infarct, Ezra Pollock’s terminal cancer, this one’s brave face, that one’s tears, everybody’s sympathy and solidarity with everyone else. But we know next to nothing about these people and the danger is that we will care less. We cannot identify with their distresses because we haven’t been drawn into their stories. We haven’t been through anything imaginatively with them. In a novel this short, how could we?

At the height of her tirade against her husband for his infidelity, Phoebe moans: ‘Oh, why go on – all these episodes are so well known.’ Her outburst is one of the few passages in the novel where we recognise again Roth’s superb ability to embody the energy of human feelings. Phoebe’s words are what Lacan would have called ‘full speech’. We feel the pain in them. But the narrator cuts the scene short. ‘But these episodes are indeed well known and require no further elaboration,’ he says. It is a remark whose attitude and tone inform the whole novel. In his interview with David Remnick, Roth speaks of the need for a novel to ‘earn’ the engagement of its readers. Yet in Everyman he seems to have grown impatient with the processes and exigencies of novel writing, with the need to earn his effects. Perhaps, also, faced with this subject, and at his age, he felt the need to say something unadorned and true. ‘Sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends,’ he is often quoted as saying. In Everyman, he left playfulness at home.

So I think we are not intended to identify with the characters in this book. Instead, we are meant to put on our suits and follow the coffin at a distance, reflecting on the predicament that unites us all. The novel is short because it is important that it seem inadequate to its subject. ‘How can a human life be comprehended by a mere book?’ it must seem to ask, and what, in any case, is our life but ‘a show of passion’? We are fallible, we are weak, we fuck up, we end up where we didn’t expect or want to be, our capacity for life is hopelessly too great for the time we are given to enjoy it, we grow old too soon, we suffer, we die. At the funerals of those we love we are lost for words; we stumble and falter and utter platitudes or ramble on too long about the past. When friends phone us to tell us of their losses and pain, how can we comfort them? What can we do beyond showing them our solidarity? And what can a novelist do, if he is honest and true, but rehearse all this in a solemn and sorrowing litany? Are not the pleasures of the text just another illusion?

Attempting to address his big subject with gentleness and humanity but without irony, Roth runs the risk that he will fail to take his readers with him. If we come to this novel hoping to spend time with someone usually so mercurial and interesting, we may be aghast to find him taking himself so seriously. We look for the angle, but there is none. We expect the novel to crack up, to corpse, but it keeps a dismayingly straight face. Puzzlement may then turn to flippancy, flippancy to restlessness and restlessness to outright irritation. What at first struck me as odd, seemed tedious on second reading, and I began to think, pace Berryman, ‘Roth, friends, is boring. We must not say so.’ Like a groupie who has paid his entrance fee to see a favourite performer, only to find that the guy has decided to preach a sermon instead, I grew sullen, then rebellious; I felt a slow handclap develop inside me, and the chant ‘Sab-bath, Sab-bath’, at first faint, grew louder by the page.

But this is Philip Roth. Everyman may be a dying novel, in parts it may already be dead, but it is not a dud. Its very manner of boring us (to death?) is intensely, if unpleasantly, interesting. The energy of the big Roth novels of the past decade is exothermic; each of them explodes outwards from the idea that (to quote Roth in his interview with Remnick) makes them ‘combustible’. The further we get from the moment of combustion, however, the more the energy of these books disperses and dissipates itself – the first half is always better than the second. I Married a Communist and The Human Stain are capped off with inspired endings, but in each case the idea which gives the novel its basic impetus has lost its thrust long before these last scenes. After its wonderful start, American Pastoral becomes repetitive and eventually peters out. The ending of The Plot against America is as implausible and perfunctory as the beginning is profoundly imagined and enthralling. All of these books spring away from an origin rather than converge on an end. They could all be said to be in some sense teleologically challenged.

In the light of Everyman, it would be tempting, if a little glib, to suggest that Roth’s difficulties with endings express his difficulty with the End. Certainly, he has a difficulty with utopias, and his more recent work is much occupied with the battle between the inhuman purity of ideological systems and the saving impurity of the incarnate world. The messy here and now might accordingly be thought to be Roth’s heaven, but in fact he locates paradise in the past,in the cheerfully energetic chaos of life in the Jewish neighbourhoods of Newark, New Jersey in the middle decades of the 20th century.

In Everyman, the enemy of the incarnate world is Death itself, the ultimate ideologue of the one pure idea. Heaven is once again located in a Jewish childhood in prewar New Jersey – ‘the world as it innocently existed before the invention of death’. But where in American Pastoral and The Plot against America the battle of good and evil is enacted in the course of the novel, in Everyman the battle is already lost: there can be no arguing with Death in the way that Swede Levov can argue with his daughter Merry, or Mr Roth with Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

The energy of Everyman is endothermic – the book sucks heat out of its surroundings to become dank with the chill of the grave. For the characters, the way back to the warm world of childhood is blocked by Death. For the reader, Death also blocks the way to the future. Reading a book is always a mild metaphor for the experience of living. We enter a novel, pass through it and expect to get out at the other end. To an extent we may enjoy imagining an afterlife for the characters. Everyman prevents either its characters or the reader from leaving it. By placing the end of the story at the beginning of the book, Roth answers the question about where it might be going before it has even got started, and he creates of his novel an eternal circle, which, in view of its doggedly monophonic idiom, might be compared to a Möbius strip, a loop with only one side and a single leading edge.

Throughout Everyman, surgical anaesthesia is felt as a synecdoche for death. The nine-year-old boy experiences the lowering of the ether mask as a smothering; during an operation conducted under local anaesthetic, the grown man suffers almost unendurable claustrophobia; on his night walk with Phoebe he fears ‘the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water’; and in the most chilling image of the book, at his father’s funeral, he pictures his father as though buried without a coffin: ‘and all at once he saw his father’s mouth as if there were no coffin, as if the dirt they were throwing into the grave was being deposited straight down on him, filling up his mouth, blinding his eyes, clogging his nostrils, and closing off his ears.’

Could it be that Everyman’s fear of death is actually a fear of being buried alive? The most disturbing impression I got from Everyman is of the novel itself enacting such a burial. With the last scene of the story placed at the beginning of the book, the forward face of the story is blocked off, its mouth stopped with text, its nostrils clogged with words. It is as though, in its darkest purposes, this novel seeks to bury everyone along with it, as though no one, characters or readers, is to get out alive. It is as though, in its most omnipotent tendency, this little book with its black cover (‘like a tombstone’, Roth has said, approvingly) seems to say: ‘If not me, then no one.’

But the sense of entombment is not total. There are enough passages in Everyman where the reader can breathe again – Phoebe’s tirade, the pages devoted to the seduction of Merete, the reminiscences of childhood in New Jersey. They are like fragments of the old glittering Roth mosaic lodged in grey volcanic ash. And one passage, above all, stands out. The man, looking back ‘through the large sunny window’ of his boyhood years, sees himself as a boy swimming in the ocean off the New Jersey shore – a luminous vision of ‘the ecstasy of a whole day of being battered silly by the sea’. Here for once in Everyman, through the power of this wonderful writing, one forgets the pluperfect tense and enters the flow of time and experiences the book from within. This is the imperishable core of the novel, and it made me think of lines from a poem by Szymborska, ‘On Death, without Exaggeration’: ‘There’s no life/that couldn’t be immortal/if only for a moment.’

Allusions to Death in Venice have cropped up more than once in Roth’s more recent novels. It isn’t difficult to think of Everyman as his tribute to Mann. And if we think of it this way, then the last page may seem especially touching, as it acknowledges that, while Everyman may be Aschenbach, his Tadzio, as he sinks into his final unconsciousness, is not the Varga girl ‘with her long, crinkly auburn hair tied back’ and her ‘running shorts and tank top’, but the boy whose vitality ‘nothing could extinguish’, the boy ‘whose slender little torpedo of an unscathed body once rode the big Atlantic waves from a hundred yards out in the wild ocean all the way in to shore’.

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