Philip Roth in Israel

Julian Barnes

  • The Counterlife by Philip Roth
    Cape, 336 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 224 02871 5

Philip Roth’s new novel is marvellously rich, boisterously serious, dense, fizzing and formally audacious. More than with most novels, to review it is to betray it. This isn’t inappropriate, since one of Roth’s abiding themes is fiction’s betrayal of life and the novelist’s treachery to those who surround him. But prudent readers may prefer not to discover The Counterlifes intricate surprises in advance.

The novel’s main character – need you be told? – is Nathan Zuckerman, whose reputed similarities to Roth himself have already been amply described. I remember my English master, twenty-five years ago, asking our class provokingly, ‘But what happens when Ted Hughes runs out of animals?’, and even among devoted Rothites there has been a tendency over the last couple of novels to greet Nathan’s regular reappearance with a mild resignation bordering on surliness. But he’s still there, abuzz with his old obsessions, keen to update us on his life again: and such indomitability has its charm. ‘Nathan, why are you still hanging around?’ gives way to ‘Hi, Nathan, how ya doin’?’

He’s doing, at the start of the novel, much as before, wranglingly embroiled with his Jewish family and wranglingly embroiled with the fiction he finds therein: back at his old trade of ‘exploiting and distorting family secrets’, as his dentist brother Henry puts it. Henry – at least in Nathan’s account of him – is normality personified: his successful New Jersey life includes a perfect family and a satisfactory mistress in Wendy – ‘a nice kid with an oral hang-up who he’s pretty sure will never phone the house’. Henry and Wendy, amongst their erotic sport, play not at Doctor and Nurse but at that less familiar variant, Dentist and Assistant. ‘ “But I am the assistant,” Wendy said. “I know,” he replied, “and I’m the dentist – but pretend anyway.” ’

The only abnormal thing about Henry is a sudden heart condition and its grim consequences: the drugs needed to control it tamp him down into impotence. A bypass operation might free him from a lifetime of being unmanned: on the other hand, it might kill him. Henry, mourning his daily adultery, takes the gamble – and expires; he was (Roth heroically holds back the tempting jest for two hundred pages, when it takes on extra force) ‘dying to get laid’. His death and funeral provide Nathan – reluctant repository of his brother’s secrets – with the typical temptation of further, final betrayal, and the typical observation that writing spoils living: ‘This profession even fucks up grief.’ It provides Roth – who has shown before how immaculately he can juggle irony, poignancy and roaring comedy at a good funeral – with his opening frieze of American-Jewish life. The mourners gather: from brave wife to Neanderthal uncle-in-law, from plain-speaking Cousin Essie to Barry Shuskin the cryonics bore.

Cryonics: that is the tip-off. In one view of the world, Henry might die and go to heaven. In Barry Shuskin’s view of the world, Henry might ‘die’, spend a purgatorial period in an aluminium tube surrounded by liquid nitrogen, and go to a future where his heart condition can be safely cured. Roth offers a third possibility, a third destination. The novelist claims his right to interfere in deaths alongside the theologian and the quack scientist. Henry dies – and goes to Israel.

The first hint that something is up, formally, is at the beginning of this second part: not in Henry’s apparent resurrection (concealed for a few pages), but in the switch from third to first person. What’s behind that, you wonder, as Nathan steps out of the New Jersey frieze and, coming closer, speaks to us directly. The initial solution to suggest itself is that first rather than third person is a better way of ‘doing’ Israel. As anyone who has ever been there will know, Israel is a very noisy place. It’s like adding a couple of extra speakers to your stereo and ending up with quadrophony: you frequently find yourself getting it in the back of the neck. Israel is a country with no small talk, only argument, where Western manners are treated as effete and evasive, where you are constantly reminded that you are witnessing History Now. Using the first person thrusts us more committedly into the babble and rage of Israel: we link arms with Nathan and get it in the neck at the same time as he does. Later – much later – in the book a more obvious reason for the formal switch becomes clear: that this section (along with others) is a different type of narrative – a section from Nathan Zuckerman’s latest novel. But perhaps this second reason doesn’t rule out the first.

Henry dies and goes to Israel. Or rather, Henry survives the knife but in post-operative trauma and depression finds his ‘normal’ life quite abnormal: he takes a plane to Tel Aviv to begin his counterlife on a West Bank settlement. Nathan follows five months later, professional curiosity jostling with family duty. Nathan Zuckerman in Israel! Philip Roth in Israel! (That little frolic when Portnoy got his head kicked in by Naomi the Jewish Pumpkin was only an early draft.) It is, surely, where they’ve both been heading, down all these books: where else do you go for your big shoot-out with Jewishness? Israel is, at first, New Jersey in spades: subject for a bigger (and more serious) comic frieze. In Israel, as Roth observes, ‘argument is enormous ... everything is italicised by indignation and rage.’ Nathan gets a ‘word-whipping’ from a quadrophony, a dissonant polyphony of voices: the sceptical journalist fearful that Israel is becoming ‘an American-Jewish Australia’ and appalled by Jewish fundamentalism (‘The Bible is their bible,’ he comments incredulously of the settlers); the young Chasid, ‘skin tone a breath away from the morgue’, who invites Nathan with sinister persistence to pray; the nutty American kid Jimmy Ben-Joseph, ‘high as a kite on Jewish commitment’, unnerving fan of Nathan’s books (descendant of Alvin Pepler), whose only complaint about Jerusalem is that it lacks a baseball team; and, most loomingly, the messianic settler Lippman, ferocious advocate of Jewish might. Nathan wanders through the verbal barrage, riding as many punches as he can, playing his ‘walk-on role as Diaspora straight man’ with his aggressive hosts. About the only relief he gets is when Daphna the welder’s wife sticks it to Norman Mailer in a big way.

It is a triumphant section of the novel – comic, scary, vibrant, seething with observation. This is just what Israel feels like to the eight-day visitor (whether Roth will get any thanks when the book is read over there is an interesting question. Will they trace a line of progress from the kid novelist who betrayed his Jewish folks back in Jersey to the distinguished writer who has now acquired the power and confidence to betray the whole state of Israel?). But this section, ‘Judea’, is also where the book begins to unfold, to announce itself as one of Roth’s major novels. What, the reader wonders to begin with, is the connection between the first and second parts, between the seemingly local and the international, between the state of Henry’s cock and the state of Israel? But the personal-historical parallels have been carefully prepared, and are carefully drawn out. Once-impotent Henry flees America and is restored to manhood, to potency (he even carries a gun), to purpose; he casts off ‘the old life of personal non-historical problems’, discarding the solipsistic ‘me’ and immersing himself in the public ‘we’; he demonstrates the capacity to transform himself. The parallels with the state of Israel are evident: the powerless, the scattered, the impotent Jews of the Diaspora are restored to potency by nationhood; there they acquire their full capacity for self-transformation; the Jews, just like Henry, have a right and a duty to begin again, to slough off being low-profile in a Gentile world and seize their counterlife.

Such ideas – since this is a novel, and since its protagonist only has to hear one theory, especially about Jewishness, to immediately frame and half-believe its opposite – are naturally opposed as well as expounded. At the initial personal level, there is the question of Henry’s motivation: is the flight into Israel (a hint at, a pun on, the flight into Egypt?) a search for roots, or its very opposite, a desire to be uprooted? Does he go, Nathan wonders, in order to be found, or, perhaps more interestingly, in order to be lost? Then, on the wider scale, Nathan frets at the daunting questions Israel inevitably throws up. Who says, for instance, that the returning Jews have the patent on Jewish self-transformation? Doesn’t self-transformation operate just as well, if not better, in the Diaspora – where Galician peasants may turn into Jersey dentists? What, when it comes down to it, is – ‘normality’ for a Jew (‘Stop calling me a normal Jew,’ Nathan protests at one point: perhaps the normal condition for a Jew is abnormality). Is the real maker of Jewish history the Zionist or the assimilationist? Does the committed, doubt-free life of a Jewish settler on the West Bank dissolve the historical ‘abnormalities’ of the Diaspora Jews – or is this new life on a rocky hill on someone else’s land the deeply abnormal one? This Judea section advances the book in two ways: it welds the personal to the public, the hysterical to the historical; it also sets up pairs of magnetic poles between which the novel will oscillate for the rest of its length – normal or abnormal, authentic or artificial, me or we, life or counterlife, potency or impotence (not to mention Henry or Nathan, actor or onlooker, liver or describer). This is a novel in which we are advised to attend carefully when we hear various key words like ‘normal’, ‘abnormal’ (first used on the opening page about Henry’s medical condition), ‘transform’, ‘life’, ‘potent’. It is a novel in which even objects show transformational capacity: thus in a hijack scene an old Galician circumcision knife reappears in a changed – post-Diaspora? – guise as a security guard’s torture weapon; once used for severing foreskins, it now threatens the balls of the hijacker. Historical events, too, have their counterlife. For instance, when the Arabs attacked in 1973 on Yom Kippur, they caught most of Israel at prayer; this was intelligent (or vile). But they could have been more intelligent (or viler) and attacked on the less solemnly observed day of Rosh Hashanah. If they had, half the country would have been on holiday, and instead of the military being able to bid their families goodbye and rejoin their units via empty roads, the country would have been in a chaos of movement, and the damage far worse. Each life has a counterlife, each war a counterwar.

Nathan returns from Israel after failing to win round Henry, and it’s time for his counterlife. It wasn’t Henry, after all, who had the heart condition and the impotence, who died vainly trying to restore his sexual capacity – it was Nathan himself all along. It wasn’t Nathan who couldn’t bring himself to make a speech at Henry’s funeral – it was the other way round. It wasn’t Henry who had the operation because he ached for sex with his assistant Wendy (indeed, Henry, briefly in command of the narrative, insists on the propriety of their relationship) – it was Nathan. What’s more, and more ironic, the author of the famous priapic classic Carnovsky wanted his potency back for the most conventional of reasons: so that he could marry the English shiksa upstairs and have a child with her. It is Henry now who, triumphantly and appropriately, makes that crack about ‘dying to get laid’. So what have we been reading? We’ve been listening to Nathan trying to foist his own problems on to his healthy brother Henry; pathetically, he’s been rewriting history, using fiction to evade the truth about himself. Henry knows the truth, and Henry can tell us. As he does, the Henry/Nathan polarity does another spin. Hitherto Nathan the famous writer has been the dominant one, with Henry raging but submissive as he watches his family being betrayed and misdescribed. Now, with Nathan dead, Henry not only has a voice (‘So long as Nathan was alive, Henry couldn’t write anything unself-consciously, not even a letter to a friend’): he also has the power to correct Nathan’s literary scoundrelism. This he does by conning his way into Nathan’s apartment and removing those pages of Nathan’s novel which luridly misrepresent Henry’s life (Roth betrays Henry’s betrayal of Nathan and restores the cuts). The submissive may become dominant: Israel has not been forgotten.

Mainly, though, we are back to the personal life, to Zuckermania and to another sort of transformation: after the individual’s and the nation’s, the novelist’s. For instance, Nathan finds that when he writes about Henry he is constantly tempted to make him more interesting than he is. The novelist itches to make the dullard bright; ‘what-could-be’ always has to top ‘what-is’. In other words, the abnormal always seeks to drive out the normal. At the funeral service for Nathan, his publisher delivers a eulogy in which he observes that what people envy in novelists ‘is the gift for theatrical self-transformation, the way they are able to loosen and make ambiguous their connection to a real life through the imposition of talent’. This statement, like much else in the book, is not what it at first seems. Far from being an objective (if friendly) professional assessment, it has actually been written in advance by Nathan himself, still fiddling the record, controlling (or transforming) even his own obituary. (By the way, will the ‘death’ of Nathan Zuckerman prove to be the death of Nathan Zuckerman? Probably not while there is cryonics – or at least Philip Roth – around.) It is in this section, ‘Gloucestershire’, that the novel becomes, even by Roth’s and Nathan’s standards, vigorously self-conscious. Having unfolded, it now starts to fold back in on itself, and to show that some of those first folds were fake anyway. Characters reflect on their own fictional status; the narrative includes its own commentary on itself and looks ahead to its own final stages; Henry and Maria – Nathan’s English wife – each reject Nathan’s account of events (his work is now denounced just as his life was denounced in Israel).

As the novel increasingly begins to feel like layers of trapdoors, some of which turn out to be trampolines, the reader, falling and bouncing, hangs on to Maria (naively, no doubt, but with a knowing naivety). She is the character who appears as the still centre not just in Nathan’s life but in the book. English, passive, married, companionable, she is also, we learn, uncomplicated by the head-turning dualities which swirl through the rest of the book: she ‘only’ has ‘a real life’, she tells Nathan – by which she means she lacks his creative life (though she dabbles with the odd short story), but from which we also understand that she has no counterlife, or no more of a counterlife than consists in running away with Nathan. We can handle this character, we think. When she says of her husband, ‘I do think he has another life,’ she means no more than that she suspects he has a mistress. Her view of human psychology is that ‘a lot of people do things not for the deep Jewish or religious reasons that he [Nathan] thinks they do, but they just do them.’

Maria and Gloucestershire and English life – where History moves so much more sluggishly than in Israel – represent for Nathan the quest for pastoral. As Henry sought the simplification of life in the rocky landscape of Judea, so Nathan seeks it in the ordered greenery of England. But the quest is misconceived, the pastoral poisoned – by anti-semitism. Before Nathan set off for Israel he had met rich BMW-driving London liberals who backed Arafat: now he runs into Freshfields, Maria’s county family who have adorned Gloucestershire for three hundred years (how unlike the New Jersey immigrants, the West Bank settlers). Stiff mother, rabid sister, even sweet Maria herself, disclose unguessed layers of old English anti-semitism; there are two occasions when posh Englishwomen maintain that Jews smell. In the pastoral landscape the wells are poisoned; the Fresh-fields do not provide pastures new.

Roth can expect the English section to be misread (which will be no new experience for him). England depicted solely in terms of anti-semitism and well-done postcard views of nice scenery and Christmas carol services? Do English liberals support Arafat? Do upper-class women think that Jews smell, and if they think so, do they say so? On the whole, I would have thought not. But in the novel’s terms, this isn’t relevant; the point, presumably, is that this is how England appears to Nathan, this is what his manic sensitivity drives him to discover; he won’t be satisfied until he does discover it, and such a discovery inevitably destroys the idyll.

As this indicates, The Counterlife is an extraordinarily well-defended novel. It out-thinks and second-guesses you all the time. (So Maria’s dialogue when she first appears isn’t very convincing; it sounds far more like English prose than English speech; is the flawless Roth ear not quite attuned? Ah, but this is only Nathan’s account.) At times the book reminds you, appropriately enough, of a hilltop settlement on the West Bank; it looks like a normal village until you notice how carefully close the houses are built, how usefully the settlement occupies that knoll with a commanding view of all approaches, how pointedly all the land around it has been cleared. It would be very hard to creep up and take this place unawares. That English section does, however, provoke the following difficulty. Is the portrait of English anti-semitism meant to be realistic: in which case, is it true? On the other hand, if it’s not, if it’s a typical emanation of Nathan’s paranoia, then how are we to react to those parts of Nathan’s narrative – in particular, the Israel scenes – which appear to us so laudably realistic? There is a problem here.

As the novel moves towards its final stages, the high self-consciousness has its dangers. Trapdoors and trampolines. Maria, for instance, begins as a ‘live’ character in a Roth novel, until she is denounced and ‘de-lifed’ by Henry, who declares her only a character in Nathan’s posthumous novel (why, Nathan has purloined her name from one of Henry’s mistresses – and even, we note, purloined a ‘green silk jersey dress’ from the same source); she returns, seemingly ‘lifed’ again, in a question-and-answer section where she describes her feelings about appearing in Nathan’s novel – until we discover that the questioner is Nathan, and it’s still him animating her again; finally, in a closing letter to Nathan (which is part of his book), she announces her decision to abscond from the text because she can’t bear being manhandled any more. A character in a book within a book deciding to take no further part in the narrative? Not far from here lies preciosity, and perhaps there is a thinning of our interest as overt fictionality stomps on imagined life. Maria even urges Nathan to disobey Philip Roth – ‘to rise in exuberant rebellion against your author and remake your life’.

But the novel ends very strongly. Nathan Zuckerman, ‘a Jew among Gentiles and a Gentile among Jews’, lies defeated in his pursuit of pastoral: the house by the river in Chiswick, where he planned to live with his English wife, and whose transformation by builders represented his own possibility of transformation, is empty, dark, unfinished. Nathan will go on being Nathan. Maria represents the case for simplification, which is also the case for happiness: ‘You are forty-five years old,’ she tells him, ‘and something of a success – it’s high time you imagined life working out.’ She even proposes the most radical dissolving of polarities in a raging taunt during their first and final quarrel:

‘Your brother’s off his rocker? You are your brother! ... You disguise yourself as rational and moderate when you are the wild nut! You are Mordecai Lippman!

Nathan acknowledges the pull of simplifying pastoral – which he traces back to the sperm’s yearning for the womb – and its seriousness as a ‘mythological pursuit’. But he comes down on the side of complication, a world of humming polarities where even choice is an oversimplification: ‘The burden isn’t either/or, consciously choosing from possibilities equally difficult and regrettable – it’s and/and/and/and/and as well. Life is and: the accidental and the immutable, the elusive and the graspable, the bizarre and the predictable, the actual and the potential, all the multiplying realities, entangled, overlapping, colliding, conjoined – plus the multiplying illusions! This times this times this times this ... ’ For Nathan the self, like life, is polarised and irreconcilably various. All we can do is play at being ourselves with the comparatively small amount of self we have at our disposal. This returns the reader – in the novel’s typically cunning way – to that scene between Henry and Wendy where they play at being Dentist and Assistant. Light comedy returns transformed into existential conclusion.

You are your brother? No, life is and. As life begins with the sexual act, so the novel ends with it. First, with an argument between Nathan and Maria about circumcision. Nathan, the non-believing Jew, votes in its favour: not for medical or social reasons, but for the philosophical one which divides the couple. Circumcision is a mark of reality, a sign of expulsion from the womb (source of the pastoral myth), a reminder that the world is not a place of ‘strifeless unity’. Second, with a brief, tender scene in which Nathan remembers the first time Maria held his (circumcised) erection: ‘Uncertainly, I asked, “Isn’t it to your liking?” “Oh yes, it’s fine,” you replied, delicately weighing it in the scale of your hand, “but it’s the phenomenon itself: it just seems a rather rapid transition.” ’ You half-expect her to say ‘transformation’: but perhaps the words are hintingly close enough anyway.

There are more rich folds and cunning corners in this stunning novel, which perhaps sounds more schematic and less ‘lifed’ in summary than it is to read; while its world-stage Zuckerman is a figure Roth need never give up, any more than Hughes gave up animals. The final thing that needs to be said about The Counterlife – since we tend to take this quality for granted – is that it’s fucking funny. The phrase is used advisedly. Roth isn’t urbanely witty, or chucklingly ironic, or wry and dry: he’s just ... fucking funny.