A large part of the reason for the continuing democratic vigour of the American novel is that the great wave of Modernism was no more than a ripple by the time it reached New England’s shores. American writers simply did not have the time or energy to spare for all that self-scrutiny and existential doubt, that Eliotian difficulty. There was a job to be done, in that the young nation was still engaged in forging itself – as, indeed, it still is – and novelists saw themselves as the chief chroniclers of that process, in full awareness of the ambiguity of the verb ‘to forge’. As Norman Mailer used vociferously to demand, who will analyse the analysts, if not the artist?
Philip Roth, like John Updike, is a survivor from the glory days of the heavyweights, the Hemingways and the Faulkners and the Bellows. His first book, the story collection Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, won the National Book Award, a notable achievement for a tyro in his twenties. The two novels that followed, Letting Go and When She Was Good, cemented his critical reputation, but it was not until the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 – at the close of the Age of Aquarius, did we but know it – that he attained the worldwide renown, or infamy, as some might say, which he continues to enjoy and, if we are to believe The Anatomy Lesson and The Counterlife, to chafe under.
Portnoy’s Complaint was the kind of outrageous success that America specialises in conferring now and then on a writer. The novels featuring Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman (a decidedly unsweet fellow despite his name), make mordant and painful comedy out of the experience of literary fame. Zuckerman’s scandalous novel Carnovsky, which like its model Portnoy’s Complaint has broken the literary bank, brings him millions of readers and zillions of dollars, causes people to shout admiringly or scream abuse at him in the street, and provokes his staid brother Henry to accuse him of having ruined their parents’ lives by holding them up to public ridicule in the novel’s thinly disguised portraits of them and their world. In vain Zuckerman protests the innocence of his artistic intentions: ‘Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.’
The consequences of Portnoy’s success – from accusations of anti-semitism to endless talkshow jokes – seem to have shocked its author, leading partly, perhaps, to the nervous breakdown which, if the peculiar Operation Shylock (1993) is to be credited, he suffered in the late 1980s. Yet fame was the spur for almost all the work of his middle period, including what is unquestionably his masterpiece, and certainly his most intricate and subtle creation, The Counterlife, published in 1986. The book is, among many other things, an extended, furious, self-lacerating and, despite the indecorousness of the language (Roth the novelist can sound like a man at the next table in a smart restaurant who suddenly starts shouting obscenities), old-fashioned meditation on what it takes, in blood, sweat and tears, to be an artist. As Zuckerman/Roth – let us call him/them from now on Z/R – acknowledges, the blood, sweat etc are all too often other people’s. Here is the long-suffering Henry Zuckerman meditating on his brother’s fictional betrayals of his family: ‘All the blood relatives of an articulate artist are in a very strange bind, not only because they find that they are “material”, but because their own material is always articulated for them by someone else who, in his voracious, voyeuristic using-up of all their lives, gets there first but doesn’t always get it right.’
Z/R himself is no less sparing of the artist. In one of the alternative versions of Zuckerman’s and his brother’s lives in The Counterlife – the novel is very intricate – Henry encounters at his brother’s funeral a mysterious, bearded man who eulogises the dead novelist with characteristically lip-smacking Rothian vehemence:
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[*] Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-85, edited by Ross Miller (Library of America, 645 pp., $35, October, 978 1 59853 011 7).