National Book Award winners, part 13: 1960’s Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth.

28 Oct

(I’m falling behind with the writing of these. Must redouble my efforts.)

In 1960, Philip Roth won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, a novella with five short stories. It’s a very, very, very fine book, his first, and the beginning of an immense, in many ways unparalleled, literary career.

He beat out many established authors, including Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Louis Auchincloss, John Hersey, Shirley Jackson, Robert Penn Warren and John Updike. Roth was just 26.

The title novella follows two young people falling in and then out of love. It’s a superb piece of work, fun to read and funny, heart-breaking, evocative, precise in its descriptions and insights. It captures the plunging experience of first love and the dulling realization of that first love’s inadequacies.

The magic of the novella is that the narrator knows he doesn’t want to marry this woman, but he can’t quite admit it to himself. So he gets to play the victim in his own thoughts, even as he works to sabotage the relationship he says he’s trying to save. It’s a remarkable trick, capturing this contradictory impulse in a way that is subtle, convincing, often funny yet melancholic.

Philip Roth's first novel and it's very, very good.

Philip Roth’s first novel and it’s very, very good.

The short stories are all strong. “The Conversion of the Jews” follows a young boy at a Jewish school who keeps getting punished for pointing out inconsistencies in his rabbi-teacher’s thinking. “Defender of the Faith” follows a Jewish lieutenant who begins to despise the petty manipulations of a Jewish enlistee underneath him; he begins to actively work against the enlisted man. Both are great. The other three are fine, too, if a little weaker.

He can flat-out write. Here he is, describing the parent’s house of the narrator’s love interest:

 

The basement had a different kind of coolness from the house, and it had a smell, which was something the upstairs was totally without. It felt cavernous down there, but in a comforting way, like the simulation caves children make for themselves on rainy days, in hall closets, under blankets, or in between the legs of dining room tables. I flipped on the light at the foot of the stairs and was not surprised at the pine paneling, the bamboo furniture, the ping-pong table, and the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl—all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not like to drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner.

 

Evocative and punchy, but also insightful, hinging on that phrase “was not surprised,” that reveals all the nastiness the narrator hasn’t admitted to himself. Masterful.

2.

My praise doesn’t come lightly. I’ve (mostly) avoided Roth for a number of reasons.

  1. He has an immense body of work, with no easy entry point.
  2. I felt immensely letdown by The Prague Orgy, one of the Zuckerman novels. The blurbs on the back all praised it.
  3. Roth is a mercurial writer who often engages in meta-fictional tomfoolery. His particular brand is the blurring between his fiction and his life. I’m not a huge fan of the narcissistic school of fiction, where every novel is just another chapter in the author’s actual life (this includes Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, etc.), only augmented with the tools of the novelist.
  4. Roth’s mid-90s novels—The Human Stain, American Pastoral among them, the novels everyone praises so much—left me cold when I tried to read them.
  5. Portnoy’s Complaint is brilliant, hilarious, and wonderful . . . until it isn’t. Something about the novel breaks down—his defenders would say the narrative fractures to mirror the fractured psyche of the fragile narrator—and near the end it’s a hot mess. I read this first, and felt I understood Roth, and rightly or wrongly, that he held no future surprises.

3.

But for a serious reader of American fiction, Philip Roth has to be read and considered. This is a difficult task. I must put my misgivings aside.

Roth, like Cheever, Salinger or Mailer, is as much a brand as an author. He used his personal life so well and so often—the divorces, the criticism, the controversies, and so on—that it’s tough to separate the author from the work.

And partially because of this, Roth’s body of work is difficult to digest. He’s published some 27 novels. He’s won numerous awards. He’s big-hearted, funny, yet cutting and vicious, satirical, diamond-edged. His writing is (almost) always clear, often beautiful.

Roth does everything great writers do—he’s intriguing, tough-minded, probing, insightful, ambiguous about the right things. He carries righteous anger and empathetic love side by side for his characters.

He remains a potent force in American fiction. He has a handful of big themes—sex, assimilation, aging, death—alongside his big issue, the plight, rigor, strength, and neuroses of the Jewish-American. He’s pungent on the issue. After his early success, he was accused by Jewish intellectuals of providing ammunition to anti-Semitic forces. He then looped this response to his work back into his fiction, detailing Jewish writers struggling with this exact same criticism. He inserted himself into novels, or a facsimile of himself. The meta-fictional games are wearying, childish even, and others do it better. (They probably reached their zenith in John Barth’s Chimera.)

He isn’t for everyone. He presides over a small patch of turf. His reputation has protected some of his weaker novels. His Zuckerman novels are, almost to a volume, overrated. He draws much of his great power from his authorial solipsism, narrative arrogance. He isn’t quite as wild as his reputation. His defenders are an earnest, hyperbolic bunch. He has experimented far less than it seems; he’s the literati’s equivalent of Stephen King. He takes less chances than many of his colleagues and there’s some essential middle brow nugget—he’d hate this description—marbled into the bulk of his work.

In the end, he’s always good but rarely great.

4.

1960 was an intriguing year for fiction.

William Burroughs published his (extremely overrated) Naked Lunch. Saul Bellow released Henderson the Rain King (see my thoughts on Bellow here). Richard Condon put out his insane, and deranged Cold War novel The Manchurian Candidate. John Knowles published that school-curriculum mainstay, A Separate Peace. Shirley Jackson (who rules!) put out the very scary, very fine The Haunting of Hill House. Terry Southern—one of the wildmen of literature, but also a bit of a continuous misfire, who never quite lived up to his reputation—released the bizarre The Magic Christian. Kurt Vonnegut published The Sirens of Titan, one of his more traditional science fiction novels. Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Robert Heinlein all released novels. Over in England, Keith Waterhouse and Alan Silitoe each put out their defining works, Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, respectively. And way over in Germany, Gunter Grass published one of the major post-war German novels, The Tin Drum.

A good year for literature all around.

And in theatre! My god, Brecht, Sartre, Albee, Williams, Camus, Pinter, Beckett, Genet and Ionesco all published major plays[1].


[1] Maybe I should be writing about drama instead.

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