With this first paragraph
of Philip Roth's first book, a career begins, resoundingly.
It evokes youth, beauty, hope -- mostly hope of love. All are
embodied in Brenda, the cool, self-assured water nymph. But
this naiad wears glasses, and her last name turns out to be
Patimkin. That she is a mere vulnerable human like us all, with
her virtues and flaws, deepens her appeal. I felt that appeal
when I first read the book, as a teenager. Now, rereading it
many years later, I felt it again.
is Neil who is given the honour of holding Brenda's glasses,
and it is he who tells the story. He does so with a bright clarity--
the youthful Roth's prose has a freshness to it, an original
snap -- as in Brenda's cheeky catching of the bottom of her
suit and flicking "what flesh had been showing back where
Columbus spans one summer. And no more. The fervent glow
of love that Roth captures so well does not survive the complexities
of life. A diaphragm is the purported devise that leads to the
break-up. I say "purported" because the end of the
affair feels imposed on the plot (with Neil being the author's
co-conspirator). On the closing page, after leaving Brenda in
a hotel room, Neil thinks, "I was sure I had loved Brenda,
though standing there I knew I couldn't any longer. And I knew
it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way
I had made love to her. With anyone else, could I summon up
such a passion?"
absent from his musings are despair and fear and doubt. It seems
that, in leaving Brenda, Neil is making a decision: saying goodbye
to one life -- the conventional and enveloping one he doesn't
want to be part of, the world of the Patimkins -- and resolutely
turning toward another.
this light the title, Goodbye, Columbus, is meaningful.
Ron, Brenda's older brother, attended Ohio State University
and was given a record when he graduated. He plays it for Neil.
A Voice intones: "Life calls us, and anxiously if not nervously
we walk out into the world and away from the pleasures of these
ivied walls. But not from its memories . . . ." "We
shall choose husbands and wives, we shall choose jobs and homes,
we shall sire children and grandchildren, but we will not forget
you, Ohio State . . . ." The record ends with a litany
of goodbyes: "goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye, Columbus
. . . goodbye . . ."
Philip Roth has, over the years, been a strongly autobiographical
writer, I cannot but think that there was a Brenda in a summer
of his youth. And though, in the novella's last paragraphs,
Neil gazes through the window of a darkened library, closed
for the night, looking at a wall of books, it is not the dull
life of a librarian that the young man is seeing in his Brenda-less
* * * *
life was beckoning to Philip Roth? It turns out that 27 of the
books in the world's libraries would be written by him. Roth's
life would be one of tremendous literary success. Goodbye,
Columbus was published in 1959, when Roth was twenty-six.
The five stories that go with the title novella appeared in
elite magazines: Paris Review (where Goodbye
also appeared), The New Yorker, and Commentary.
The book received the National Book Award. Out of the starting
blocks, Philip Roth was a major novelist.
only was he a uniquely-talented, early bloomer, but he was ambitious,
focused, intelligent. At the age of sixteen he went to Bucknell
University and got a degree in English. From there he moved
on to the University of Chicago, where he received a M.A. in
English Literature and then stayed to teach creative writing.
It was while in Chicago that he met his mentor, Saul Bellow.
Roth taught creative writing at various universities, including
Iowa. He made all the right moves. But that's what you have
to do. And, in his case, there was that talent.
Roth has lived almost 50 years since Brenda dove into the pool.
In his long career the achievement he will be ever-associated
with is Portnoy's Complaint. That comic masterpiece,
that howl of rage, in all its glorious vulgarity, plumbs themes
that have preoccupied him his whole career -- sex and Jewishness.
Tangled themes for him, and from inside the tangle not much
him interviewed by Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" in 2001,
and he talked a bit about his personal life. I learned (as I
drove through a rainy night) that he had some serious illnesses,
including heart bypass surgery. He had a terrible bout of depression
but was saved by medication. He sees no purpose to life and
has no religious beliefs (indeed, he is strongly anti-religious).
His two unhappy marriages, which were childless, were not mentioned
(of course they weren't, though they have provided material
for Roth's novels). I got the impression that he lived alone.
was a difficult interviewee. At times he would respond to a
question by questioning Terry about her question. He did this
in an intimate, gently toying manner. I found his subversion
of the rules of the interview refreshing. (Keep the questions
intelligent and straightforward or you're going to get them
said that he writes, writes, writes in his home in the Connecticut
countryside. It seems that writing is his reason for living
-- his saying to himself and to the world: I can create, I exist.
It is a way to stave off the darkness.
Roth may produce many more novels, but in a way Everyman
is his last. It's about the end of life, a goodbye to life.
How much time is left to him? He is not the young man of Goodbye,
Columbus, with a fresh new world stretching ahead.
wonder if he sees a form of immortality in the worlds he has
created. People a 100 years from now may read his books, and
his characters and situations will come alive in their minds.
Brenda will rise from the pool, Neil's blood will jump. Does
the author come alive too, in some sense?
* * * * *
begins at a graveside. I had wanted to start this section with
Everyman's opening paragraph, as I did with Goodbye,
Columbus. But it's a long paragraph, and it doesn't have
the immediate accessibility (nor that "snap") that
the other one does. I don't mean that it isn't good writing,
or that it's boring. It's entirely appropriate to the novel's
subject matter. But young love and death are poles apart, and,
let's admit it, we'd rather be at the poolside than the graveside.
fact, I had qualms about reading this book. I thought of it
as an ordeal I would have to suffer through.
surprised. The book was not gruelling to read. I know Roth can
be raw, but he chose not to be. For example, the unnamed narrator
(I'll have to call him Everyman) has open heart surgery, but
the gory details of that surgery -- the sawing through the rib
cage, the removal of veins from the legs -- are not described
(though Everyman must surely have thought long and hard about
the procedure). He has scars from the operation, and Roth simply
states that fact.
this short novel Roth explores, with care and honesty, the emotional
state of a man facing the end of life.
the surface this is not an autobiographical work. Roth's Everyman
is not a successful author. He's a man who had a lucrative career
as a commercial artist, and upon his retirement he turns to
painting. But he realizes that he has no real talent. He acutely
feels the hollowness of not having the consolation of being
able to create art. He is left with nothing -- just "the
aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting
up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness
and the waiting and waiting for nothing."
said -- that Roth does not use many outward facts from his own
life -- there is an emotional authenticity. After all, is Roth
not Everyman? Despite his considerable success, and the purpose
his writing must give to his days, Roth must face what his character
Everyman lives alone, is lonely; he has a loving daughter (who,
though supportive, does not live near him) and a dear brother
(who he breaks from, in "a sick man's rage" at the
happy, ever-healthy, contentedly-married Howie). Those two --
daughter and brother -- will be the only ones at his graveside
who deeply care for him. He has regrets, remorse, mostly concerning
his failed relationships with women and his long estrangement
from his two sons. He is beset with desire for the young women
he sees jogging as he sits on the boardwalk, a desire that he
knows must go unfulfilled. More loss - that of sexuality. Nothing
can answer his needs, for he has the elemental need to be what
he once was.
fears helplessness and death. For this Everyman, who has no
religious beliefs, death is oblivion, simply ‘not being’
anymore, and the void terrifies him.
just take it and endure it," Everyman thinks; the novel
shows how very hard it is to do that.
the book is not all grimness. Other feelings are elicited in
the reader. Everyman is a decent, compassionate man (the scene
with the suffering Millicent is especially touching). And, since
I mentioned a scene, there are others that are done masterfully
-- Everyman's encounter with the young female jogger and his
talk with the gravedigger. Howie's farewell speech at the gravesite
(beginning with "Let's see if I can do it. Now let's get
to this guy. About my brother . . .") is a moving monologue
in which Howie does indeed "do it." There is pleasure
for the reader in such prose. There are some graphic sex scenes,
and a burst of rage at his unforgiving sons -- parts that, for
me, struck a discordant note -- but these are exceptions to
the rule. At one point Everyman muses that his "combativeness
had been replaced by a huge sadness."
refuge for Everyman are memories of the distant past. He must
go back -- back past his adulthood and his teenage years --
to a time when he was capable of a purity of emotion. His father,
mother and Howie kindle tender memories. He feels a nostalgia
for his father's jewellery store. During his many angioplasties
he distracts himself, as they insert the arterial catheter,
"by reciting under his breath the lists of watches he'd
first alphabetized as a small boy helping at the store after
school -- 'Benrus, Bulova, Croton, Elgin . . .'"
he repeatedly remembers riding the big waves of the Atlantic,
sunlight blazing off the water. The vitality of the boy with
the unscathed body in its exhilarating struggle.
Life! Everyman sees, as if peering through the jeweller’s
loupe engraved with his father's initials, "the perfect,
priceless planet itself -- at his home, the billion-, the trillion-
, the quadrillion-carat planet Earth!"
the author extinguishes it forever. As he must.
by Phillip Routh:
Rise and Fall of Jerzy Kosinski