Monday 24th April 2006
A S Byatt on a brief and bleak morality tale for our times
Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, 182pp, Â£10
Philip Roth is the great recorder of Darwinian Man – “unaccommodated man”, who is no more than “a poor, bare, forked animal”, as old King Lear observed. Roth has understood what it means to be a conscious creature, driven by sexual desire towards the death of the body, nothing more. He called an earlier novel The Dying Animal, taking his title from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, in which the poet describes his soul as “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal . . .”
Roth’s characters inhabit a truly post-religious world, in which we do not have immortal souls, only sick, lively desire, and the dying of the animal. The title of this new, bleak tale is taken from a mediaeval morality play in which Everyman, the human soul, is called by Death to appear before God’s judgement seat. He is deserted by his strength, discretion, beauty, knowledge and five wits, leaving only his Good Works to speak for him at the end. Hugo von Hofmannsthal reworked the play in 1911 for the Salzburg Festival, where it is still performed. Timor Mortis conturbat me is an ancient cry, but it sounds different in a world where the Four Last Things – death, judgement, heaven and hell – have been reduced to one, or maybe one and a half. Roth’s characters are defensive and defiant of possible judgement of their manifest failings. Saul Bellow’s Herzog was in an agony of despair at the meaninglessness of a world without a spiritual dimension, where only human feelings were available in the face of human cruelty and decay. An earlier Roth character, David Kepesh, hero of The Professor of Desire and of The Dying Animal, is apparently more robustly grim. He sees sex as “the revenge on death” – desire as a confrontation of mortality. If there is no more, he will not try to make up more. Desire and death is what we are.
Roth’s Everyman is a brief and uncompromising account of one man’s death. He is nameless, though his family, wives, children and lovers are named. The book opens with his funeral, and ends with the moment of his death on the operating table. In between, with a blunt and steady progress, the reader sees through his eyes the slow dissolution of his body, marked by a series of increasingly drastic and invasive surgical “interventions”, starting with a boyhood hernia and moving through bypasses and prostheses, patchings-up of his heart and veins. It is not told in a straight line – his three marriages, his rejecting sons, his kind-hearted daughter, his bouts of sick and violent desire are woven backwards and forwards, so that the description of his love for his wise and good second wife, Phoebe, comes much later in our reading than his betraying of her trust, and her honest anger. He follows his instincts, which lead to entanglements (and a third marriage) with impossible women. He is self-justifying – he sees his conduct as that of a normal human being, an everyman, which perhaps it is. The nearest he comes to judgement is a summing-up of himself, early in the book: “He was not claiming to be exceptional. Only vulnerable and assailable and confused. And convinced of his right, as an average human being, to be pardoned ultimately for whatever deprivations he may have inflicted upon his innocent children in order not to live deranged half the time.”
Pardoned by whom, in a Darwinian world? By himself, or his messed-about family? Does the word have any meaning? Is there a judge? Are the readers judges? We do judge, irascibly even, and then are made to feel an undignified pity.
The body – his body, everyman’s body – is the solid certainty in the story. As an old man in retirement he goes to live in the Starfish Beach retirement village on the Jersey coast. He tries to become the painter he thinks he has always wanted to be, and teaches art to a class of retired people. He thinks that if he should ever write an autobiography he would call it The Life and Death of a Male Body, and gives the title to a series of his own abstract paintings. But the class is full of bodily pain in the elderly, and painting comes to lose its meaning. He broods on his own youth, “the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves . . . ” – and so on for a perfect, lyrical passage on healthy naked skin and the “advancing, green Atlantic”. This vision of youth comes late in the book and is moving because so much thick and obtrusive pain and mess has preceded it and surrounds it.
Roth’s writing looks uncompromisingly straightforward but is subtle and clever. Consider the sentence describing Every-man’s idea of the suicide of a member of his class, in unbearable arthritic pain. He imagines her swallowing the pills, “slowly swallowing them with her last glass of water, with the last glass of water ever”. Her last glass, and then the last glass. The end of a person, the end of the world. The end of the tale is also completely imagined. Roth has earlier described the ante-room of the operating theatre, full of human beings in flimsy gowns and paper slippers, reading newspapers and gossiping about the news, facing perhaps the last breath.
Roth works with things, not with symbols or metaphors, but he chooses them craftily. Everyman’s father is a diamond merchant, and takes pleasure in a woman’s finger, slipped into a ring with a bright stone, an earthly thing that is “imperishable”. Quick visions of these imperishable stones are set against the crumbling flesh and bones all the way through the tale, and at the end, as the unhero goes into unconsciousness, he has a vision of the planet – “the billion-, the trillion,- the quadrillion-carat planet Earth”. His desire is renewed, he is ready to set off again, but that is the end. He does not wake. A human story for our times.
A S Byatt’s most recent book is The Little Black Book of Stories (Vintage)