Saturday, 5 October 2013

Close to the Edge of the Grave: Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

One thing that annoys me (amongst many others...) is on review shows where a book or film or whatever is condemned because there were no nice characters.  In fact I have heard debates on the radio about whether "likeability" is a necessity for good literature.  There is no doubt it is a high risk strategy to produce a piece of work where having empathy with the main protagonists is impossible.  Compare the US sitcoms of the 90s Seinfeld and Friends - arguably every one of the 4 main stars of Seinfeld was dislikeable in a different way where in Friends every character fell over themselves to be loveable.   Which one has the endless longevity on TV?    Well, as Jonathan Franzen points out in an essay, Philip Roth with this grizzled big chunk of a novel takes a sawn-off shotgun to the concept of likeablity with his sleazy, horrible and un-redeemed hero puppeteer (literally) Mickey Sabbath who is in almost  every scene of this 450 page book.

High risk indeed and difficult to get through some parts but sticking with it proves to be an intense car-crash of an experience which you can't really take your eyes off.  

The novel covers a turbulent period in the life as  62 year old Mickey confronts mortality and his already pretty shaky lifestyle crumbles to bits.  Interestingly the character is the same age as Roth although (deliberately?) physically could not be more different - he is short, squat with a barrel chest, striking green eyes and a long grey beard.  Almost identical to the sailor in the Otto Dix painting on the cover of most editions of the book - Mickey also spent his youth at sea.

In fact Dix is almost an ideal caricaturist of  Sabbath as it seems that debauched eroticism is his only motivation. Like a Pan figure gone to seed (a pun of which is made in the book) .Arrested for obscenity in the 60s for his street puppet show, married to the woman who he cheated on his first wife with, ensconced in an intense sexual affair with a Croatian innkeeper's wife and living in the shadow of a scandal with a student 40 years younger than him.  And that's just for starters!

He lives (as he points out) "like a fugitive" in a mountain resort in New England having run from bohemian New York in the late 1960s.   It is here he set up an unhappy home with Roseanna  who began building an alcohol addiction as Sabbath indulged his debauchery.  This proves one of the difficulties of reading the book as the first few chapters outline in  graphic detail his sexual adventures with Drenka , his mistress.  To such an extent that you think this is not very far removed from the ramblings of a dirty old man  whether it's Sabbath or Roth you are not really sure.  It is challenging to have this so soon into the novel - it is almost like rows of barbed wire you have to cross before you get into the heart of the work.

For it does alter its focus as Drenka is diagnosed with cancer and is dead by 30 pages in.  This contrast proves to be too much for Mickey - his extreme sexual relationship to be so close to death.  He does not take it well as some more disturbing scenes at Drenka's grave illustrate.  His wife now a recovering alcoholic replacing her love of drink with an obsession with AA and all its support networks also throws him out.    He uses this opportunity to travel to New York and his past for a funeral of a contemporary from the Artistic scene in the 1950s and 60s.

This road trip (although relatively short in American terms) provides the opportunity for Sabbath to review his life - recent and ancient - and we see that many ghosts are travelling with him.  Literally in the case of his mother's ghost in a few strange scenes; though she leaves without any real explanation.  It emerges his athletic star, tall big brother was killed in the last few months of WWII - setting his mother into a catatonic state which she never really recovered from.  His first wife Nikki , a bohemian actress, disappeared from their home together - and has never been discovered.

The narrative structure allows Roth to go over key scenes in Sabbath's life - the scandal with the teenage student at a community college, Roseanna's entry to rehab (precipitated by this), his early life with Nikki, coping with Nikki's mother's death, his puppet shows -based on his fingers - that led to his obscenity trial.  But the shadow of death, particularly Drenka's is always there.

The past is always present  although it is a contemporary work. The only music Sabbath plays or refers to is the 1930s jazz of Benny Goodman who his brother loved.  His days at sea and the foreign brothels are romanticised. In parts the narrative can become quite stream of conciousness - although in one very funny passage Roth deliberately mocks the style of Joyce, Woolf et al as he walks around the New York of the mid 1990s.

Staying with his successful producer - another contemporary of the sixties for the funeral - who after he unsuccessfully tries to seduce his wife and fantasises about his teenage daughter while sleeping in his bedroom correctly calls out Sabbath :  "You live in the failure of this civilisation.  The investment of everything in eroticism".

In such prose (which is brilliant throughout) Roth obviously is aware of the game that he is playing with Sabbath but it is still difficult to read.   Sabbath explicitly states he does not read newspapers, does not know who the President is  and only cares about the carnal. The transcript of the phone sex with his teenage student is printed as an extended footnote - out of the context of the work it would be a simply a piece of pornography.  a final encounter (fantastical?) with Roseanna is equally explicit.  As he looks at every character through the prism of sex this obviously colours your reading - to such an extent that you are not sure what is real or fantasy particularly in the concluding pages of the work.  At different parts of the book he claims to have murdered Nikki. is this possible?

The novel concludes with another journey of Sabbath - thrown out of New York he travels to his family home in New Jersey - contemplating a suicide - via a graveyard to buy his death plot.  He has an encounter with a 100 year old relative, a living ghost and recovers some things (won't say what) which give him a reason to live for a little bit longer.

The work also has Shakesperean influences,  the graveyard replete with grave diggers, the second half of the novel is called "To Be or Not To Be", King Lear which he put on with Nikki when she was alivethe apposite quote which opens the work is from the Tempeset : "Every third thought shall be my grave".  Judaism is an ever present as in most of Roth's work.  It also has (extremely) funny bits.

Like much art though this seems to be about sex (and there is a lot of it) it really is about death and the past.  The burden which Sabbath has had to bear of his dead brother and now lover is too much and has defined him.  The burden of Roseanna is her father who committed suicide when she left to live with her mother this is revealed in a very moving scene in her rehab which Sabbath gatecrashes.  This history is not seen as an excuse for present behaviour - Mickey in particular is almost grotesque throughout - but shows how human relationships can be crippled by them.  "What a bother we are to each other - while actually non-existent to each other, unreal specters compared to who originally sabotaged the sacred trust".

So a journey for Sabbath and for the reader.  Roth has enjoyed an Indian summer as a novelist which this sort of started but because of its difficulty is rarely lumped in with American Pastoral, the Plot Against America and the rest.

I really enjoyed this book but still am not sure if I would recommend it to anyone.  Maybe that is the best parallel that a novel can provide with real life.

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