2004-09-29

And now from Philip Roth...

Like I said, I liked the suggestion reported by Maud of formatting your own pages to resemble those of books you love. So I spent a little time with the novels I love, or rather, the very very edited selection of them that I have in the office (I am trying to cut down on distraction around here):

David Leavitt, The Lost Language of Cranes
Somerset Maugham,Of Human Bondage
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
Walllace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
Oswald Wynd, The Ginger Tree

I was immediately stymied, mostly because I don't actually OWN any of the fonts in these books, and I really do draw the line at spending hours finding them for free. But something worthwhile did come out of all of this ...

I found notes in my paperback copy of American Pastoral from the one time I met Philip Roth.

The occasion: a seminar at Columbia run by David Plante, who met Roth during the London years and was close friends with him. This seminar took place around the time of the Leaving a Doll's House / I Married A Communist flap, and David thought his friend was really depressed with all the savage press and so pressured him to come into the city and be adored by all of us. And we adored him. Meeting Philip Roth is like meeting Bill Clinton, and I know, because my family home is in Chappaqua and you really can't go out for Starbux without tripping over Secret Service everywhere these days -- in the Chinese restaurant, for instance, there's a huge shrine to Bill, every missive from/to the proprietors to/from the (eternal) President framed on the walls and annotated with photographic evidence of the mutual love-fest. To follow this digression further: I first experience Bill -- my friend and yours -- in the Chappaqua bookstore, called "The Second Story," which made more sense before it lost its lease upstairs from its current space. Anyway, I was browsing for the newest collection of Munroe stories to give my mother for Xmas, and I literally ran into a Secret Service agent as I browsed, which made me pull my head out of my ass and notice that I was sharing the tiny space with two booksellers, two Secret Servicemen, three completely overwhelmed locals, and Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill. I was pleased to see Hillary also had the Munroe stories in the enormous basket of books they were buying. Bill was mobbed by everyone in there, who couldn't stop touching him, and H. and C. looked on, slightly bored. I pretty much fainted against the bookshelve and gazed. The pherenome level was EXTREME and palpable ... we were clearly in the presence of a happy penis with an enormous brain.

Which is pretty much exactly how I'd describe my impression of Philip Roth, with one slight modification: more-depressive/guilty/less-functioning-but equally-adventurous penis, enormous brain. He was talking about Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral, and every woman in the seminar room was draped across her patch of table, gazing longingly, twirling her hair. And not just the Jewish ones, either. Even the macho-est men in there were leaning towards him. Even the girl who two weeks early had railed and ranted about his being a horrible mysogynist was practically melting in her chair from his heat.

So here's what I managed to write down while I tried not to DIE just sitting there:

American Pastoral, first published in 1997, was first attempted by Roth in 1972. He was making notes about a girl who blows up the Princeton library, 7-8 years into the Vietnam War. He got 60-70 pages in, couldn't make it work, and gave up. (Tell me that isn't completely comforting in EVERY way.)

Ultimately, he reapproached the project when he started thinking about the Swede as a corrective to Mickey Sabbath ... once the focus had shifted from daughter to father, he found it easier to write the book. The reason he wrote the story from Zuckerman's POV was that he decided the Swede couldn't ever be conscious in the same way Zuckerman could, so he'd have to borrow Zuckerman's consciousness, a trick accomplished in what I consider the most amazing piece of writing EVER, on page 89 of the Vintage paperback ed:

Dispelling the aurar of the dinner at Vincent's, when I'd rushed to conclude the most thoughtless conclusion--that simple was that simple--I lifted onto my stage the boy we were all going to follow into American, our point man into the next immersion, at home here the way the Wasps were at home here, an American not by sheer striving, not by being a Jew who invents a famous vaccine or a Jew on the Supreme Court, not by being the most brilliant or the most eminent or the best. Instead--by virtue of his insomorphism to the Wasp world--he does it the ordinary way, the natural way, the regualr American-guy way. To the honeysweet strains of "Dream," I pulled away from myself, pulled away from the reunion, and I dreamed ... I dreamed a realistic chronicle. I began gazing into his life--not his life as a god or a demigod in whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assialable man--and inexplicably, which is to say lo and behold, I found him in Deal, New Jerset, at the seaside cottage, the summer his daughter was eleven, back when she couldn't stay out of his lap or stop calling him by cute pet names, couldn't "resist," as she put it, examining with the tip of her finger the close way his ears were fitted to his skull.


It's amazing, right? 89 pages into the book, in which all has been Zuckerman: Zuckerman at dinners, Zuckerman at reunions, with just an em dash and a "lo and behold," we drop into the Swede, and we're all Swede for more than 300 pages to follow, without another look at Mr. Z again!

AMAZING.

The last note Roth pressed upon us was his feeling that a book has to argue an assertion, and so must employ specific DATA ... for instance, if he was going to talk about the loss of old for new, he needed something concrete to cipher that through. So he chose glove-making, and having chosen glove-making, he spent weeks visiting one particular factory, making notes.

LOVE HIM LOVE HIM LOVE HIM.

Okay, that said, nothing more inspiring than typing out a favorite passage to set you off into your own work ...

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