Philip Roth has done more than enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; an award to mark not a single book but a lifetime’s contribution to literature. But, once again, he hasn’t been given it and, once again, a rash of articles have appeared deploring this and recalling the tetchy comments journalists have coaxed out of him in the past on this subject. Patrick Modiano is a very fine writer and I hope he doesn’t spend all the money in one shop but, like Graham Greene, Roth must wonder if the judges or their advisers are trying to tell him something.
I’ve been reading Everyman which came out in 2006. It is vintage Roth. There is a risk: with an author who so frequently portrays his New Jersey roots and the exquisitely well-tuned angst of his Jewish male characters who enjoy sex enormously but cannot get the rest of their lives in order: that you find yourself wondering if you’ve read this one already. Like a great composer writing variations on a theme, Roth may go over the same ground geographically and imaginatively but every time he takes a new and still more subtle route.
The book is a gentle arc, opening with a funeral where the unnamed Everyman’s close families – he had three wives – are gathered round his coffin. They bury the never-named central character and merge into a story of his childhood in Elizabeth NJ, as Howie’s kid brother and the son of loving parents. His father runs a jeweller and watchmaker’s shop and it is a rite of passage when the kid brother starts to take the bus into Newark with hundreds of dollars’ worth of diamonds in an envelope in an inside pocket for him to hand over to the setters and sizers with his father’s neatly written instructions.
Everyman was still a boy when the Second World War began when the odd drowned seaman would wash up on Jersey’s shore and would put him off the beach for a while. He progressed through art school to a job in advertising, rising to the height of Creative Director in a prestigious agency but, this being a novel by Roth, he had ongoing problems with his libido. The upshot is that he has not just one but three divorces, alienates his ex-wives and all but one of his children, the kind and helpful daughter Nancy. Unlike his elder brother, a picture of health and creator of much wealth, Everyman has heart problems that come at him with increasing frequency after his early retirement to develop his painting skills.
It’s easy to quickly sketch the outline of the novel but it takes Roth’s genius to paint the details that make his work stand out. Like the scene in the ante-room to the operating theatre where several gowned men are waiting their turn with Everyman.
You would have thought from the calm in the room that they were going off to get their hair cut, rather than, say, to get the artery leading to the brain sliced open.
At one point, the man to his side, having handed him the sports section, quietly began talking to him. He was probably only in his late forties or early fifties, but his skin was pasty and his voice was not strong or assured. “First my mother died,” he said, “six months later my father died, eight months after that my only sister died, a year later my marriage broke down and my wife took everything I had. And that’s when I began to imagine someone coming to me and saying, ‘Now we’re going to cut off your right arm as well. Do you think you can take that?’ And so they cut off my right arm. Then later they come round and they say, ‘now we’re going to cut off your left arm.’ Then, when that’s done, they come back one day and they say, ‘Do you want to quit now? Is that enough? Or should we go ahead and start in on your legs?’ And all the time I was thinking, When, when do I quit? When do I turn on the gas and put my head in the oven? When is enough enough? That was how I lived with my grief for ten years. It took ten years. And now the grief is finally over and this shit starts up.”
Roth not only writes well but he writes succinctly and few of his novels are massive tomes. In the case of Everyman we are back within a few days of the opening scene within the span of 182 pages, each one a carefully cut diamond of prose.
Read this Roth; read more Roth and, if you have any friends in the Norwegian Nobel Prize committee, drop a few hints that it’s more than time that this grumpy old man is made a Laureate.