March 20, 2004

Some aged Americans

Haven't had much time to read today, what with more of the great cover letter push. But I got through two (really) short books-- Saul Bellow's The Actual and Philip Roth's The Dying Animal. Both were books, I should note, about growing old and decaying. Hard to take, since as Roth's narrator David Kepesh says, it's hard/impossible to imagine any stage later in life.

So, so, the evaluations. Bellow's book, eh. Little excitement there. It's a long drop from The Adventures of Augie March or Herzog (two of my favorite books when I was younger) to The Actual.

Roth, on the other hand, is astounding. I've read, like everyone else, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint, and decided to quit there, thinking that I didn't really need much more of this. But Roth has departed considerably from those early days, and it's time to admit, I'm going to have to read everything he's ever written. Favorite line:

No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex.
Worth pointing out that this is a rather elegant degradation of a more nuanced and subtly fierce line by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

He had made notes of these premature observations, intending to write a practical supplement to the Lovers' Companion, but the project met the same fate as the previous one after Ausencia Santander sent him tumbling with her old dog's wisdom, stood him on his head, tossed him up and threw him down, made him as good as new, shattered all his virtuous theories, and taught him the only thing he had to learn about love: that nobody teaches life anything.
The difference between the two writers, I guess, is that Garcia Marquez accepts this, while Roth seems in awe at this wisdom, returning to it constantly, fighting it, masochistically accepting it, making a very bitter comedy out of it. Yes, comedy. If comedy amounts to resigning oneself to fate--while tragedy is about resisting it--then I suppose Roth is a comic writer. He's certainly a funny writer, and a talented writer ("That body is still new to her, she's still trying it out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a loaded gun and deciding whether he's packing it to protect himself or to begin a life of crime").

But it all seems so painful. A sixty-two-year-old teacher falls for a twenty-four-year-old former student, reflects on sex and where sex leads, until a break-up and then cancer intrudes. Lots of good quotes in the book-- lots-- but it all comes down to the simple idea that Kepesh would never trade away the bloody power struggles-- the battle for dominance-- that characterize his affairs. Imagine going through life with that on your brain... By the time Kepesh is quoting Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," late in the book, we have no idea what his relationship to anguish is, which, I suppose, is the mark of any great comic novel:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is
-- Brad Plumer 11:35 PM || ||