Books postsWednesday May 23, 2018
Philip Roth (1933-2018)
I was thinking of a Philip Roth line yesterday morning before I heard the news of his death yesterday evening at the age of 85. It's a line from “The Ghost Writer,” my favorite of his novels, about a young Nathan Zuckerman visiting his idol, E.I. Lonoff, who is a combination of Malamud, Bellow, Salinger and probably other Jewish authors I'm unaware of, in the Berkshires—“that is to say,” Zuckerman adds, “in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.”
But that's not the line. This is the line:
To get it wrong so many times.
It's Lonoff's line. He's an exacting presence, a meticulous writer and personality who often goes through 20-30 drafts of a short story before it's considered done. When he's complimented on this, by Zuckerman, he says the above. I‘ve quoted it before. Here, for example. I can’t remember why I thought it yesterday. Probably work related. But I think of Lonoff a lot. He read with a pen in hand to mark passages, and I began to do the same. I still do it when I'm not on a Kindle. Like Lonoff, I have trouble concentrating otherwise.
I urge “The Ghost Writer” on you as I‘ve urged it on, and given it to, countless friends over the years. I think it’s about as perfect as a novel can be. It reminds me of “Gatsby” or “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” or “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s” in that way. All of these books are eminently accessible, fun and profound. They stick with you. They’re deep in my bones.
That was my first Roth, wasn't it? It was the summer of 1981, we were on the eastern shore, at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and I'd been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I think my father was finally curious about Vonnegut, picked him up, thought “Not bad, but ... ” When I objected to the “but,” he suggested I read some Roth. I was used to Vonnegut's short sentences and Roth gave me this at the opening of “The Ghost Writer”:
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago—I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman—when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art.
It would be easier to name the Roth books I haven't read than the ones I have. I didn't read him much this century, so I haven't touched “Everyman,” “The Humbling,” “Nemesis.” I failed to pick up “The Dying Animal” and “Exit Ghost.” Back in the day, I didn't make it through “Operation Shylock.” “Shop Talk,” no. The other 25 books, yes.
In pre-social media days, I was part of a group of friends that met in a private online chatroom to talk about the world, and within it, by its ringleader, I was given the nom de plume Zuckerman, after Nathan, Roth's alter ego. The ringleader and I had known each other since the 1980s, and I guess I spoke a lot about Roth then. Or it could be that my early work was very much Roth-influenced: that super-articulate howl, that beating your head against the wall, that catch between being the good boy and living the good life.
How much yiddish do I know because of Roth? He was my entree there. (He and Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers.) “Gonif,” certainly. That's “Goodbye, Columbus.” It's a scene between Roth's alter-ego, Neil, and Mr. Patimkin, the father of Neil's girlfriend, Brenda, two-thirds of the way through the novella:
“Here [in business] you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”
“Thief,” I said.
“You know more than my own kids. They‘re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”
That's such great dialogue. All that doesn't need to be said. Patimkin is the mercenary business Jew, the man who raised himself by his bootstraps, and made his children taller, more beautiful, but ultimately softer than he was. He made them goyim. That unspoken sigh of resignation when Neil knows what his kids don‘t. There’s so much of America captured in this little back and forth.
That's the thing I missed when Roth went on his spree of Great American novels in the 1990s. I reviewed most of them for The Seattle Times—I was considered their Roth expert—but gave them middling reviews. They won national book awards and I was disappointed. The themes were amazing, it was America through the American century, but by then Roth had moved past dialogue (and his trademark brilliant sense of humor) and into monologue, which was often humorless. He traded dialogue for diatribe. I missed his back-and-forths. I wanted Alvin Pepler on the scene.
I still feel guilty about those reviews. I want to return to those books to see what I missed.
In the middle of the Trump era is no time to die for someone like Roth. The man who skewered Nixon and his men in “Our Gang” in the early 1970s dismissed Trump in a paragraph just last January:
I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.
He was in retirement by then but maybe shouldn't have been. I could‘ve used an essay, or a book, on the above. His novel, “The Plot Against America,” imagined a fascistic U.S. in the 1940s with a Pres. Lindbergh in charge, and Jews rounded up and taken into those goyish woods, and for that Roth was considered prescient. He dismmised it. Lindbergh was a hero, he said. “Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” The unstated is that 21st-century America can’t even do fascism right. We voted for a strutting clown, a pompous ass. During the 2016 campaign, I could never understand why more people didn't see through Trump, and why it was so easy for me to do so. Maybe because I saw him partly through Philip Roth's eyes.
He was the starting right-fielder of my literary nine. When Gore Vidal died I wrote “Doctorow and Roth live” and when Doctorow died I said “Now just Roth.” And now, not. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye.
So Much Winning
Still reading ”China in Ten Words“ by Chinese novelist Yu Hua, and his recollections of Mao's China remind me of someone. Particularly this state-sanctioned song that workers in the late ‘50s and early ’60s recited during their labors:
You‘re all heroes and we’re all champs, By the furnace here let's compare our stats. Good for you, you‘ve smelted a ton—But a ton and a half is what we’ve done! Right, you go off and fly your jet—Now watch as we launch our rocket! Your arrow can pierce the sky—But ours has gone into orbit!
You‘ll win so much you’ll be tired of winning. Which, yes, I am tired of it.
BTW: After the above labors during the Great Leap Forward, millions of Chinese workers starved to death.
Big Characters, Small Characters
The excerpt below is from the third chapter (“Reading” or “阅读“/yue du) of ”China in Ten Words“ by novelist Yu Hua. It's been translated by Allan H. Barr:
As a little boy in primary school I was terrified of big-character posters. Every morning as I headed off to class with my satchel on my back I would nervously scan the walls on either side of the street, checking to see if my father's name appeared in the headlines of the latest batch of posters. My father was a surgeon and a low-level functionary in the Communist Party. In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution I had personally witnessed the disgrace of several of my classmates' fathers who were officials; they were denounced for being ”power holders following the capitalist road.“ Activists in the revolutionary rebel faction beat them till their faces were black-and-blue, and they were forced to wear wooden signs over their chests and tall dunce caps on their heads. I would see them every day with brooms in their hands, trembling with fear as they swept the streets. Passersby would give them a kick if they felt like it, or spit in their faces. Their children naturally shared the ignominy, being constant butts of their classmates' insults and targets of their discrimination.
Not many movements have terrified me more than the Cultural Revolution. Maybe because it doesn't seem too far removed from the anti-intellectualism I‘ve experienced in the U.S. most of my life. I know it doesn’t compare, but it still feels close. The right push, from the wrong man, could send us there. And we have wrong men everywhere.
”Ten Words,“ a memoir, is much recommended. The Telegraph calls it, ”Yu Hua's humane, sceptical take on China's changing identity.“ I've just finished Chapter 5, ”Lu Xun,“ and am looking forward to the others—particularly ”Bamboozle," a word I associate with just one man. Well, maybe two now.
These Days are Ours
“Audience surveys show: many of us are ready for a More Organized Moment. We want our 1950s.
”Well, we can't have them.“
George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress,“ pg. 55, in a short chapter on the Julia Roberts' romcom, ”My Best Friend's Wedding." The book was published in 1999. Please remember the quote next time some asshole comes up with more #MAGA bullshit.
Meeting Xi Jinping
I'm reading “CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping” by Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London. Just started.
It's already interesting. We learn that Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, was a high-ranking CCP official who was purged in the early 1960s, then reeducated in the provinces during the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, Xi was sent to the Shaanxi countryside in central China. After Mao's death, and after the opening up under Deng Xiaoping, he spent time in the U.S., visiting Muscatine, Iowa of all places. (Has anyone written about this? Yes. And yes.)
Brown mentions the one time he met Xi, in 2007, which he sees as indicative of some of the ways Chinese power works:
I did have one chance to observe Xi close up when he was in Shanghai as Party secretary there. He had only been in his position for a few weeks when I arrived with my delegation of political and business leaders from Liverpool, visiting the city to re-energize the relationship. The usual lobbying had secured a meeting with the then mayor, a man called Han Zheng. But most people were aware that the real power lay in the hands of the Party boss, and that securing a meeting with him was unlikely. ... To almost everyone's surprise, however, the news came back during the first day of our visit that Mr Xi did want to see us. ...
Xi did not put a foot wrong. The meeting ended punctually, and we were whisked away, us to our fate, he to his. A few days after this meeting, we crowed about it to British journalists based in Shanghai, and they laughed. They had recently heard a story by another group who had had a similar experience – they had arrived in Shanghai on a low-profile business delegation, expected to only meet a deputy mayor, or, at best, the mayor himself, and then found themselves taken to meet Mr Xi. ‘The speculation is that Xi needs to do the least risky, most fail-safe things at the moment,’ one of the journalists said. ‘Any edgy delegations or people who might challenge him at all, and he keeps away from them. But the minor stuff that carries no risk is fine. The last thing he wants to do is blot his copybook so close to getting final promotion.’ Unflattering as it may have been, it sounded as good an explanation as any for our being gifted with this high-level attention. It also says something quite profound about how to get to the top in modern China.
Xi was in Shanghai for eight months. Brown says there were three striking things he did there that might help us understand him further. One of the three doesn't seem much to me: he admired the competence of Ding Xuexiang, a private secretary, and helped elevate him. Nice. Great. The other two strike a chord in the geopolitical world of 2018:
- “He opposed the lavish supply of government goods and services to him as Party leader in the city. He asked for a smaller apartment than the one allocated to him, and also insisted that he did not need the fleet of cars that was at his call when in office.”
- “He reportedly demanded that his family not become involved in business in the city while he was there, and made it clear that they could not call on his help if they went against this instruction.”
Who is this in sharp contrast to? Yeah.