but you probably already knew that!
Posted tagged ‘Philip Roth’
Happy Leap Day to you and yours!
I know most of you have been anxious about whether or not I finished The Village. I did. It pulled itself together somewhat at the end, but I think I’ll scratch David Mamet off my list of novelists to read going forward. (There are so many books, and a fellow can’t read them all in a single lifetime.)
So, you’re asking, what is he reading now?
Well, I have an anthology of Victorian-era detective stories on my nightstand that I’ve been dipping into off and on for months. It’s called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (which, I should add is only one of many anthologies with that title, most of which I own and have read), and I’m nearly finished with it. So I decided that after I finished The Village, I would pick up Rivals and make my sprint to the finish arch.
Except I picked up a book on my to-be-read shelf to have just a quick look at the introduction. Pretty soon I had read the whole introduction and was started on the first chapter. And so the Rivals have a rival.
The book I am now reading is Roth Unbound: A writer and his books by Claudia Roth Pierpont. It is a literary biography of Philip Roth, which is to say it is about the influences, creation, and consequences of Roth’s writings more than it is about his life. I’m only just a short way into the book, but already it’s clear that much of his life has influenced his fiction, thus there is a good deal of biography included. That’s fine. Much of it I already knew, but every page offers some nugget of insight, which makes me appreciate his fiction more. (I suppose I’ve already told you that I’ve read his novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. Do you have one go-to book that never lets you down?)
Philip Roth is my favorite writer. I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is thought through and exactly right. Let me hasten to add, though, that Iris Murdoch is my favorite novelist, if you appreciate the distinction.
So I expect to make quick work of Roth Unbound, and then I’ll be on to the next book. Maybe Rivals. Maybe the next Murdoch novel in the series I’m re-reading from start to finish. Maybe something else altogether.
So I completed re-reading The Flight from the Enchanter the other night, and I enjoyed my second trip through it, confirming that Iris Murdoch is worth reading and re-reading. But I must confess that I only remembered one scene and only a few of the characters from my first reading. It was as though I had never read the novel once before.
Granted, I had read it originally many years ago — as much as a decade ago. (I could look it up because, like everyone else in the world, I keep a list of the books I’ve read and the date I completed them.) But can I say I’ve actually read a book, gave it a serious and thoughtful reading, if I can’t remember it years later?
Certainly there have been many books I’ve read that are not worth remembering, and there have been many that are intentionally light weight — “beach reading” is a common term for these — that are meant to be enjoyed at the time and then left behind. But what can I say about myself and my “serious” reading if I can’t remember a novel years after I’ve read it? Did I really read it with the seriousness it deserved? Did I pause and reflect on elegant passages, humorous scenes, unexpected insights? Did I give the novel the attention it deserved?
I suppose that parts of the novel have entered the matrix of thoughts that make up what passes for my consciousness in ways I don’t recognize. (In fact, generally when I have a sudden insight about something, I question whether the thought is one of my own or something I’ve recycled from another but don’t recognize.) I suppose the first reading left impressions I’m not aware of but use in the ceaseless conversation of ideas that goes on in my head. At least, I’m going to tell myself that.
I’ve read Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. I know that story well. I know the characters. The scenes. The humor. The pathos. And yet, each time I read it, I find something new in it, something I hadn’t seen in my other visits. I’ve often said that I don’t think you can begin to know a novel until you’ve read it a second time. It just bugs me with Enchanter that it is as though my second time is my first time.
“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”
“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie on the sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”
E.I. Lonoff in Roth’s The Ghost Writer
So, writing is rewriting. That was a hard lesson for me to learn when I was just a pup starting on this adventure. The stories I wrote then demanded so much of me, so thoroughly exhausted my life experience and the shallows of my musings, that when I finished one, there was nothing more I could do with it. It was finished. Complete. Perfect just the way it was. And behind me.
And undoubtedly dreadful. I’ve not whipped up the courage to go back and read any of those from the early days. I know now that they were my apprentice work, my crawling before stumbling before walking before running. And I know even more, know with well-deserved humility, that no first draft is complete or perfect just the way it is. Certainly not one of mine anyway.
This has not been a good writing year for me. I know many people are dismissive of the idea of “writer’s block.” And perhaps that is not what is afflicting me. Ideas for new stories, ideas for developing partially written stories, even ideas for stories that are finished and published, flood into my chaotic brain just as much as they ever did. But sitting before the laptop in the wee small hours of the morning and making myself enter that creative place where the writing flows (or trickles or sometimes dams up) has just not been happening. Yes, I did manage to put together two short stories in the last few months, but they were completions of work I had started long before, and I’m not sure they’re actually complete. Two stories in eight months ain’t much in the realm of productivity.
But if you can’t write, you can always rewrite, and that’s what I’ve been doing more of lately.
One of my “completed” Fathers and Sons stories (one? more like a half dozen!) had always felt forced and more than a little schmaltzy. Despite those misgivings, I had submitted it to several magazines and duly received rejections. Fine. That’s the nature of this biz. Knowing that it wasn’t right, I’d revisit it and tinker with this or that, and maybe I’d improve it in increments, but I wasn’t getting it where it needed to be. It was flawed in some deep way that I couldn’t identify.
But then the epiphany came. One of the fathers in the stories succumbs to dementia in his old age. Much of the sons’ legacy is lost (or trapped) inside his mind. And what is gleaned from there is suspect. What I realized, as I reflected on the many stories in their many states of completion, is that memory is a recurring theme throughout them. I hadn’t set out to make this a touchstone. (I hadn’t even set out to write a cycle of stories; I just wrote one, liked it, set it aside, then found I had more to say about the characters.) Memory recalled, memory mistrusted, and, in the case of this story, memory manufactured and whether true or not, cherished.
The story is titled “Comfortable in his skin” and it deals with a pivotal day in the life of one of the sons. Yet as he remembers the day, he can’t be sure it happened they way his imagines. But he decides he’s going to accept the memory as true.
The problem with the story was that I’d had the wrong narrator. I had the father telling the story, lovingly, about his son and this important day in his young life. And while that would make it true in the universe of the cycle, it was just too saccharine and “final” for my liking. To have the son “remember” the day decades later, to have him fill in the missing parts as he wanted them to be, allowed the schmaltziness to become sweetness. It’s still a sentimental story, but it is the story as well told as my skills can do.
Discovering the theme of the story is what allowed me to salvage it. That same thing happened in a big way in my story “When we were young and life was full in us,” which I still think is the story I’ve written with the best control; every word in it was considered and weighed. Every sentence was turned around. I think I did get that one exactly right. (And there is a motif in “Comfortable” that recurs in the later-in-the-cycle “When we were young” that I’m pleased with.)
Is “Comfortable in his skin” finished? Probably not. I’ve sent it to a writing friend for his opinion. (Note: he told me I was always welcome to send him stuff.) I’m not good at taking advice, but he is good at seeing through the fog, so I’ll give his words consideration.
I’m not sure I’m past whatever has bottled up my creativity this year, but it is gratifying to get another story in better shape. I’ll take that much until something better comes along.
Today is Philip Roth’s birthday. Please make the appropriate observances.
If you were to catch some certified madman groaning over a table in his little cell, observe him trying to make something sensible out of qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, and zxcvbnm, see him engrossed to the exclusion of all else by three such nonsensical words, you’d be appalled, you’d clutch his keeper’s arm and ask, “Is there nothing to be done? No anti-hallucinogen? No surgical procedure?” But before the keeper could even reply, “Nothing — it’s hopeless,” the lunatic would be up on his feet, out of his mind, and shrieking at you through his bars: “Stop this infernal interference! Stop this shouting in my ears! How do I complete my life’s great work with all of the gaping visitors and their noise!”
the musings of Nathan Zuckerman
in the novel The Anatomy Lesson
by Philip Roth