On Philip Roth and Joris-Karl Huysmans

02Oct07

Today we read about Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Philip Roth’s new book in which his alter ego Zuckerman is said to be (ahem) a recluse, which led us to think he might at least be on familiar terms with the sublime metaphorical/metaphysical qualities so critical to the reclusive state. We wondered if it were possible in our previous assessments of his work to have misjudged Roth, whom — along with John Updike — we’ve long considered to be among post-war American fiction’s dreariest writers, locked in a tepid and bourgeois frame of reference in which descriptions of a few too many drinks and an equal number of extramarital trysts (with suspiciously compliant women) were eagerly lapped up by an entire generation — one we generally describe as “suburban” for having abandoned the metropolis — with whom we have never felt comfortable in close quarters.

Introducing his character to us, Roth writes in his opening chapter (available in The Times): “[I had] hardly been off my rural mountain road in the Berkshires in … eleven years, and, what’s more, had rarely looked at a newspaper or listened to the news since 9/11… I don’t go to dinner parties, I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch television, I don’t own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is. I no longer bother to vote. I write for most of the day and often into the night. I read, mainly the books that I first discovered as a student, the masterpieces of fiction whose power over me is no less, and in some cases greater, than it was in my initial exciting encounters with them.”

While there are many disturbing aspects to this character, none are for the reasons Roth seems to want them to be. Only someone as bourgeois as Roth would think it shocking to forego dinner parties and cell phones and — heavens, voting, or god forbid the news! — in lieu of reading and writing. Sometimes he even stays up late! OMG! This is nothing more than Pre-Recluse 101, an introductory course of conduct our 14-year old niece has already mastered.

The truly disturbing (or at least truly annoying) feature of this extract, however, is the insipid nostalgia Roth displays — for the typewriter, for the books of his youth, for a life pre-9/11 when he was still interested in the news — that contains no inkling of remorse or resignation, those most critical ingredients to a more elevated state of seclusion. Rather, we are confronted with a bitter old man who cannot admit he ever made mistakes in his youth, or was stupid or phony. By clinging so tenaciously to the “work” (and in his case, it feels like drudgery) that once excited him, he shuts out the possibility of new discovery and enlightenment; for us, this would be like returning to The Lord of the Rings or perhaps Led Zeppelin’s Zoso as everlasting sources of artistic inspiration, simply because we worshipped both at a certain point in our lives.

On this point, we turn to the great Huysmans, who in contrast to Roth states of his reclusive alter ego Des Esseintes: “In no way did [he] derive even a fugitive distraction from his boredom from this literature [of his youth]. The mass of books which he had once studied he had thrown into dim corners of his library shelves when he left the Fathers’ school. “I should have left them in Paris,” he told himself, as he turned out some books which were particularly insufferable: those of the Abbe Lamennais and that impervious sectarian so magisterially, so pompously dull and empty, the Comte Joseph de Maistre.”

Huysmans shows us that it is only by way of the admission of our fading interest in the once inspirational that we can pave the way for new (read “unfamiliar,” for the work in question might be five thousand years old) to take its place. In this regard, Huysmans writes of discovering Baudelaire: “[T]he more [he] read Baudelaire, the more he felt the ineffable charm of this writer who, in an age when verse served only to portray the external semblance of beings and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible in a muscular and brawny language; who, more than any other writer possessed a marvelous power to define with a strange robustness of expression, the most fugitive and tentative morbidities of exhausted minds and sad souls.”

We identify with Huysmans because under his florid, obsessive (read: gay) prose, he seems to possess secrets and regrets that he wants to see reflected in the more obsessive art he now holds close to his heart; in the case of Roth, we look at the world through his stony eyes and find we don’t care about anything; how could we, when we don’t even exist?

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