The Book Club

Nathan Zuckerman, Happy at Last?

Good Morning Philip,

I’m glad you raised the theme of Nathan Zuckerman’s self-imposed seclusion from the world. It’s a crucial element in the book. The last pages, indeed, are a beautiful evocation of–of what exactly?–the vanity of human wishes, the transience of history, passion, everything. Nathan looks up at the night sky and imagines that the people in the story, all now dead, have become stars, which is what his mother had told little Nathan had become of his dead grandfather: “There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods… There is just the furnace of Ira and the furnace of Eve burning at twenty million degrees.” But I thought Nathan’s withdrawal from life was not so unequivocally presented as you take it. Murray, not Nathan, it seems to me, is the person who has led the profoundest life, has met its challenges with courage, heart, generosity, and understanding, always working to enlarge his apprehension of reality. As he is still doing at ninety!

Although Nathan speaks of having lived “a robust life” it has left few traces except a general weariness and detachment–as always in Roth, the vivid memories are the ones from childhood and youth, the intense connections the ones laid down early. All those Eastern European sex artists, girlfriends, rivals–all the characters from the other Zuckerman novels–vanished! Maybe that connects to a certain kind of narcissism in Roth. Still, I can’t imagine Nathan at ninety still sitting on his porch having deep thoughts about the stars. Don’t you suspect a book or two from now some Polish cutie will show up for an autograph and that will be that for stoicism?

You ask what I think of the book as Bildungsroman.  Nathan’s progress through a series of father-figures who will take him into a larger world, a larger perspective on politics, art and life, than that provided by his own father, the Newark chiropodist and anxious Jewish liberal. I guess the short answer is I think Nathan’s and Roth’s intellectual pilgrim’s progress is a story he’s already written many times. This version comes dressed in red, but it’s the same story. I didn’t really accept Nathan as a would-be young commie–did you believe for one minute in his crisis over whether to leave the University of Chicago and dedicate himself to handing out leaflets with Johnny O’Day? It felt fake to me–Nathan’s much too ambitious, and a real life Johnny O’Day would never have encouraged this stupid idea, in fact he would have been a bit suspicious of it (fear of infiltration, all that): he’d want Nathan to stay in school and organize the students.

You ask if Nathan’s political path parallels my own. Well, I certainly had ideas when I was in high school and college I don’t have now. But my own early experiences with a very political household, a father laying down the line, or trying to, all that, made it hard for me to want another authority figure. I could hardly stand to hear my professors lecture! I lost a lot this way–students who got close to the big profs struck me as toadies, which a lot of them were, but they probably learned a lot. But it saved me, I think, in the sixties and seventies from joining a top-down political cult like the Progressive Labor Party (attractive in some ways to my then rather puritanical soul) or accepting some of the more ridiculous ideas going round, like that Albania was the only country in the world with the right line. I’d already been through Russia and China at home.

But you’re only 38, right? So when did you support the NLF, in seventh grade?