The Book Club

The Job That Failed

Dear Katha,

In Charlottesville, I was just handed your latest in fax form, then drove off, reading at lights. I got so excited I almost ran over a bicyclist. Now who says literature doesn’t matter?

God does. At least according to one Roth character, a professor whose speech I reread on the plane today. “When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it …’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses …’ [But] literature? ‘What are you talking about? What use does it have?’ “

Unlike you, I like this book the more I read it.

Now, to issues.

1) You’re sick of Roth’s characters. You’ve had it up to here with them. Fine. I accept that as a healthy response by a highly intelligent reader. Toss the book. But is it fair to Roth to expect him to move off his material? Novelists rewrite the same book. Roth has been doing that, and to his credit, the treatment gets deeper and deeper. The old Jewish men in this book are given more nobility here than they’ve ever had. They burst with painful insight. When Murray issues a speech (and as God would tell you, this book is stuffed with speeches) about the prevalence of betrayal in all human affairs–“Every soul its own betrayal factory. For whatever reason: survival, excitement, advancement, idealism”–I think Philip Roth is trying hard to convey to us everything he has learned, in a big messy novel, and I adore him for that. The range here is a long way from masturbation jokes and suburban caricature.

Having said that I’ve come over to your side on the women issue. Shows what a lousy reader I am. Reading is rereading. The actress Eve Frame, who dimes out her husband Ira the Communist, depriving him of a livelihood, is a hysterical self-hating horror (Jews used to “de-Jew” themselves in the Ivy League, Murray says; Eve did it in Hollywood). And yes, it does raise the question, Why did you fall in love with Claire Bloom, Philly, for the social climb?

2) Are you now or have you ever been? Roth accepts your point when he says that when Ira “put on the uniform” of Communism, he had to lie. “It was in the nature of his commitment to lie,” Ira’s dupe, Nathan, says charitably. The same is said about sexual affairs. To have an affair is to put on a coat of lies. While I am in the “right” camp on both issues (let freethinking people elect to be Communists, let married people, married pols, anyway, have affairs), I wander off the reservation when these matters become politicized, for whatever hysterical reason, be it crazy belief in the Ten Commandments or belief that the Soviets have infiltrated the States, and when the great middle ground of opinion is stirred by reaction. Then I think it incumbent on adherents of heterodox beliefs to stand up for them in some measure. My memory is that Victor Navasky, in his splendid book Naming Names, endorsed candor, because it enlightens people. I’m not saying that Bill Clinton should have volunteered information about affairs. I’m saying that he has known for fully ten years now that this part of his life has become a political issue, (for many reasons, and yes feminists had a hand), and that by lying about it so systematically (and, I believe, threatening those who might tell tales, for whatever noble or lousy motivation), he has actually helped to rubble a great principle, one that he only invoked when he had no lies left: It’s none of your business. Alger Hiss was (evidently) a liar too, and dragged good-thinking naive people down with him.

Maybe I don’t believe in principle, as an absolute. Maybe I’m saying that all principle comes down to the personal? But then, is that what you described as the “job” of this book, a job it failed?