Inspiring Older Readers
Everyman by Philip Roth
After the great quartet of ‘big’ novels – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America – big in theme and scope, full of rambunctious larger than life characters and audacious collisions between fiction and history, and all published in just seven years between 1997 and 2004, Philip Roth seemed to rein in his appetites, refocus his talents and concentrate on a series of smaller, shorter and in some cases arguably more intense works in which the ailing, ageing human figure featured centre-stage. Most saw this as Roth probing his own mortality and the condition of the human animal as he edged into his eighties.
This does not mean he became any less prolific. Far from it. Before ending his publishing career in 2010 he published no fewer than six of these short and incredibly dark little novels.
They are not uniformly successful. At various times Roth has admitted that he has often been pursued by the ‘erotic furies’. No one familiar with his work would doubt this. At its best this can lend a hectic, raging-against-the-dying-of-the-light quality to even his slightest work; but at its worst it can also read (as one reviewer said of his novel The Humbling) ‘like an old man’s sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature’.
One of the short, late novels that I think escapes this charge is Everyman, from 2006. I just reread this and it convinced me all over again that this little novel is late Roth at the height of his powers.
Its subject is, of course, ageing and death, but into its barely 180 small pages such an awful lot is packed.
The central character – our Everyman and never named – is a retired commercial art director, what wealth he has having been made in advertising. But it is Howie, his older brother, who is the really wealthy one, with a fortune made in currency trading; but these monetary millions pale into insignificance when set beside his indomitable good health. He has all the good health and more denied to his younger brother, who has entered a stage of life in which every year brings ever more serious surgery.
It must also be said that Everyman is an extraordinary act of ventriloquism – Roth giving voice to an utterly believable central character who is in fact already dead on the novel’s very first page. But so powerfully is he imagined that one forgets he has already died, and when we read in the final lines of the final page about the surgery his body could not survive, we are brought quite literally back down to earth, to his very graveside in a run-down Jewish cemetery in New Jersey.
What makes Everyman so special is that it is Roth stripped to the bone. It has the relentless logic of Greek tragedy, but the tragedy that awaits Roth’s everyman – brought low by lust, his children alienated, his marriages destroyed, his friends (like himself) dead or dying – is only the human tragedy that awaits us all.
Everyman has some marvellous touches – methods that have become familiar in Roth’s later work. For example, a fascination with the dense texture of occupational detail, which in Roth’s hands becomes another fearsome surgical tool for revealing the deep melancholy of lost time. In American Pastoral this detail revolved around glove-making – to such a degree that that particular novel includes what may almost amount to a history of US glove manufacture. In Everyman the same thing is achieved with such beautiful economy that one may miss it.
The novel is peppered with tiny, exquisite vignettes of the family’s neighbourhood jewellery store, established by their father in the late-30s. The low-grade diamond rings sold on extended credit (that any American husband could, with a little economy, buy his wife a diamond, an ‘imperishable’ piece of the planet, was a lesson in astonishment that their father took to his own grave); the incantatory power of long-gone watch brands – ‘Benrus, Bulova, Croton, Elgin, Hamilton, Helbros, Ovistone, Waltham, Wittnauer’; the newly arrived Jews whose English in those distant pre-war years extended no further than asking for a ‘Schaffhausen watch’. But the jewellery shop, a beautiful conceit, is itself an intricate watch-like mechanism: the countless thousands of hours the father spent there providing for his family measure out the irrecoverable increments of lost time. It also provides the title of the novel: rather than frighten off customers by giving the store his own Jewish name, their father called it Everyman’s and it seems to serve as a microcosm of all determined labour, all precarious ambition.
Everyman is a comfortless book, certainly, but somehow bracing and even at times funny in its refusal to accept platitudes, pep talks or banalities. Here is a taste of Roth – or everyman – in full flow, after making three consecutive phone calls to old advertising buddies each nearing their own end:
‘Had he been aware of the mortal suffering of every man and woman he happened to have known during all his years of professional life, of each one’s painful story of regret and loss and stoicism, of fear and panic and isolation and dread, had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had once been so vitally theirs and of how, systematically, they were being destroyed, he would have had to stay on the phone through the day and into the night, making another hundred calls at least. Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’
Now that virtually every year no longer brings a new Roth to grapple with we can return to the output of this master with more leisure and begin to reassess his novels.
Many now recognise Everyman as perhaps the finest thing he produced in his final decade of publishing. But read it slowly and savour its unflinching examination of a life as it ends and you may feel – as I think I do – that Everyman is better and more important than that. Its rigorous control, its unmistakable rhythm of Jewish lamentation, and its masterful fusing of pity and grief and black sardonic humour are unforgettable. It is not just very fine, late Roth: it is, simply, one of Roth’s greatest novels, its power and its stealthy craft revealed further on rereading. Marvellous.