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¶ Freud and Roth. Two books in the mail, both thick, both about eminent Jewish writers. The eminence of one (Signmund Freud) is probably more likely to persist than that of the other (Philip Roth). But you never know.
These are writers whom would not have expect to care to read about just a few months ago. But then, in the very early spring, there was a flurry of Times pieces about Blake Bailey and his forthcoming biography of Philip Roth. These were all quite favorable. In the March issue of Harper's, however, Joshua Cohen published a very funny review of the biography in which he pretended to be the very dissatisfied ghost of Roth. "If I'd wanted a bio to solidify my novelistic cred, this isn't it." As further reviews appeared, I found myself obsessed. I had never read any Roth except for Portnoy's Complaint. His prose, in the snippets that I had read here and there over the years, was self-earnest and unappealing. I did not want to read him. Mystery was, why did anybody else? I read Claire Bloom's memoir instead. I found it, in a word, unsurprising, and also, in two words, not vindictive.
By the time Cynthia Ozick's front-page-of-the-Time-Book-Review rave appeared. in April ("Narrative Masterwork"), there were rumblings about Bailey, and very presently the book was deep-sixed by its publisher, WW Norton, on the grounds that Bailey had been charged by various women with erotic misbehavior. (How embarrassing for her, I thought.)
But Roth's presence was simply too insistent to ignore. I must read something, I thought; I must have an opinion that is based on more than one entire book. I re-read Portnoy — which I found to be excellent stand-up comedy, but not remotely a novel. Then I turned to Sabbath's Theatre, because everybody said that it was the late masterpiece, and besides, it wasn't part of a trilogy. Done! I thought. Wrong! it turned out. In a recent LRB, James Walcott had me laughing out loud with his combo review, of the biography and of the brouhaha. He said, My Life As a Man is the book to read. Anybody else, I'd have ignored it. But I got the book and he's right. It is actually pretty good; I may read it again. Where Freud comes in is in the extended argument that Nathan Zuckerman has with his analyst, Dr Spielvogel, about his narcissism and his castration anxiety. Suddenly, I had a hunch that, by substituting everyday language for Freud's grandiose terminology, the Viennese thinker's moral philosophy made complete sense. Now I have to find out what Peter Gay thinks.
The biography of Roth, Philip Roth: A Counterlife, is not the one by Blake Bailey. It's by Ira Nadel and I don't expect it to be withdrawn by its publisher, Oxford. (15 June 2021)
¶ Job Description? Do not ask why we are temporary subscribers to Us Magazine. Just know that I go from issue to issue in the mistaken certainty that next week's cover won't top this one's for journalistic cheek. A celebrity rag that lines up photos of stars and starlets in designer clothes in the front of the book only to lambaste their fashion mistakes at the rear, Us confines its attention to Hollywood — of which Buckingham Palace appears to be an outpost. Whether this was true before Meghan Markle captured Harry Windsor I cannot say, but at least a page of every issue is devoted to the descendants of Diana Spencer and their families, and rarely does the cover of Us not feature a picture of at least one of the daughters-in-law whom the late princess never knew. (Did you know that she would be sixty this year.)
Splashed on this week's cover is a photo of the beaming Cambridges, an American flag behind them, and the rather shocking announcement of their SECRET TRIP TO AMERICA! "I'll say it was secret," said I to myself — for there had been not a peep about in the Times, which isn't, you know, all that high-minded. Hoping to learn more, I read the story, which is that a SECRET TRIP to America is PLANNED, for later this summer. Megan and "Duchess Kate," we are assured, want to put the past behind them and move forward. I am not going to waste a word comment on what a godsend Prince Harry's troubled relations with his family are, given that he's married to AMERICA'S FIRST PRINCESS (a recent cover). I'm far too busy anticipating the headlines when the trip is "canceled." (Stay tuned.) I'm also stunned, in an ongoing way, at such editorial complaisance about manufacturing the appearance of faits accomplis.
Not that these stories are made up of whole cloth. It's a small but nice thing to know that Prince Harry isn't talking to Us directly. The actual sources to whom reports of secret trips and "canceled" baby showers are attributed have given me a naughty idea. If only I knew a few tykes of six or seven, I could ask them how they reply when adults ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Then, after commiserating with their mumbled attempts to fend off the invasion of privacy, I would make a suggestion. "Why don't you try this? Tell them that what you want to be when you grow up is a — palace insider." (23 June 2021)
¶ Polygamous Components. On page 226 of his hefty biography of Sigmund Freud, Peter Gay writes,
Jung, for his part, mired in a domestic crisis produced by what he had called his "polygamous components," confidentially told Freud that he was ruminating about "the ethical problems of sexual freedom."
Reading that, I giggled. What a euphemism! "Polygamous components"! I read it to Kathleen, and she laughed, too. I was so taken with the phrase that I googled it, and, what do you know, found a longer quote from Jung's letter that put a different light on the funny words. (This was in a book review by DJ Enright appearing in a 1994 issue of the LRB. Check it out if you're bored.) Jung was talking about the polygamous components of his psychological makeup. Grandiose, perhaps, but certainly not a euphemism for certain moving parts. Interestingly, the biography was published several years after the review. Surely this is an instance of naughty editing on Gay's part. It's not nice to fool my dirty mind! (30 July 2021)
¶ The New Printer. The old printer broke — the black-ink print head failed and could not be repaired. So we ordered a new computer, and it arrived just in time to scan consent letters and other info to the gastroenterologist. I'll be having a colonoscopy in a couple of weeks. With luck, some sort of ulcer will be found, and there will be no need to look further for the source of apparent internal bleeding that has induced iron-deficiency anemia.
"Iron-deficiency anemia" may have been the first medical term that I not only knew but could rattle off, thanks to the Geritol ad campaign of the late Fifties. "Ladies and Gentlemen, do you have that tired feeling? Doctors call it "iron-deficiency anemia." We kids turned this into a joke: "Ladies and Gentlemen, are you suffering from iron-deficiency anemia? Doctors call it "pooped."
Because of other distractions, I did not act on the doctor's advice back in April, when the anemia surfaced. Now it has gotten a bit worse. Some days are better than others, but I am always at least somewhat tired. I can plod through the daily routines, making the bed and making the dinner and sometimes doing a bit of dusting, but mostly I sit and read and write, which is pretty much what I was doing anyway. In fact, I thought I was simply out of shape from sitting too much. I was supposed to sit, or at any rate not supposed to walk, because of the ulcer on the ball of my foot — which, by the way, is not bleeding at all but slowly healing over, finally. When we go to the hospital for regular foot check-ups, and I see people in wheelchairs and casts and worse, I am overwhelmed by the ridiculouslness of my medical woes. Ridiculous or not, though, they have, such as they are, overwhelmed my life during the pandemic — which itself hasn't touched me. (1 September 2021)
¶ Élite Behavior. For some reason or other, new novels by Sally Rooney and Colm Tóibín were published in the United States on the same day, last Tuesday. Would it be rash to say that they are Ireland's most eminent writers at the moment? One would have to add that she is less than half his age. Might one also add that her meteoric ascent has been fueled by a ready willingness to write about sex as it is experienced by women? Maybe that would get one in trouble, and although I do think it's the case, I'm not going to say any more about it.
Instead, I've got a few remarks inspired by an interview that Rooney undertook with Rosa Lyster, in Hazlitt. Perhaps because I read the new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You in one day, I never noticed the fact that it is almost wholly devoid of interior accounts of the characters' minds. We are never told what anybody is thinking or feeling. We are shown plenty, and that is enough. Rather, it is enough for readers like me, who share, despite every variation in age and locality, a kinship — but no, it's not that it intimate. It's access to a widespread interpretative code shared by people with advanced educations in the humanities. Familiarity with this code allows us to interpret the actions of others and to anticipate how our actions will be understood. Of course we make lots of mistakes, because real life is too complicated to be expressed in a gestural Esperanto, and this very problem, which I find tends to preoccupy Millennials, is frequently observed by Rooney's characters. If you walk into a convenience store, does that signify your indifference to the climate crisis? How about flying to Rome for a few days and paying for a new friend to come along? What sort of message is this sending to the the friend's other friends, who could never afford such a junket? If you gratify a carnal desire for someone else's body, are you making any promises about love? Should you be? You might argue that the mistakes are the code, which would be a very good reason for an author to avoid statements beginning, "She felt..." Who knows what she felt, if even she couldn't tell you?
This code of uncertainty, which has a lot to do, I think, with the precarity of élite economic life, is not generally understood by uneducated people — a class from whom I exclude, as Rooney does, those very smart people who are unable to withstand the mindless monotony of the classroom. Felix Brady, the man in one of Rooney's two couples, is such a person. His command of the code is not as fluent as the others', but this becomes less of a drawback and more of a benefit to all concerned in the novel's climactic weekend, when, for the first time, the two couples are brought together. (They are linked by the women, who are old college friends.) Although he is worn down by his job at a shipping warehouse, Felix has not been exhausted by the uncertainty that has all but paralyzed the others. They are uncertain because everyone they know is uncertain. Will that course of action turn out to be not only risky but regrettable? Is this a good time to foreclose all other options by making commitments of uncertain scope? Alice Kelleher, Felix's new girlfriend, can write about these questions so well that she is literally a millionaire (as is Rooney, although no one comes out and says so), but her skill, however remunerative, hasn't really done her much good personally. At a certain point, Felix insists, we all have to make up our minds without being even halfway sure that we're choosing correctly.
It made me somewhat uneasy to realize that I hadn't noticed Rooney's technical stunt — her determination to avoid making use of the novelist's privilege to know things that her characters never could. It wasn't that I hadn't been clever enough to see what she was doing that bothered me. It was the novel's demonstration that the privilege has become useless, or at least unnecessary — so long as characters and readers alike are educated people. (By the same token, it might be seen as a wrongful appropriation for a novelist to presume to tell us about the thoughts of an uneducated person.) But as I've suggested, there's more to this than simple discretion. If Rooney declines to tell us what her characters are thinking and feeling — she claims, to Lyster, that it bores her to do so — that may be because her characters don't know what they're thinking and feeling. To put it better, they don't know how to take account of all that they are thinking and feeling. But they don't find this frustrating in the course of everyday life. Studying the humanities has made them extremely comfortable with ambiguity. On the contrary, they embrace it: it is the mark of their sophisticated grasp of human variety. And this is no bad thing; it is a prerequisite for tolerance and political compromise.
But it fills the uneducated (when it doesn't frighten them) with scorn and contempt. There is actually nothing new about this. When I was a boy, intellectuals were notorious for not being able to make up their minds, and the echo of "egghead" still strikes my ear as an ugly dismissal. But what terrifies me is that, to the extent that the educated are aware of this scorn and contempt, they honestly believe — they still believe — that the problem would be solved by more education! One thing the élite seems damned sure about is that learning fixes everything. Where's uncertainty when you need it? (10 September 2021)
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