Roth's Curtain of Narcissism

By Allen, Brooke | The New Leader (Online), November/December 2009 | Go to article overview

Roth's Curtain of Narcissism


Allen, Brooke, The New Leader (Online)


Roth's Curtain of Narcissism

THE MOST IMPRESSIVE American novelists of the generation that came of age after World War II are Philip Roth and John Updike, both born in 1 932. Precociously gifted, each was already making an impact on the country's literary culture in the 1 950s, and for the next half-century they evinced a remarkable level not only of virtuosity but of sheer energy. Updike, who died earlier this year, produced 30 novels and 13 volumes of short stories; Roth has just completed his 28th work of fiction.

From the very beginning the two presented a study in contrasts, most obviously in the intensity of their sensibilities - small-town Protestant versus urban Jew. As the years went on their characters, artistic aims and spiritual preoccupations diverged, until in old age they came to present two singular ideas of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a man. Roth, who back in the 1970s was indisputably the funniest novelist in the United States, has taken the tragic line (always evident even in his more facetious books) as far as it goes, becoming ultimately a tragic writer in the fullest sense of the word. Humor in his recent fiction appears only incidentally, offhandedly; it never seems, any more, to be a central element ofhis vision. Sex and death are his major subjects (as they are the major subjects of so many male writers), and his theme is man's refusal to come to terms with them.

Updike, on the other hand, though also very much preoccupied with sex and death, developed over the long run into a "comic" writer - not in the slapstick sense but in the Shakespearean mode of accepting all of life, including old age and its manifold indignities, in an almost beatific cosmic vision. He even found an occasion for poetic wonder while lying on his hospital bed after receiving a death sentence from his oncologist; every phase of life was of value in providing the larger view. Roth, as he keeps demonstrating, has no such wish to resign himself; he is going to go down, and out, with a primal scream.

Roth is currently at work on a tetralogy of novellas. We have already seen Everyman (2006) and Indignation (2008); the newest installment, The Humbling (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 140 pp., $22.00), has just appeared. It is hard to tell what draws them together as a unit, except for their size and the fact that, like all of Roth's work, they have clear autobiographical elements. The Humbling, whose protagonist is an actor rather than a writer or any sort of intellectual, is almost a fable, for surely everyone on earth has had the classic nightmare of being onstage without having a clue about what they are doing there.

This is exactly how the last act of Simon Axler's life begins. "He'd lost his magic," the narrator tells us. "The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he'd done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: He couldn't act. Going onstage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail." Being an actor, which involves exposing oneself to intense and personal public scrutiny, is an obvious metaphor for public life in the larger respect. Who you are, who you feel yourself to be, is intimately associated if not quite identical with what you are in others' eyes, the outer persona you present to the world.

A shifting self-perception, a slide into apprehension, is fatal in the creative arts, and when Simon loses his ease on the stage his sense of identity immediately fades. "Of course, if you've had it, you always have something unlike anyone else's," he says, and this is true of the writer and the painter as well. "I'll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me - that people will always remember." Yes, on a superficial level; but at a slightly deeper one all of us human animals are the same, and Simon's loss of what he saw as his inalienable individuality is symptomatic of the universal aging process: We spend our first 50 years accruing skills, knowledge, friends, property, and then spend the rest of our lives slowly losing all these things until we stand alone and defenseless before merging back into the common stream. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Roth's Curtain of Narcissism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.