Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Exit Ghost and the Politics of "Late Style"

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Exit Ghost and the Politics of "Late Style"

Article excerpt

Let's speak further of death and of desire - understandably in the aging a desperate desire - to forestall death, to resist it, to resort to whatever means are necessary to see death with anything anything anything but clarity.

- Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)

In the history of art late works are the catastrophes.

- Theodor Adorno, "Late Style in Beethoven" (1937)

In "Late Works," a brief essay collected in his final volume of criticism, Due Consideration (2007), John Updike begins to unravel the persistent, and somewhat morbid, appeal that is often attached to a writer's final works. While the occasion for the piece was ostensibly die publication of Edward Said's posthumous collection On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006), Updike quickly moves beyond the parameters of Said's argument and turns towards his own interest in how death's nearness shapes an aging writer's imagination.1 Downplaying the political ramifications of Said's position, Updike offers a nimble survey of "late works," the essay touching on texts as diverse as The Tempest (161 1) and Iris Murdoch's final novel, Jackson's Dilemma (1995), written when Murdoch was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "Death, one would think, naturally haunts late works; yet perhaps it does not," Updike muses at the midpoint of the essay. "A negation defies objectification; disappearance has no appearance. Adorno wrote, 'Death is imposed on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory.' What does haunt late works are the author's previous works: he is burdensomely aware that he has been cast, unlike his ingénue self, as an author who writes a certain way, with the inexorable consistency of his own handwriting" 60).2

This depiction of the aging writer, "burdensomely aware" of his past, seems especially appropriate in the wake of Updike's recent death, as commentators have attempted to assess his massive body of work, an oeuvre diat came to include more than fifty volumes. Moreover, with the recent deadis of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, Updike's passing has inspired critics to begin gauging the achievement of the generation of writers who came of age during the 1950s (a diverse group that also includes Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, and John Barth to name but a few) and whose fiction chronicled Americas political and social transformation in the years after die Second World War.

While many of these writers are still active, with Roth, Morrison, and Barth all publishing books in 2008, Updike's death served notice diat die writers who have largely dominated American fiction for the past fifty years have entered die last stage of their career. Of these writers, however, it has been Updike and Philip Roth whose careers have been linked most closely, and Roth's legacy has been the subtext behind many of the recent discussions of Updike's work. Describing the scope of Updike's achievement in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik noted that Updike was "the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing" (36). The same thing might be said of Roth, whose sizeable oeuvre reveals a sustained engagement in determining the significance of what it has meant, and continues to mean, to identify oneself as an American. In his recent study of postwar American fiction, Morris Dickstein observes that in both the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy and in the Nathan Zuckerman series, Updike's and Roth's alter-egos became "the indispensable projections of the authors, their alternate lives. . . [in which they could] dream of lives they might have had as they record die inner history of the last half century, decade by decade" (18). "By cultivating the self, not without a certain narcissism," Dickstein argues, "[Updike and Roth] found new ways of writing the history of their times, an age of prosperity and therapy when the exigent, imperial self became die obsessive concern of many Americans" (18). …

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