Letting Go. Read May 4 – 18, 2013. Roth’s first novel, published in 1962.
Yearning. Indecisiveness. Rootlessness. Responsibility. Listlessness. Guilt.
Fans of Roth or those interested in an unflinching glare onto the American experience of middle-class twenty-somethings in the late 50s, read it.
There are three quotes in the epigraph, and the last one is an appropriate summation of the story:
It may be that one life is a punishment
For another, as the son’s life for the father’s.
But that concerns the secondary characters.
It is a fragmentary tragedy
Within the universal whole. The son
And the father alike and equally are spent,
Each one, by the necessity of being
Himself, the unalterable necessity
Of being this unalterable animal.
—Wallace Stevens “Esthétique du Mal”
This is Roth’s first novel, and his longest at 660 pages. The story follows four intertwined characters (two couples) through their mid to late 20s. From Oklahoma to the University of Iowa to New York to the University of Chicago back to New York and at the close, England, Gabe Wallach (a well-off English professor and the central character) along with Martha Reganhart, Paul and Libby Herz and a large cast of secondary characters, search for meaningful relationships with each other, their friends and their families. With no success.
This is a heavy book, all the way through. I found it tense, detailed, and well crafted; it was hard to put down. It had playful moments, but it was never playful. Occurring a good thirty years before I was at the age of the characters and going through similar struggles, those thirty years do not dilute or change the attitudes, needs and struggles I myself experienced. Universal stuff. Though it is a document of it’s times. The four at the center are intellectuals and liberals and their lifestyles and choices have more dramatic impact than alternative life choices had in the 80s and 90s. Both men are non-religious Jews and both females are gentiles. Both Paul’s and Libby’s families disown them because of their mixed marriage.
The novel was published in 62, is set in the late 50s and early 60s, and one great thing about digital reading is immediate access to the cultural references found throughout. Sarah Vaughan singing Tenderly, Gerry Mulligan, Fabian and Frankie Avalon are all mentioned, it’s a time when beat culture and jazz are being pushed aside by rock and pop. Henry James is mentioned at the start, and at the end. I need to look into him.
Main characters at a glance
Gabe is a Harvard boy, tall, German-Jewish, good looking. He’s likable, but obvious and off putting to the other three in his generosity and attempts to do the right thing by everyone without fully committing to them. His easy financial life makes the others resent him throughout. His complicity in the central tragedy of the book (that I can’t give away or you won’t be as shattered by the event as I was, just wait) and his need to be a stand up guy drives him to wrong choices, disaster and mental breakdown.
Martha is a headstrong, large, beautiful scandinavian-american woman. She is forthright, lustful, outspoken. She is divorced with two children. Her ex husband is an artist. He ran off to Arizona. He beat her. Martha works the night shift in a restaurant and takes classes when she can. Gabe’s asshole boss from the University of Chicago introduces them.
Paul is also from Harvard, a seemingly stolid stoic serious man. He is tall, thin and frumpy due to second-hand ill-fitting clothes. He is poor. He is “lugubrious”. He no longer loves his young wife, if he ever did, but is duty bound to care for her regardless of Libby’s mutual feelings regarding their relationship, which he aggressively avoids discussing.
Libby is a nervous frail young woman who doesn’t know what to do with her life, or how to gain her husband’s affections. She imagined a much different life. Every choice she makes seems to compound their despair. She is attracted to Gabe as a possible route to escape and dream realization.
There is little of the flowing stream of consciousness Miller-esque prose that I remember so fondly from American Pastoral here, but the description of the Thanksgiving dinner in New York comprised of what I believe to be largely holocaust survivors is poignant and poetic. The scene starts with no preface and I initially thought it was in a elder care facility until the Thanksgiving surroundings took shape. The following passage comes after the large meal has been consumed and discussion of their children’s and grandchildren’s whereabouts comes to a close:
Suddenly there was traffic, most of it to the two bathrooms. Women repaired their eyes in all the mirrors of the house. Men blew their noses into expensive handkerchiefs. One’s son, one’s grandchild, one’s own flesh and blood, miles and miles away … For a short while well-fleshed backs were all one could see in the room. But through some miracle—the miracle of alcohol, companionship, of everybody feeling his obligation to the Pilgrim fathers—the party did not dissolve into old people collapsing on the floor and beating their hearts with their fists. For a suspenseful few minutes it hung just above that—Mrs. Norton almost turned purple with sadness right in the center of the emptying room—but then feet began to ache, stomachs became gassy, and a little heartburn had to be taken care of. Groans and sighs took precedence over the deeper pains, and full bellies rose and fell in exhaustion. The women sat with heads back and arms folded; the men slept. A general mellowing took place, and the knowledge spread—silent, but electric—that there were thousands and thousands in the world in exactly the same fix as those aged gathered here. With the food moving through the system, the blood thickening, there came the hour of philosophy; outside the window the day turned purple and gold. This was the way of life—separation and loss. To be eating, drinking, to be warm, to be left, that was something. At least those who remained, remained.
Gabe about his father:
He was a wholehearted man, and such people are hard to kiss half-heartedly.
Gabe waking up on the south side of Chicago:
At seven-thirty the next morning, the alarm sang out one stiff brassy note. Beyond my frosted window, it was a lithographer’s dream of winter; such Decembers they have in the Holland of children’s books. The snow covered the ground, and the sun the snow. With a happiness so intense that I saw no reason to question it, I rose from my blankets. Just living, sheer delightful breathing, had, in earlier periods of my life, convinced me that a man, like a dog, is most himself wagging his tail. This truth now asserted itself again, and it was with genuine pleasure that I shaved my face, selected my clothes, and prepared my breakfast. Four inches of snow, and life had changed back to what it once had been, what it should be forever.
Not much to choose from in the Google results, I assume this one is the original and the best of the three available covers. The thick radiating bars are an obvious abstract representation of the title of the novel and possibly the many characters. The typography and composition are uninspired.