In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.
Roth was of a generation which perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’. There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy, as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet. But, back to Philip Roth.
It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny. That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.
I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore. I see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.
The good in American Pastoral? Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that. This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’
‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.
But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.
Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family. It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting. Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’? Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.