When Philip Roth compiles lists of the writers he most admires, Tolstoy never seems to make it. There’s Flaubert, Kafka, Bellow–the touchstones. Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Céline–the madmen. Henry Miller, of course; even Chekhov and Thomas Mann. But Tolstoy, when he appears in Roth’s fiction at all, is usually something of a joke. In The Ghost Writer, young Nathan Zuckerman travels to meet his hero, the reclusive novelist E.I. Lonoff (“Married to Tolstoy” is how the novel describes the plight of Lonoff’s wife); lying the first night in the sanctum where Lonoff composes his masterpieces, and knowing that a fetching student of Lonoff’s is also staying at the house, Zuckerman is, shamefully, seized by erotic yearnings. He yields to them. “Virtuous reader,” he reports, “if you think that after intercourse all animals are sad, try masturbating on the daybed in E.I. Lonoff’s study and see how you feel when it’s over.”
As if this wasn’t bad enough, four years later Roth began The Anatomy Lesson with a sexual rewriting of Anna Karenina‘s famous opening. “Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy wrote. “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything at the Oblonskys’ was in confusion.” Roth’s version: “When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women.”
So perhaps it is as punishment for this needling that in his old age Roth has become Tolstoy. His last five novels have been Tolstoyan in scope, and, like Tolstoy, he has been celebrated for them. Like Tolstoy he is loathed by the official organs of religion–an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church suggested that Tolstoy be executed for the antimarital rantings of “The Kreutzer Sonata,” while here in America an influential rabbi demanded to know, “What is being done to silence this man?” after Roth’s attacks on Jewish suburbia in Goodbye, Columbus. And if it so happens that the Jews are wrong, and Hell exists, there can be no question that the author of Sabbath’s Theater will spend eternity there.
But the chief reason that Roth is Tolstoy is that he, almost alone of our contemporary novelists, so insistently has Something to Say, and is prepared, at times, to forsake all his literary instincts in order to say it. Tolstoy’s digressions in War and Peace on the mechanisms of history infuriated such early readers as Flaubert (“he repeats himself and he philosophises!”), as well as everyone since. After completing his masterpiece, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy for some time wrote only philosophical and religious tracts. As for Roth, who came dangerously close to turning his last, very powerful novel, The Human Stain, into a political rant against the Clinton impeachment, he too has for the moment dropped most pretenses to fiction and produced, with The Dying Animal, something far closer to an essay.
It is an essay, naturally, about sex. Lenin claimed that Tolstoy was the mirror of the Russian Revolution; for the past forty years, Roth has been the mirror of the sexual one. In his work, the contradictions of that libidinal revolt have found their fullest expression. During the 1960s, Roth hailed its arrival–indeed, three years after the 1969 publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, Irving Howe could damningly suggest that Roth was “a man at ease with our moment.” But Portnoy, Zuckerman and the rest have also testified eloquently to the costs of such freedom. You may shatter convention, Roth showed, but be warned that society (with its thuggish enforcer, the superego) has the resources to defend itself, with extreme prejudice.
The same paradigm fits the slim plot of The Dying Animal. The narrator, 70-year-old David Kepesh, is a cultural arbiter and professor who has systematically been sleeping with everyone, including and especially his students, since leaving his wife and child in the 1960s. You will perhaps object that Kepesh doesn’t have any kids, and you’ll be right. Roth has never been scrupulous with his characters’ biographies–Zuckerman’s childhood, for example, what with the boxing lessons and ping-pong in Swede Levov’s basement and the Communism, is beginning to look awfully crowded–and in this case he outfits Kepesh, who appeared in two previous, rather mediocre outings as a hesitant philanderer in The Professor of Desire and as a giant breast in The Breast, with a more virile résumé and an abandoned son from a different first marriage. Nor does he bother to explain how the mammillary Kepesh turned himself back into a man.
But it’s still the same Kepesh, of all Roth’s narrators the dullest and most methodical. Even when he ceased to be a man, Kepesh was a most reasonable breast. He is reasonable still, as he catalogues his sexual habits, rules and arrangements; of an affair with a middle-aged former student, he explains: “It was a joint venture, our sexual partnership, that profited us both and that was strongly colored by Carolyn’s crisp executive manner. Here pleasure and equilibrium combined.” Given this regimented administration of his own happiness, it is naturally satisfying to see Kepesh–“the propagandist of fucking”–caught up in all the old emotions after an affair with a particularly stunning student. “This need,” he moans, referring not to lust but to attachment. “This derangement. Will it never stop?”
But before everyone runs out to buy this paean to the triumph of the bourgeois spirit, they should be warned that Roth takes Kepesh far more seriously than this plot summary indicates–takes him at his word. It should even be noted–if I may be allowed a quick critical crudity–that Kepesh’s style is the closest among his narrators to the style of Roth’s own essays and memoirs. His concerns are Roth’s, and he shares many of the master’s ideas about the world. For Kepesh is not merely a reflection of the sexual revolution, but also its historian.
And here I must stop myself–it is so easy to make fun of Roth. Sixty-eight years old and again with the sex. When Tolstoy published his attack on physical love in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” young wits suggested that the Count’s own kreutzer might be out of order. It is easy, in other words, to make fun of old men. I myself have done so. I thought–it seems to be the general consensus–that sex for Roth was a device with which to propel his fictions; that he could have used cars, or whales, or sports, and chose sex merely because it was historically ripe, as a subject, and for the simpler reason that it was the quickest way to épater ye olde bourgeoisie. Diaphragm! Cunt! “The Raskolnikov of jerking off”!
I no longer think so. It seems obvious that at this point Roth can do little with sex that he hasn’t done already (though he tries in The Dying Animal, he tries). This continued fixation is fictionally fallow–as Roth writes, baldly, in The Dying Animal, “You know you want it and you know you’re going to do it and nothing is going to stop you. Nothing is going to be said here that’s going to change anything.” Since sex is, in this view, overdetermined, it’s like writing about gravity. (In fact, not having sex is far more promising–one of the things it promises being future sex.)
Yet Roth persists, and after forty years it can only be because he believes sex the most important topic he could possibly tackle, and now more than ever. So this book demands that we approach it with a straight face, even when a straight face seems the least natural response. Kepesh, of course, is professorial, telling of the Merry Mount trading post in colonial Massachusetts, raided by the Puritans because it was a bad influence on the young. “Jollity and gloom,” he quotes Hawthorne, “were contending for an empire.” He is also empirical, a one-man research institute, reporting the number of times (one) that he was the beneficiary of oral sex in college in the 1950s, and clinically tracing the progress made in the interim: “The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There’s been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women.”
If this seems deliberately offensive, it is part of the general urgency, even desperation, that pulses through this book. Roth is running out of time; he must tell you as quickly as possible, he must convince you to change your life. Now, Roth has always considered the sexual revolution in quasi-world-historical terms. “The massive late-sixties assault upon sexual customs,” he told an interviewer in 1974,
came nearly twenty years after I myself hit the beach fighting for a foothold on the erotic homeland held in subjugation by the enemy. I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore to advance triumphantly toward that libidinous Paris we had dreamed of liberating as we inched inland on our bellies, firing into the dark.
This is sweet and funny and light–and wholly innocent, it seems, of the damage done.
There is no such lightness in The Dying Animal. When the same idea (Roth as sexual revolutionary vanguard) resurfaces, it has an embattled quality to it, as if Roth is no longer certain what has happened, or who won. “Look,” says Kepesh, in his demotic, direct address:
I’m not of this age. You can see that. You can hear that. I achieved my goal with a blunt instrument. I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it. And to [my son]’s life. That I’m still a hammerer should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that my insistence makes me a comic figure on the order of the village atheist to you who are of the current age and who haven’t had to insist on any of this.
The shift in tone from the interview is remarkable. The confidence is gone; the winds of history are shifting. Not only have the young forgotten their benefactors, they’ve started to cede the freedoms won for them–“now even gays want to get married,” says Kepesh. “I expected more from those guys.” And the deflowered order has been replaced by a new form of surveillance, which Kepesh scrupulously documents during a student conference: “we sat side by side at my desk, as directed, with the door wide open to the public corridor, all eight of our limbs, our two contrasting torsos visible to every Big Brother of a passerby.” The revolution for which Kepesh fought so ruthlessly has been betrayed.
Which is a well-known habit of revolutions. Roth might have predicted, in fact, that women could not merely come alive as autonomous sexual beings without also developing ways of defending themselves against groping professors. He might even have predicted that this defense would at times grow absurd, that it would seek regimentation not only for physical but for verbal relations, that it would create a vocabulary of misunderstanding so dense it may take the passing of an entire generation before men and women can speak to one another again.
That all this might have been predicted in no way suggests that Roth is wrong to raise his voice in protest. It is striking, indeed, that a writer forever accused of it has now turned himself so vehemently against vulgarity–against the very leveling and coarsening of our conversation. Toward the end of The Dying Animal, Roth’s former lover is beset by tragedy: “She began telling me about how foolish all her little anxieties of a few months back now seemed, the worries about work and friends and clothes, and how this had put everything in perspective,” says Kepesh, “and I thought, No, nothing puts anything in perspective.”
No, because there is no privileged view, no heights from which to look. This is the endpoint of the nihilist’s wisdom. And Roth, after a circle of great radius, comes again to look like Tolstoy, like a writer who turns the light of his reason upon all the expressions and conventions by which we thoughtlessly live. How out of place he seems at a time when most fiction, competent as it is, has taken to being demure about its own necessity; when most writers are such professionals. Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon, of his generation, are all at least as talented as Roth; DeLillo is as timely, as ready to philosophize and to use the word “America.” But no one is as urgent, as committed to the communication of his particular human truth.
The Dying Animal is not a great work in the way that The Human Stain, American Pastoral, Operation Shylock and, especially, Sabbath’s Theater were great works. But it completes the picture–the picture of what a writer can be. Where DeLillo’s recent novella, The Body Artist, was remarkable for its departure from his customary mode, The Dying Animal is remarkable for its fealty to the ground Roth has always worked. It cedes nothing, apologizes for nothing; it deepens, thereby, the seriousness of all his previous books.
“Because [sex] is based in your physical being, in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies,” says Kepesh.
Only [during sex] are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It’s not the sex that’s the corruption–it’s the rest. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?
You could answer (virtuous reader), as you have answered Roth so many times before, that art, and its promise of eternity, is greater; or politics, and its promise of justice, is greater; or religion, and its promise of spiritual peace, is more powerful. You could answer Roth thus, but one of you would have to be lying.