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.