29 July 2007

Philip Roth - Everyman

Continuing a run of books written by Phils, I tried this latest Roth. I've only read a couple of his before - Portnoy's Complaint, of course, and American Pastoral, and I don't yet have a handle on what makes him so great.

This is a serious work, concerned with mortality - it opens with the funeral of the main character, and most of it details the ailments he's suffered in his life. He's had a major cardiovascular operation every year for 6 years, and on the eve of the last one, from which he won't wake, he recalls his life, and the mistakes he has made.

By the end of his life he has had three marriages, and two estranged sons. His brother, a spectacular overachiever, Goldman partner, with a successful marriage and four children, has always supported him, but in the end his envy, and shame at his own frailty and relative failure leads him to, unjustly reject him.

The main character is not named - he is 'Everyman', not just symbolic of any man, but also of the medieval allegorical play, whose subject is the summoning of the living to death. It's a calling to account of a man for his life, and as such it has a universal resonance. It's also about the frailty of the human body - for a long part of the book, every character is defined by the ailments they've suffered.

There's an unresolved element to the book, of whether Roth intends for the character's ailments to stand for his moral failings, how he has treated his wives and family, or whether it's his own lack of direction and self-respect which have led to both. He considers the contrast between his brother's life and his own to be down to luck, but plainly he made moral and career choices, and these are also general in their symbolism - we all make these choices, we all envy those who make different ones.

In the end I found this unsatisfying. Maybe if I reread it in 20 or 30 years time it will resonate more, but it's very tightly written and with some irony.


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