In “Nemesis,” much like elsewhere in that astonishing canvas that is Philip Roth’s work, community is something that no credible human being can live with and whose absence tears, scars without end. It seems not insignificant that the greatest of all living novelists to explore the inescapability of aloneness is born of a people that has so resolutely defined itself — for so long — as the quintessence of togetherness. The interplay between the warmth, the nourishment of community and its suffocating, still worse, its vengeful breath is a neighborhood known no less intimately by Roth than the intersections of Newark, N.J.
The Bucky Cantor of “Nemesis,” enveloped by the glow of community, is something of a human phoenix: “… At twenty-three, he was, to all of us boys, the most exemplary, and revered authority we knew, a young man of convictions, easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, gentle, vigorous, muscular….Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.” In the absence of people and their embrace, and having, quite possibly, infected those once close to him by his mere presence, he is, literally, nothing: “…all that vital purposefulness that would hit you in the face the moment you met him, seemed itself to have been stripped away, lifted from him in shreds…”
Community’s embrace stifles, its absence diminishes. There is no closure here, nothing like the close of the Book of Job, the grimmest of all in the biblical canon, where, as Roth seems to feel, God, Job and all else are left to exit far too gingerly, too gaily. There, in the Bible, Job is permitted to die “being old and full of days,” his stock of sheep replenished, his brood of children and grandchildren within reach. In stark contrast, Roth’s Bucky Cantor spends his Sundays alone, eating meals in diners, taking in the occasional movie. No sheep for him, no sheep for the rest of us, either. Roth doesn’t even allow Cantor a healthy dose of wisdom, or repose, or holiness, or anything redemptive, for all the unholy misery he has undergone. Instead, he is left a shell, someone you cross the street to avoid.
It’s here, it seems to me, in Roth’s musings, time and again, on community, the inability to live with it or live without it — it is here that his Jewish preoccupations are most acute, and fertile. Already, long ago, in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he offered that invaluable insight that nowhere, not even the bathroom, permits privacy, if only because family can stand there, right outside it, just behind that one tenuous barrier separating oneself from its embraces and intrusions offering a stream of advice on defecation, the wiliness of french fries, and the like. I’ve long felt that a link exists between this famous, brilliant scene and Isaac Babel’s in his childhood tale, “The Awakening” (Roth meditates on Babel in “The Ghost Writer”) — with the child in Babel’s story, too, escaping family to the only refuge of albeit imperfect aloneness in his house, the toilet, and where his family, in Odessa, gathers just outside to harangue, to insinuate itself into every pore of the boy’s still unformed being. And then, at the story’s end, he is scooped up, guided through the city’s nighttime streets by his aunt, who holds his hand tight: She does so, the narrator says, “so that I wouldn’t run away. She was right. I was thinking of running away.”
He never does, of course. It is just this moment, this impulse, its allure, more important, its inconceivability to which Babel, and Roth return again and again. Curiously, the debate with regard to the relevance of Jewishness for Roth remains robust; the very best, single interpretive book on his work, Ross Posnock’s “Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity,” published by Princeton in 2006, builds much of its argument around the contention that Roth’s literary parentage is a “cosmopolitan” one (Posnock’s term) fathered by the likes of Henry James, or Bruno Shultz (here a Polish, hence a world, writer) not sired by those tribal boys, those provincials hailing from Chicago’s Humboldt Park or Brooklyn or, for that matter, Odessa. (There is no reference to Babel in the book’s index.) Somehow, in a study full of insight about Roth’s most salient influences, the prospect that among them were ever pressing Jewish ones is viewed as reducing him in size and scope.
When will Jewish influences cease to be seen as, somehow, intrinsically tribal, when will they be seen as no less confining at least for those blessed with capacious imaginations than, say, Chekhov’s south Russian inflections? I have no doubt that Roth communes, fruitfully, and brilliantly, with Henry James or Flaubert, but this doesn’t scant the full array of influences from which he draws, that he uses so innovatively which include, in “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” too, incessantly Jewish ones. (Roth in his Paris Review interview: “Is isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish – it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up. Gets too close.”)
Indeed, if one is to look for Roth’s Jewish preoccupations — and one need not look very far — there is nowhere better to see them than in his sense of Jewry’s overheated embraces and exclusions, both born of much the same impulses, which have provided him a splendid prism through which to probe community, its warm bosom, its awful underbelly. Is there another people that praises its achievers, that polices its boundaries, that punishes its miscreants with the fervor, the torrent of righteous indignation meted out, at one or another time, to Roth, or Hannah Arendt, or, for that matter, Richard Goldstone? Is it mere happenstance that Jewry’s entry into modernity is punctuated by the afterglow of Spinoza’s own excommunication from community, the appearance of that solitary person shorn of obligatory fellowship, coolly isolated and whose identity is so indelibly marked by his being, now and always, communally adrift?
“Portnoy’s Complaint”: “They might as well have had plates in their lips and rings through their noses and painted themselves blue for all the human sense they made! Oh and the milchiks and flaishiks besides, all those meshuggeneh rules and regulations on top of their own private craziness! It’s a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm, and hopefully asked, ‘Momma, do we believe in winter?’ Do you know what I’m saying? I was raised by Hottentots and Zulus! I couldn’t even contemplate drinking a glass of milk with my salami sandwich without giving serious offense to God Almighty.”
One escapes to the toilet, or to the Berkshires, but the solitary pleasures on offer feel, always, like escape. There is a poignancy, an absence in them and it’s right there in that sense of having lost something that you’d never, ever want to envelope you again, where one finds at least one of the wounds that Roth’s genius has wound itself around, time and again, for half a century now. Biz hundert un tsvantsik, until the age of Moses.
Steven J. Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish culture and history at Stanford University.