Monday, October 24, 2011

The Anatomy Lesson


And Roth Still Hasn't Been Awarded the Nobel Prize

(And That's a Post for Another Night)

"Zuckerman's mother, a quiet, simple woman, dutiful and inoffensive though she was, always seemed to him a slightly more carefree and emancipated spirit. Redressing historical grievances, righting intolerable wrongs, changing the tragic course of Jewish history—all this she gladly left for her husband to accomplish during dinner. He made the noise and had the opinions, she contented herself with preparing their meal and feeding the children and enjoying, while it lasted, the harmonious family life. A year after his death she developed a brain tumor. For months she'd been complaining of episodes of dizziness, of headache, of little memory lapses. Her first time in the hospital, the doctors diagnosed a minor stroke, nothing to leave her seriously impaired; four months later, when they admitted her again, she was able to recognize her neurologist when he came by the room, but when he asked if she would write her name for him on a piece of paper, she took the pen from his hand and instead of 'Selma' wrote the word 'Holocaust,' perfectly spelled."


"The sharp smells, the decisive noises, the American ideals, the Zionist zeal, the Jewish indignation, all that to a boy was vivid and inspiring, almost superhuman, had belonged to his father; the mother who'd been so enormous to him for the first ten years of his life was as diaphanous in recollection as the chiffon hood. A breast, then a lap, then a fading voice calling after him, 'Be careful.' Then a long gap when there is nothing of her to remember, just the invisible somebody, anxious to please, reporting to him on the phone the weather in New Jersey. Then the Florida retirement and the blond hair. Neatly dressed for the tropics in pink cotton slacks and a monogrammed white blouse (wearing the pearl pin he'd bought years before in Orly Airport and brought home for her from his first summer in France), a little brown-skinned blond-haired woman waiting down at the end of the corridor when he gets off the elevator with his bag: the unconstrained grin, the encompassing dark eyes, the sad clinging embrace, instantly followed by the gratitude. Such gratitude! It was as though the President of the United States had arrived at the condominium to call upon some lucky citizen whose name and address had been drawn from a hat."


"Out past the new condominium that had gone up next door, he saw a wide slice of the bay. So long as her husband was alive, they used to look at the bay ritually from the bedroom balcony every evening after dinner and the TV news. 'Oh, Nathan, you should have seen the colors last night at sunset—only you would have the words to describe it.' But after Dr. Zuckerman's death, she couldn't face all that ineffable beauty alone and just kept watching television, no matter what was on."


"She sent the chauffeur all the way down to Allen Street for the stuffed peppers from Seymour's Parkway, and then came over in the car to heat them up for his dinner. She rushed into the little kitchenette in her red-fox Russian cossack coat and, when she came out with the steaming pot, was wearing only her heels. Gloria was nearing forty, a firm, hefty brunette with protruding circular breasts like targets, and electrifying growths of hair. Her face could have been a Spanish mulatto's: almond eyes, a wide, imposing jaw, and full rounded lips with peculiarly raised edges. There were bruises on her behind. He wasn't the only primitive she babied and he didn't care. He ate the food and he tasted the breasts. There was nothing Gloria didn't remember to carry in her bag: nippleless bra, crotchless panties, Polaroid camera, vibrating dildo, K-Y jelly, Gucci blindfold, a length of braided velvet rope—for a treat, on his birthday, a gram of cocaine. 'Times have changed,' said Zuckerman, 'since all you needed was a condom.' 'A child is sick,' she said, 'you bring toys.' True, and Dionysian rites were once believed to have a therapeutic effect on the physically afflicted. There was also the ancient treatment known as the imposition of hands. Gloria had classical history on her side. His own mother's means for effecting a cure were to play casino on the edge of the bed with him when he was home with a fever. So as not to fall behind in her housework, she'd set her ironing board up in his bedroom while they gossiped about school and his friends. He loved the smell of ironing still. Gloria, lubricating a finger and slipping it in his anus, talked about her marriage to Marvin.

"Zuckerman said to her, 'Gloria, you're the dirtiest woman I've ever met.'

" 'If I'm the dirtiest woman you've ever met, you're in trouble. I fuck Marvin twice a week. I put down my book, put out my cigarette, turn out the light, and roll over.'

" 'On your back?'

" 'What else? And then he puts it in and I know just what to do to make him come. And then he mumbles something about tits and love and he comes. Then I put on the light and roll on my side and light up a cigarette and get on with my book. I'm reading the one you told me about. Jean Rhys.'

" 'What do you do to make him come?'

" 'I make three circles this way, and three circles the other way, and I draw my fingernail down his spine like this—and he comes.'

" 'So you do seven things.'

" 'Right. Seven things. And then he says something about my tits and love, and he comes. And then he falls asleep and I can turn on the light again and read.' "


"...'I've been so busy with my old man I haven't even had time to think about my mother. That'll come later, I suppose. What's it like for you, without them? I still remember your folks and your kid brother when they all came out to visit on the train.'

"The differences in their family predicament Zuckerman preferred not discussing right then—it could only promote further dismissive interpretations of his motives. Zuckerman was still stunned by how matter-of-factly Bobby had opposed him. His plan to change his life had seemed as absurd to Bobby as it had to Diana when he'd invited her to come out with him to Chicago and go to school.

" 'What's it like,' Bobby asked him, 'three, four years after they're gone?'

" 'I miss them.' To miss. To feel the absence of. Also, to fail to do, as to miss an opportunity.

" 'What'd they make of Carnovsky?'

" In the old days he would have told him the truth—back then Zuckerman would have kept Bobby up half the night telling him the truth. But to explain that his father had never forgiven the mockery that he saw in Carnovsky, of both the Zuckermans and the Jews; to describe his acquiescent mother's discomposure, the wounded pride, the confused emotions, the social embarrassment during the last year of her life, all because of the mother in Carnovsky, to tell him that his brother had gone so far as to claim that what he'd committed wasn't mockery but murder... well, he didn't consider it seemly, twenty years on, still to be complaining to his roommate that nobody from New Jersey knew how to read."


" ...'Shirley Temper happens to be as bright as any actress working in the legitimate theater. Why is she doing it? She's doing it because she is pulling in a thousand dollars a day. My money. Is that debasing women? She's doing it because a Broadway play opens and closes in a week and she's back with the unemployed, while with me she works all the time, has the dignity of a working person, and gets the chance to play a whole variety of roles. Sure, some of them are the classic woman who is looking for a strong pimp to rob them blind. Some people are always going to be exploited and not take responsibility for their own lives. Exploiting goes on everywhere there are people willing to be exploited. But Shirley says fuck that. And she didn't belong to the college sorority with Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem. Scranton PA, that was her college.' "


"The last of the old-fashioned fathers. And we, thought Zuckerman, the last of the old-fashioned sons. Who that follows after us will understand how midway through the twentieth century, in this huge, lax, disjointed democracy, a father—and not even a father of learning or eminence or demonstrable power—could still assume the stature of a father in a Kafka story? No, the good old days are just about over, when half the time, without even knowing it, a father could sentence a son to punishment for his crimes, and the love and hatred of authority could be such a painful, tangled mess."


"He'd been considered a great mocker once himself, but never as diabolically inspired as this. Even without the aid of his glasses, he understood that he didn't look like he was on the ball. He thought, Just don't make me write about it after. Not everything has to be a book. Not that, too.

"But back in bed he thought, The burden isn't that everything has to be a book. It's that everything can be a book. And doesn't count as life until it is."


[from Philip Roth's 1984 introduction to the Franklin Library limited-edition of The Anatomy Lesson]:

"In The Ghost Writer, young Zuckerman imagines himself morally rescued by marrying the martyred Anne Frank, shielded by that fantasied union from charges of betraying his family, and Jews generally, with his reckless, ill-considered fiction. In The Anatomy Lesson he imagines himself, with no less exuberance, as the owner of a pornographic dynasty grossing seven million a year, an antisocial desperado with a filthy mouth and a fourteen-thousand-dollar watch, about whom he thinks, '...maybe he is what makes one secretly proudest of being a Jew after all. The more he sits with me, the more I find to like.' Anne Frank's husband has come a long way. [...]

"The Anatomy Lesson is a comedy about searching for relief from all that binds, a comedy of disappointment and imprisonment and loss. Why pain of such proportions should be funny is something I'm unable to explain, except to say that only inasmuch as I can see it as comic do I believe that what I've written originates in motives I can trust."


Previous posts on Philip Roth at Cinemasparagus:

The Ghost Writer [1979]

Zuckerman Unbound [1981]

2006 and 2007 Interviews

See also some of the Chaplin entries.