Sunday, January 12, 2014

`Because It's Beautiful'

“She often read his copies of the books, and she was perplexed, at first, by the underlining. She recalls bringing one mysterious passage to [Philip] Roth to ask why he had marked it—she had an ingrained sense that reading was meant to convey information—and her surprise and delight when he replied, `because it’s beautiful.’” 

The excerpt is from Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) and refers to the time in the early nineteen-seventies when the novelist was living in Woodstock, N.Y., and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. The “she” is Barbara Sproul, Roth’s girlfriend, who taught philosophy at Hunter College. Her recollection is notable because we don’t think of Roth as a practitioner of “fine writing,” of prose exquisite for its own sake, beyond the demands of the narrative at hand. That his prose is exacting and subtle, formal and colloquial, suffused with intelligence, an elastic instrument resonating with James and Bellow, is inarguable. After Bellow, he’s our finest writer of prose, but we don’t think of Roth as an aficionado of beautiful writing. He’s the opposite of an aesthete, and no John Updike. Consider this passage from American Pastoral (1997). In the hands of another, less disciplined writer, it might serve as an excuse for easy lyricism, “poetic” prose. But here the thinking is “Swede” Levov’s, in a pastoral reverie, envisioning his damaged, destructive daughter Merry: 

“…[she was] already back in the countryside, here in the lovely Morris County countryside that had been tamed over the centuries by ten American generations, back walking the hilly roads that were edged now, in September, with the red and burnt orange of devil’s paintbrush, with a matted profusion of asters and goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace, an entangled bumper crop of white and blue and pink and wine-colored flowers artistically topping their workday stems, all the flowers she had learned to identify and classify as a 4-H Club project and then on their walks together had taught him, a city boy, to recognize…” 

We can justify reading and admiring the passage out of context, lifted from its sad narrative setting, by saying “because it’s beautiful.” The words point to Swede and Merry and their torment, not to Roth, not to a maker of pretty phrases arranged like butterflies pinned in a case. Pierpont continues: 

“Even now, there is nothing that Roth loves talking about more than books: plots, characters, language, even particular old paperback editions. None of his passion for these things has faded. There are works he regularly rereads,” she writes, mentioning A Farewell to Arms, Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician. Of the latter she reports, surprisingly: “(He says that if he were dying and were allowed to read just one more thing, it would be Mario.)” Pierpont goes on: “He’s been known to give copies of whatever he’s reading to his friends, to get the talk going.” Roth taught books, she says, “from all over the literary map” – Madame Bovary and Cancer Ward, Céline, Genet, Mishima. “One year, he taught a class just in Colette and Chekhov [inspired pairing!], another year it was his twin idols Kafka and Bellow: `the hunger artist and the artist of abundance, of superabundance,’ he says. `I wanted to show them the pendulum, the swing of fiction.’” 

A line from the title poem of Elizabeth Jennings’ Praises (1998) seems relevant: “All the world is praise or it is war.”

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