Terence Blacker is the author of four novels, including Fixx and Kill Your Darlings, and is a successful writer of fiction for children. His biography of his friend Willie Donaldson, You Cannot Live As I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This, was published in 2006. Terence writes a twice-weekly opinion column in the Independent. Here he discusses Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater.
Terence Blacker on Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
A terrible image attended my re-reading of Sabbath's Theater, a favourite novel by a favourite writer, Philip Roth. It is of the novelist straddling, in a somewhat intimate way, an eminent member of the literary establishment, Carmen Callil.
'He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe,' Callil complained as she resigned, in a gratifying blaze of publicity, from the jury of the Man Booker international prize after it had (rightly) awarded it to Roth.
The image requires a Gerald Scarfe or Steve Bell to do it full justice, but even without their help it is, once in the brain, difficult to shift: Roth, bony, dark-eyed, ascetic, going on and on, perched upon the enraged Australian.
So here was my worry as I read the first sentence of Sabbath's Theater ('Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over'). Was Callil right? Had Roth's wild energy, his outrageous humour, not to mention the sheer relentlessness of his output over the past few decades, blinded us, his fans, to the fact that his vision of the world - of the female part of the world, in particular - was ugly, leering, ungenerous?
Sabbath's Theater is a great place to test that idea. Published in 1995, it explosively announced the astonishing final phase of Roth's career as a writer. Other more solid novels, notably American Pastoral, I Married A Communist and The Dying Animal, were to follow it and be garlanded with praise and prizes. None of them, in my view, had the glorious, defiant lust, rage and energy of the tale of Morris 'Mickey' Sabbath. In its unrestrained exuberance, it is comparable to the famous 1969 novel Portnoy's Complaint, doing for the end of sexual life what the earlier novel did for the beginning of it.
Yes, yes, yes, he felt uncontrollable tenderness for his own shit-filled life [writes Roth as the life of Mickey Sabbath, ex-sailor, ex-puppeteer, ex-libertine, ex-husband, ex-friend, spirals downwards towards ecstatic catastrophe]. And a laughable hunger for more. More defeat! More disappointment! More deceit! More arthritis! More missionaries! God willing, more cunt! More disastrous entanglement in everything. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinée idol, but say what you like about me, it's been a real human life!
Re-reading this great novel, I found more and more incomprehensible the Callilian view that Roth is heartless, misogynistic, a force of negativity. The final testament of Mickey Sabbath is in fact a blast of life. Readers of the future wanting to know what it was really like living in the anguished, self-conscious, guilt-raddled, sex-obsessed late 20th century will learn all they need to know - maybe more than they would want to know - from Sabbath's Theater.
The descent of Sabbath into something approaching madness is triggered by the death of his mistress Drenka Balich from cancer at the age of 50. Mickey is 75, short, pot-bellied, white-bearded and arthritic; Drenka, the Croatian wife of a restaurateur, is 'a full, firmly made woman at the provocative edge of being overweight... pretty in a rather efficient, business-like way, except for her nose, a surprisingly bridgeless prize-fighter's nose.'
What these unlikely and unlovely paramours share, what makes them soul-mates, is an obsession with sex - together, with others, in every possible variety, doing it, talking about it, living for it.
With Drenka's death, Mickey unravels and, raging, randy and out of control, he revisits his past: his marriage to an alcoholic, the mysterious disappearance of his first wife, his career as an outrageous hand-puppeteer which, like much in his life, ended in scandal and humiliation (the hand undid a young girl's blouse mid-performance, exposing a breast).
No excess, no betrayal, no degradation is spared. Mickey Sabbath is a 20th century nightmare. As a member of society, he is irredeemable. Yet, such is his wild energy, his refusal to behave, that he is irresistible and, to me at least, adorable.
Unlike other Roth books, notably The Counterlife, The Facts and Operation Shylock, there is nothing tricksy or self-conscious about Sabbath's Theater. There is literary sophistication (the ghost of two literary oldsters, King Lear and W.B. Yeats, hover over its pages), but its narrative drive is direct, a dizzying downward slide which starts with disaster, and rapidly gets worse.
Within the exuberance, there is brilliant, casual humour. With Mickey's take on his life, even at its most anguished, a joke is never far away. From one of the book's opening paragraphs:
Had he said yes to Jim Henson some thirty-odd years earlier, before Sesame Street started up, when Henson had taken him to lunch on the Upper East Side and asked him to join his clique of four or five people, (he) could have been inside Big Bird all these years. Instead of Carol Spinney, it would have been Sabbath who was the fellow inside Big Bird, Sabbath who got himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sabbath who had been to China with Bob Hope - or so his wife, Roseanna, delighted in reminding him back when she was still drinking herself to death for her two unchallengeable reasons: because of all that had not happened and that had. But as Sabbath would not have been any happier inside Big Bird than he was inside Roseanna, he was not much bruised by the heckling.
I am astonished, above all in this book, by Roth's daring. There is no depth to which he will not follow his protagonist. He is a stranger to literary reticence or correctness. At times, he seems to be daring the reader to look away. Whether it is a pornographic telephone conversation with a young student or a wild rant against the Japanese, there is no question of editing or summarizing. We get the whole thing - every enraged, engorged syllable.
Of course, beneath the torrent of rage and lust, considerable craft and cunning are at work. The dialogue is superb. One longs to know more of every minor character (the wife of his best friend, an embittered cemetery attendant). In no other novel that I can think of does the narrative slip from third to first person (see the 'Yes, yes, yes' extract above) with such effortless ease.
Roth's former lover Janet Hobhouse, who died in 1991 and to whom Sabbath's Theater is co-dedicated, wrote a brilliant portrait of Roth as Jack in her 1986 novel The Furies:
Maybe I knew enough about the costs of Jack's spartan life, though it wasn't until much later that I knew it up close: the purposeful deprivation that allows you to work, the cultivation of dullness so that writing can be an escape from it, the only pleasure in an unpleasured world, really only the cessation of pain being there, that place you have pulled down around you, made empty and ugly with loss.
Those words, 'the only pleasure in an unpleasured world', make sense in the context of Sabbath's Theater. The novel is a celebration of the power of fiction, of the glory of living even a shit-filled life.
Mickey Sabbath was right. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]