Can one enjoy the work of a particular writer but not get on with one of his or her books? Of course. It's quite common: Shirley isn't up to the standard of either Jane Eyre or Villette; amongst Anne Tyler's generally marvellous books I found Morgan's Passing tedious; Ian McEwan is a writer I like but Solar was a bit of a let-down as was Amsterdam; and so on. However, is it possible for a writer you really rate and whose best books you rank with the very best of modern fiction to produce a novel that you dislike intensely?
It is, and I have the recent experience to prove this. I just finished Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth and hated it. I've now read 23 of his books and I am a big fan for reasons alluded to here. But Sabbath's Theater got up my nose - a metaphor I choose with deliberation. I can't say that I hated the book from beginning to end, because late on its anti-hero, Mickey Sabbath, returns to the Jersey neighbourhood of his childhood and youth - visits the graves of his family, talks to an old cousin he happens upon - and there is vintage Roth in these pages: the intricate, irreplaceable specificities of a time recalled, which he does so well. There is also Roth's regular brilliance of characterization scattered throughout.
But to get these enjoyments, one has to make one's way through pages and pages of the sexual life of Sabbath and his various sexual partners; vis-à-vis one of whom in particular, Drenka Balich, he engages in every imaginable type of sexual experiment, including masturbating over her grave after she dies of cancer. I understand that this is the Roth 'fullness' that he has given so skilfully to so many topics (including even this one, sex), his prose escaping the limits of the tidy or the restrained, life itself pushing it on to ever new aspects of the thing under his eye. I understand, too, that in Sabbath one is called to recognize a man of true dedication in one chosen sphere. All the same, to read this seemingly endless series of intimate experiences, from the aforesaid masturbation over the dead lover's grave, to the graphic description of Sabbath's taking a crap in the bathroom of the daughter of a friend who has kindly offered to put him up, and the rifling through her drawers and the sniffing of her underwear, to the mutual urinatings upon between Sabbath and Drenka - let's just say it makes for turgid and unenlightening reading. That's what it did for me, at any rate.
Needless to say, the book has many admirers. Terence Blacker made a case for it in my Writer's Choice series. As he said in making it, 'No excess... no degradation is spared'. For me the excess was excessive.