I like bookstores that encourage their employees to write little “recommended” tags for titles they love. They're basically personal book reviews on a post-it note. Our bookstore did that, and we sold some unusual items that way (my own “off-the-beaten-track” favorite was this book).
When Philip Roth came out with American Pastoral, a co-worker (and friend) tagged it thusly: “This is the masterpiece that Mordecai Richler's book should have been.” You non-Canuckle-heads will just have to take it on faith that Richler's final novel, Barney's Version, was a Big Event in our country. It won several awards — including the upstart, glitzy Giller — and had no trouble nationally out-pacing Roth's efforts when it came to book sales.
Also, at that time the advent of Roth's stellar re-ascension was almost unimaginable. He had spent the previous 20 years writing increasingly self-indulgent stuff, hall-of-mirrors metafictional riddles that earned him hearty claps on the back from Esquire and The New Yorker, while the public grew weary and picked up something else — his ex-wife's memoirs, for starters. They painted the picture of a man whose sexual proclivities weren't far removed from those of his self-despising (and self-abusing) characters. The possibility that this adolescent slouch could return to form and write emotionally compelling fiction that was topical seemed beyond consideration.
Then came American Pastoral, with its singular prose and heart-rending story of a father who watches helplessly as his daughter sinks into the lurid, furious underground of the 60s counter-culture. It could have been parlour-fiction; Roth gathered all the standard narrative expectations and slowly drove a stake through the reader's heart — again, and again, and again. But there was no denying the dizzying breadth and subtlety of Roth's observations. When I finished it, I thought my friend's comparison to Richler may have been unfair, but her appreciation for the novel was entirely merited.
I admired American Pastoral, and was completely drawn in to “Swede” Levov's heartbreaking love for his wayward daughter. Watching the adolescent fury slowly boil within her, her terrible expression of it and her resulting disappearance grew to be an all-consuming pursuit for me as a reader (how could it not be?). That this was also the story of a time in America when an immigrant could, by force of will and attention to method, build an economic empire that duly provided for his family and the larger community around him only added to its emotional import. More than a few landed Mennonites would consider this a similar backdrop to their own story.
But Roth ties a larger concern to what would otherwise receive glib classification as his generation's final coming-of-age story. American Pastoral could have simply been “Man loses daughter and wonders what the hell went wrong with his family and his country.” But Roth's enterprise is more particular, more keenly focused: he is at pains to give a full account of the terrible toll exacted when the Jewish Diaspora fully embraces American secular liberalism. Roth seems to suggest that another famous Jew's rhetorical question — ”For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — isn't Jewish enough in its extremity of vision.
“Swede” doesn't just barter away a soul he didn't know he had — he loses the world as well. Lest we miss the moral of the story, by book's end “Swede's” beloved daughter gives up all aspect of her personality, ethnicity and individuality and joins a cult, his beautiful goya wife willingly subjects herself to a neighbor's groping, and the neighbor's drunken wife plunges a fork into “Swede's” father. Like the old man, I sure got the point, but I wanted to protest: Is it really as bad as all that?
Roth followed this up with The Plot Against America, an “alternate history” in which the United States is a willing partner in Hitler's Final Solution. In other words, “Sonny — you have no idea.”
Well, maybe I don't. Still, there are more pleasurable ways to acquaint oneself with the subtleties of tension and torment within the Jewish Diaspora, and I am happy to report that Norman Lebrecht's The Song of Names delivers the goods on every level. It is a mystery story of a friend's disappearance, narrated with a wry wit that appreciates the ironies of genius and the unsavory appetites of the public. Much of it is set during the London Blitz, and the terrible silence that grows within Continental Europe. From this silence comes The Song of Names, as poignant a demonstration of Judaism's irresistable staying power as you are likely to find in any post-Holocaust novel.
The Song Of Names, in other words, is the masterpiece that Roth's novel should have been. Buy it here.