Saturday, April 03, 2021

Hmm …

Cynthia Ozick Calls the New Philip Roth Biography a ‘Narrative Masterwork’.  (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

A biographer’s ingenuity, and certainly Bailey’s, is to mold mere chronology — a heap of undifferentiated facts and events — into more than trajectory: into coherent theme. As in a novel, what is seen at first to be casual chance is revealed at last to be a steady and powerfully demanding drive. A beginning attraction may be erotic happenstance; its fulfillment in marriage can be predictable hell, and for Roth not once but twice. The same holds for his most inflammatory fiction, as when the playfully priapic young Portnoy becomes in time the chaotically disintegrating satyr Mickey Sabbath of “Sabbath’s Theater.” It is Sabbath who personifies the meaning of Roth’s imagination: the will to “affront and affront and affront till there was no one on earth unaffronted.” Yet to apply platitudes such as épater la bourgeoisie as either a dominating motive or a defining motif of Roth’s work is to fall into undercooked language. His overriding intent is nothing less than to indict humanity’s archenemy, whose name is Nemesis (also the title of Roth’s final novel). “No,” Roth’s fictional avatar argues in “Operation Shylock,” “a man’s character isn’t his fate; a man’s fate is the joke that his life plays on his character.”

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