by Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape £10, 192 pages
Sex has been one of Philip Roth’s preferred themes since he first strove to “put the id back in Yid” with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. Roth’s fictional alter-egos - Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckermann, David Kepesh - have had a habit of defining themselves through their sexual appetites as much as their Jewishness. They have sought pleasure relentlessly and have taken it wherever they could find it. They have often abhorred themselves for doing so - but have still been driven by its pursuit.
But as the literary lion from New Jersey ages - he is now 73 - his outlook on the many ways in which sex moves his characters has changed. For the greying and unnamed protagonist of Roth’s most recent work of fiction, Everyman, sexual stirrings are valedictory, and lust is a confusing prelude to sadness.
“He did his best to conceal his anxiety - and the urge to touch - and the craving for just one such body - and the futility of it all - and his insignificance,” Roth writes of the elderly man’s encounter with a young jogger. For an instant he feels “that sharp sense of individualisation, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter or love affair and that is the opposite of the deadpanning depersonalisation of serious illness.” The moment passes, and the jogger leaves, “thwarting his longing for the last great outburst of everything”.
The elegiac tone of Everyman, Roth’s 27th book, is set by the opening line: “Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.” Roth then proceeds to guide us through the life of the deceased advertising executive, son of a New Jersey jeweller, thrice-divorced, father of three, aspiring painter, serial adulterer, a victim of a fatal cardiac arrest.
More than a meditation on mortality, Roth’s elegant novella is an irate rant. His everyman rages against the dying of the light, fumes furiously at the late knowledge that, in the end, we have “only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us”. Here, to use the title from another Roth novel, is the dying animal, exhibiting a crystalline awareness of its vulnerability and displaying its fears.
“He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.” Seeking the relative comfort of a retirement village, he reels in horror at being among people whose personal biographies, like his own, have “become identical with their medical biographies”.
“Pain makes you so alone,” complains a character. “The pain makes you frightened of yourself. The utter otherness of it is awful.” It is his genuine shock at that loneliness, and at the inevitability of his own bodily decline, that makes Roth’s hero so affecting. So too is the way in which his morbid apprehensions, played out as he lies on various operating tables, amalgamate with his entrenched childhood dreads.
The book’s epigraph, from John Keats’s poem “Ode to a Nightingale”, speaks of a place where “but to think is to be full of sorrow”. An apt description, perhaps, for the age at which we cease to recognise ourselves and to govern our bodies, only to be governed instead by our ailments. Roth’s protagonist rails against his impermanence in the face of permanent wants. He despises that state in which to live means to be steeped in sorrow for things still desirable but no longer within reach. “Old age isn’t a battle,” he laments, “old age is a massacre.” Everyman is a plangent testimony of that devastation.