September 2012

Elvis Bego

features

Philip Roth and the Secret Book

Philip Roth strikes me as a supremely sane man tinged with madness. The madness is crucial -- without it, an artist might as well be a gardener or a breeder of spaniels. Come to think of it, these too require a pinch of lunacy. The peculiar thing, for me, about Roth's work is that I tend to be underwhelmed by many of the novels, and yet every time I finish one there is a yearning for another. They have an adhesive charm.

It is more or less gospel truth by now to say that mid- to late Roth, the cornucopia of the 1980s and 1990s, is the best stuff: Operation Shylock and Sabbath's Theater being most probably his chief achievement. There is tremendous narrative energy in the prose, and the dramatic arc is usually propelled, compelled even, by that worldly, seductive, intrepid voice. And the pages turn. His style here is a punchy concentrate, and there is an inevitable and yet unpredictable momentum about the plots: they are infectious stories of deregulated, outraged, maddened reality. But only very recently did I find out that these two novels form a kind of trilogy with a novella of his that was printed privately in 1992 but never published.

It was early this year when I was visiting an elderly acquaintance, a man who has this sprawling library at his house in the country. I'd gone there to look at certain eighteenth century pamphlets and bulletins referring to Bosnia, when talk fell upon Roth. My friend was an admirer and had known him somewhat thirty years ago, when both were living in London. As we sat there, he seemed to remember something and rose with some excitement and went over to unlock a glass-fronted vitrine. When he came back he handed me a book. I looked at the spine: "Philip Roth | Night Among the Tombs."

My innards felt galvanized, and I am usually not easily excited. News of catastrophes and of miracles rarely creases my brow, but this was astonishing: I'd never heard of the book. Inside the volume there was a loose slip with my friend's signature: a copy of an affidavit promising the book would not be photocopied, printed, disseminated etc., etc., the usual concerns with private editions. I asked my host if I could sit with it a while.

It was printed on Japanese vellum in ninety-nine numbered copies, the colophon said. The dust jacket was textured paper, plain with only a monochrome woodcut of a bird perched on a gravestone. The binding was maroon morocco, the lettering white gold. Inside, there were four or five other woodcuts in an expressive, coarse style, and the typeface was some well-weighted Janson. The last page had the number 119. The book was signed both by Roth and the artist.

Now, I'm by no means a Roth scholar, although I've read a good deal by and about him, but how could I have seen this thing nowhere mentioned? The book is a marvel. The signature exuberant style is there, and the story is darkly comic, set in winter at an old estate in Umbria where intrigue and sex is daily food, and a night spent in the vast, cavernous catacombs below ends with a death: a Japanese ballerina with intellectual pretensions. "Philip Roth" is the narrator and guest at the remote house. Somewhat aptly here, Roth the character also finds a few unknown sonnets of Shakespeare's and an 1804 journal of Coleridge's in the castle library. The rich keep these hidden treasures for themselves as a last perversion left to privilege. Some sort of playful demon or intruder roams the cold rooms of the house. I was astounded even at this perfunctory reading. In deference to guilt, I will refrain from divulging the actual premise of the story, or "predicament," as Roth would call it.

So why has this not seen the light of day? It's like that Martin Amis book about arcade games, only even more obscure. What drove Roth to have it printed like this for a select group of people? Did he distrust the style? Or is the vaguely gothic atmosphere beneath him? I don't know, but the thing is among the best things he's written. For a very brief moment I thought perhaps it was a stolen manuscript, printed surreptitiously for a cabal of dilettantes, but then it hit me: what could be more Rothian! It is quintessentially him, an insidious, titillating, impish joke. Wouldn't it give him pleasure to withhold a masterpiece from the public?

I might've almost met Roth once. Here's what happened: it was December 2007 and I was in London looking for an apartment, well, a bedsit really, which I eventually found in South Kensington. One night I was in Piccadilly near the Circus when I caught a glimpse of an elderly gentleman passing by in company in the direction of Waterstone's bookstore and Green Park. A few feet away among the vulgar din and dazzle of a London Christmas there he was: tall, lurching, implausibly austere and distinguished in his dark coat, carrying a fancy shopping bag, and even in the clamor of the crowd, I was certain it was Roth, with that unmistakable face of an ascetic satyr. I looked back, but then it was hard to see; it had happened too fast. Someone will have to check if he was in London at this time. But I do know it was the face of a man who could suppress his best book and not even think twice about it afterward, happy that reality had been outraged ever so slightly. A ghost haunting the aisles of public and private libraries by its very absence. He, himself, has been fascinated by ghostly manuscripts, and imagining lost books is a fairly common literary preoccupation.

In The Prague Orgy, Roth toyed with the ticklish possibility of an unpublished manuscript by Bruno Schulz existing somewhere, waiting to be found. In Cynthia Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm (a book, incidentally, dedicated to Roth) there is a similar premise, also involving a Schulz manuscript. But Borges was the preeminent inventor of apocrypha: it seems he almost had more fun fleshing out and ascribing books to other people than creating his own. He invented arcana, encyclopaedias, entire libraries he stacked with the erotic glee of a bibliomaniac.

Unpublished books are spectral, but they are the exact opposite of the residue of the dead. They are more like prenatal spirits that wait for incarnation, the disembodied promise of the not yet living. There is something deeply optimistic, wish-fulfilling about this kind of thing: the slight but crucial expansion of the canon. The writer imparts a tiny tilt to the globe, adds a speck of an island to the atlas, draws a desert crack in the moon. A punctured continuum. It becomes a correction to the immutable order of things, addendum to the sealed inventory. And by its very fictiveness, the disappointment is deflected: if you call it a masterpiece, then by god, it is a masterpiece. Although, luckily, one you cannot read.

There is of course a difference between voluntary and forced secrecy. Forster's Maurice was supressed by its author for half a century, while Bulgakov's Master and Margarita was deemed unseemly by the Soviet system, the manuscript burning in the drawer for decades. I mourn the book Walter Benjamin had in his suitcase when he died trying to escape the Nazis. I mourn Byron's memoirs that prudish friends burnt once he was dead. His prose is as mobile, as secular and charged as Stendhal's, so I fear the loss was immense. Sometimes I wonder about the possible African masterpieces that have been lost to time due to non-literate culture, or other actual manuscripts that lit campfires or cigars in wartime. This is in some way a bibliomaniac's grief. The ever-swirling wish for more good editions.

But sometimes something lost is truly unlost. Almost everything reemerged during the Renaissance, as if some purblind methuselah had lived in a dark hall for centuries and then stumbled upon a light switch, and lo: piles of unique books turned out to have been there the whole time. And so civilization swerved as a result, to use Greenblatt's cute phrase. The Dead Sea Scrolls lay in sand for two thousand years and then completely revised the history of religion. Some of these gnostic gospels strike me as more powerful than the canonical ones. In the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, the plot to kill Jesus has a sinister logic to it, and Judas attains an inevitable heroism: he finally makes cosmic sense. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of Jesus' gnomic sayings is more profound and prophetic and devastating than anything else put in the mouth of the orthodox Nazarene: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

So, the best thing Jesus is said to have said is not even accepted by his followers, and the irony of this is almost as good as the fact that Christ was probably born in about 4 B(efore) C(hrist). These alternative gospels became secret books because they did not fit the prevailing doctrine and so they lay in amphorae, forgotten.

Reality is never quite fulfilling. If it were, life would be pointless, dreamless, slaked. This is why art came into existence: to expand the contents of the real and scratch the itch of more, more, more. Art is transgression against the void beyond those limits, waiting to be dreamt, populated. This is probably part of the reason why writers invent lost books. In a way, with Night Among the Tombs, Roth is playing an elaborate prank on you and me, and its punch line lies in the scarcity of those in on the joke. But why suppress a book? Why make of it a myth to be discovered? Why make of it a lost book, like Schulz's Messiah, which was a victim of calamitous history. Did Roth mean this way to reclaim the power of history for himself? Or perhaps he simply desired to crack reality with a kind of elusive, arch golem text unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

One interesting thing about these alternative scenarios (fictions in which the insistently Real is only just modified) is that they have a paradoxical double effect: they both add and subtract verisimilitude from the text. How? The first, because they are very deliberately placed among recognizable and verifiable persons, geography and data, so the reader's own reality seems upheld; the second, because when this scaffolding of truth is noticeably diverted even slightly, the entire thing is destabilized by the lingering hint of doubt. You start to wonder not only if the "added thing" is real but also the whole associated structure itself, and so even its least fictive parts suddenly beg examination. The parts meant to work like reportage on the reader, to seduce him into faith. Everything then assumes the aura of fiction. Also, when early in the novel's history writers went out of their way to present their work as memoir or travel writing, was there a problem with this on a deeper level than mere deception? Do the authorial claims for their work change ontologically the meaning of the thing itself, and perhaps even its aesthetic quality? In the art world this has long been accepted as a modernist creed: a urinal claimed by an artist to be art work metamorphoses instantly and obtains an aura at the instance of the declaration.

But imagine an essay introducing a fictive element to illumine its main points. Would it matter? Would it be a lie, or is the method justified by the ends?

So yeah, maybe Roth never wrote Night Among the Tombs. Maybe Roth doesn't even exist.