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Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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It seems to me that this book is important enough for a page of its own.

Sabbath’s Theater (Novel) by Philip Roth, 1995

In How Fiction Works, the esteemed critic, James Wood, makes some comment to the effect that Sabbath’s Theater offers one of the most fulsome explorations of male sexuality in all of literature. (Mr. Wood's book is reviewed on a Dilettante’s Diary page of its own, listed in the navigation bar between Dec 17/09 and Nov 24/09). That observation made me think I should probably check on this winner of the National Book Award. It's my job, after all, to inform readers of Dilettante’s Diary if there’s something on the library shelves waiting to jump out and offend them.

As threatened, male sexuality parades before our eyes in all its brazen tumescence in Sabbath’s Theater. If you’re the kind of reader who recoils from details about the mechanics of male sexual function (and some pretty graphic female stuff too), this book isn’t for you. If, however, you can force yourself to get through the explicit content – as I dutifully did – you’ll be rewarded with one of the richest, most vibrant, most virtuosic pieces of writing ever to have hit the printed page.

The story, such as it is, tells of the unravelling of the life and character of one Mickey Sabbath. Now sixty-four years old, he’s looking back on his life and loves. He finds himself floundering, without direction, love or ambition. At one time, he was a promising theatrical type, having reached the zenith of his performing career by staging what could be called guerilla puppet shows on the streets of Manhattan. Since then, he has retreated to academia somewhere in the boonies. Now, even that career has imploded. He and his second wife are constantly at odds with each other. Meanwhile, his mistress of the moment, who is married to somebody else, is making an outrageous demand: that he not have sex with anybody but her.

Before we go on to extol the book’s many glories, however, let’s get something out of the way: it’s by no means an example of a perfect novel according to the classic norms. Some fairly serious flaws abound.

  • At times, the trademark Philip Roth loquaciousness makes you want to scream.
  • A certain situation regarding a grave is meant to provide ribald comedy but the fact that it’s enacted three times, each time with a different character, makes it look like the author’s urge to amuse has exceeded his good judgement.
  • The presence of Mickey Sabbath’s deceased mother as a ghost with whom he carries on conversations strikes me as corny.
  • Occasionally, Mr. Roth indulges in too much "telling" by way of sociological background to a scene.
  • If you were trying to find a justification for Mr. Roth’s giving a list of names on gravestones, a list that goes on for a couple of pages, you might claim that it constitutes some sort of realist statement in the way of certain works of modern art. My reaction to the list is that it amounts to a pointless waste of ink and paper.
  • Nor was I impressed with the description of an actress as someone who was deemed flighty and unreal until she stepped on stage and became someone of substance. That observation struck me as a would-be aperu by somebody who wanted to be seen to have amazing insight into theatre but who didn’t really know very much about the lives and characters of real actors.

But those are the only drawbacks that I could find in a book filled with pleasures. When reading books for review, I make notes of items that seem worth mentioning – either favourably or otherwise. In this case, my list ran to some seven pages about 150 items, all of them positive except for the ones cited above. With some difficulty, I’ll constrain myself to mention only the most outstanding merits of the book.

First, let’s deal with the overall effect of the writing style. When it comes to describing somebody’s house, the narrator dispenses with carefully structured sentences and simply names everything: "The house. The porch. The screens. The icebox. The tub. The linoleum. The broom....." Unlike the aforementioned list of names on gravestones, this litany has the effect of a poem bringing to mind all the mundanities of life that we know so well. Carefully composed descriptions by other writers, with their perfectly balanced clauses and phrases, suddenly look outdated and contrived. Mr. Roth achieves a similar effect with a two-page enumeration, this time in sentences, of the various things a husband and wife hate about each other: no need for elaboration and explanation; we know the dynamics all too well. Mr. Roth proves himself yet again a master at introducing wide-ranging memories and associations in ways that may not adhere to logical development but reflect the authentic workings of the human mind. Also true to our spontaneous outpourings is the way the narrator switches back and forth between first and third person, sometimes within the same paragraph – a quirk that would drive an English teacher to distraction but works perfectly here. Then there are the brilliant riffs, another patented Philip Roth device, on all sorts of things (the amputation of penises, for one).

With regard to other structural aspects, the novel offers several points worth mentioning. Around page thirty-three, a major character’s death gets a perfunctory, almost parenthetical announcement, the brevity of which comes as something of a shock. How can an accomplished writer dispatch somebody with such apparent carelessness? Nearly 400 pages later, though, we return to the deceased person's deathbed scene with an intensity and immediacy that make you appreciate that the narrator has been reeling from it ever since.

In the more conventional style of story-telling, the author shows a willingness to put into play certain narrative hooks. Long sections of the book, for instance, have a couple of mysteries hovering over them. The minor one is the hint of something scandalous involving Mickey Sabbath at the university where he’s been teaching. The more haunting mystery is the one about the disappearance of his first wife. Many pages are shot through with sadness as he wanders the streets trying to find some trace of her. It surprised me that Mr. Roth even includes the odd plotty detail – something about a pair of panties, for instance – that looks insignificant but turns out to have important consequences.

But you don’t read Philip Roth for plot. Even if it must be admitted that the book ends with something of a whimper in terms of how things work out for Mickey, the reading that went before offered plenty of fascination. Take Mickey’s character: maddening, disgusting, reprehensible and yet, somehow, not despicable. His most egregious faults tend to cluster around the sexual area but there are other ways in which he makes himself objectionable. He reads his wife’s private diaries without her permission. When he makes a move to protect a husband from finding out about his wife’s infidelity, it looks at first like a rare streak of altruism on Mickey’s part – until you realize that there’s probably a payoff in it for Mickey. He buys vodka for a recovering alcoholic, in the hope of seducing her. But there – we’re already crossing over into sexual territory.

Which is where Mickey’s vices feel most at home. Praising adultery, he claims that it’s fidelity that’s cruel. Do killings happen because of adultery? No, he says, killings happen (presumably from boredom or frustration) when there is no adultery. When he’s trying to seduce the wife of a friend, it comes as second nature to him to twist the words of one of the great moral authorities of all time: "Come on, you’ve read Kant. ‘Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law.’ Please me."

Probably the thing about his sexuality that makes him most objectionable is that he sees it as every male’s right to pursue females as young as he can get them. He claims this is normal maleness, citing the presumably irresistible urges of what he calls "preposterone." As a leering college prof, he tapes his sexual phone conversations with young students. Thinking about making a will at one point, he decides to leave a monetary prize to the female student who has sex with the most male faculty members.

So what is Philip Roth telling us about Sabbath’s unbridled sexuality? Is he championing Sabbath as the leader of some brave new sexual liberation for males? Well, consider this rejoinder that Mr. Roth puts in the mouth of an old friend of Sabbath’s who calls him the "walking panegyric for obscenity....the inverted saint whose message is desecration":

Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism. To be out with that belly of yours, championing pornography and flying the flag of your prick. What a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath. The discredited male polemic’s last gasp. Even as the bloodiest of all centuries comes to an end, you’re out working day and night to create an erotic scandal. You fucking relic, Mickey! You fifties antique! Linda Lovelace is already light-years behind us, but you persist in quarreling with society as though Eisenhower is president!

Scandalous or pathetic though Sabbath may be, Mr. Roth somehow makes this ageing lecher someone that you can’t reject outright. In fact, about half way through the book, the author makes a specific plea to the reader not to be too hard on Mickey. Maybe what helps is the fact that Mickey doesn’t have a very high opinion of himself. He refers at times to his terrible morality and his selfishness. He notes at one point that altruism is unlikely from him. When somebody tells him that he looks like an asshole, he responds with admirable self-deprecation: "I’ve looked like an asshole before. So what?" In a similar spirit, the author notes that Mickey’s behaviour in a certain instance doesn’t escape his own mockery (although the behaviour in this case isn’t any grave matter, just some trivial dithering). And I had to salute the somewhat nihilistic defiance on Mickey’s part, as cited in the statement that "It had cost him dearly to clear a space where he could exist in the world as antagonistically as he liked."

That self-admitted misanthropy would seem to indicate that Sabbath doesn’t deserve any sympathy or pity. And yet, when someone accuses him of causing a lot of pain to others, you can’t help acknowledging, in Sabbath’s sardonic response, his sense that maybe his wickedness has been exaggerated a bit and that it might be fair to give him a break:

Yes. That’s what I hear from people all the time, people continuously telling me that the great thing I was called to do in life was cause pain. The world is just flying along pain-free – happy-go-lucky humanity off on one long fun-filled holiday – and then Sabbath is set down in life, and overnight the place is transformed into a loony bin of tears. Why is that? Can someone explain it to me?

As in the case with many scoundrels, though, what saves Mickey from complete condemnation in my books is his wit. Mind you, we’re not talking here about folksy, endearing good humour – as if you ever thought Philip Roth would offer any such diversion. No, this is lemon-soaked bitter sarcasm. Take his attitude to his wife’s AA program. The esteemed 12-step program serves here as nothing so much as a target for Mickey’s satire, particularly in the way he lambastes their jargon: all the business about being "comfortable" or "uncomfortable" with this or that, about accepting, and understanding somebody’s suffering and having empathy: "My wife is a recovering alcoholic who goes to AA to learn how to forget to speak English." His comments about her group therapy program are equally benevolent: "The answer to every question is either Prozac or incest. Talk about boring. All the false introspection. It’s enough in itself to make you suicidal."

And then there are Mickey’s jibes at other groups of people and societal customs.

  • Regarding the adults of his familial circle when he was a kid: "Intimidated, outsiders in the world, yet with wellsprings of resistance that were a mystery even to them, or that would have been, had they not been mercifully spared the terrible inclination to think. Thinking was the last thing they felt to be missing from their lives."
  • Explaining why he hasn’t read a newspaper for years: "The news was for people to talk about, and Sabbath, indifferent to the untransgressive run of normalized pursuits, did not wish to talk to people."
  • When a woman, resisting the assault of Mickey’s hormonal urges, tells him to cool it, he responds: "If Yahweh wanted me to be calm, he would have made me a goy."
  • This riff on clothing: "Clothes are a masquerade anyway. When you go outside and see everyone in clothes, then you know for sure that nobody has a clue as to why he was born and that, aware of it or not, people are perpetually performing in a dream. It’s putting corpses into clothes that really betrays what great thinkers we are."

Sometimes, Mr. Roth gives a choice social comment to a character other than Mickey Sabbath. This from a therapy patient who rails against feminism: "The third great ideological failure of the twentieth century. The same stuff. Fascism. Communism. Feminism. All designed to turn one group of people against another group of people."

Occasionally, humour comes – unintentionally – from other people.

  • In an argument with Sabbath about the possibility of his committing suicide, his ghostly mom accuses him of wanting to turn his death into a farce. He argues that it’s not possible to commit suicide with dignity. "Then you be the first," Mom urges him. "Make us proud."
  • An interview with an elderly deaf man includes the inevitable humour of misunderstandings that such a scenario produces, but the scene is sketched with such utter fidelity to real life that it stands as a classic of the genre.
  • One highly comic scene involves an immigrant Croatian’s speech to the local Rotarians about his experience running a resort in the area. The audience members, stuffed with food and drink, are nodding off helplessly as the speaker plods stolidly onward, having been coached by Sabbath to speak slowly and at great length.

But another scene with this Croatian stirs up a strange mixture of emotions in a reader. The man’s wife, with whom Sabbath was conducting a torrid affair unbeknownst to her husband, has died. Now Sabbath encounters the grieving widower on an errand in town. Sabbath prevails upon the poor man to join him in having a cup of coffee. After some resistance, the man yields. The ensuing scene has Sabbath laughing up his sleeve all the time as he pours on the condolences. And yet the widower’s grief comes through palpably and authentically. His pride too – when he mentions the many letters of sympathy from important people all over the US who had visited the resort that he and his wife ran. But the widower doesn’t know, as Sabbath does, that all those important people are so sorry about the man’s loss because they enjoyed having sex with his wife whenever they came to the hotel.

One of the strangest scenes in terms of conflicting feelings occurs early on in the novel when Sabbath and his wife have a raging spat, mostly about his intransigence, his inability to change and his contempt for her therapy and her 12-step program. You feel the wife’s frustration keenly. Her anguish comes leaping at you off the page. You’re rooting for her. And yet, you can’t help enjoying the way Sabbath’s flying high on waves of loquacious scorn:

Tell me that if I don’t go you’re calling the cops. They’re probably all pals from AA. Call the state trooper, the innkeeper’s kid, the Balich boy [a cop, who happens to be the son of Sabbath’s mistress]; tell him that you have a family at AA that is more loving, more understanding, less judgmental than your husband and you want him to be thrown out. Who wrote the Twelve Steps? Thomas Jefferson? Well, call him, share with him, tell him that your husband hates women and must be thrown outtt!

It’s not so much the wit or the verbal dexterity or the amazing characters or the comedy, however, that count most of all in Philip Roth. It’s the startling epiphanies that come zinging at you unexpectedly, arising out of the dross of everyday living. For instance, this reflection when Sabbath is accosted by a state trooper in a cemetery at night where Sabbath has just taken a pee. The trooper’s flashlight has singled out Sabbath’s penis:

...a spout without menace or significance of any kind, intermittently dripping as though in need of repair. It did not look like anything that would have inspired the mind of mankind, over the millennia, to give it five minutes of thought, let alone to conclude that, were it not for the tyranny of this tube, our species’ story here on earth would be altered beyond recognition, beginning, middle and end.

Another insight about marriage dishes up some homey truths with a wisdom that’s surprising, considering that it’s coming from Sabbath. Why do couples stick together? he wonders. It’s for the weekends at the cottage. For the pleasure of visiting their kid at college. For the fact that their kid’s grades would tailspin if the parents broke up. Plus, the skiing, the trips to Europe, the hotels, etc: "The repose when all is well." But, perhaps more importantly, for the other times: "Somebody there while you wait for the biopsy report to come back from the lab." Whether you consider Sabbath’s views on this matter pessimistic or realistic may depend on your own temperament and where you are in your own life journey, but there’s no denying that he’s hit on a major truth of life for a lot of people.

Ultimately, that’s what the book’s about – what it means to be alive, as opposed to the alternative. Mr. Roth catches the life urge at its most basic when he describes Sabbath and a cemetery manager discussing Mickey’s quest for a burial plot: "So these two shrewdies sat across that battered desk from each other, aging men mistrustfully interlinked – as one is, as we are – each of them drinking whatever still bubbled into his mouth out of the fountain of life." Doesn’t that say it about as plainly as possible? Each of us will take whatever drops of life we can still get, as long as we can.

Nowhere does the thirst for life emerge more strongly than in Mickey’s longing for his big brother Morty, a young pilot who was killed in the Second World War. Underlying the whole book, if not often referred to, there’s Mickey’s aching loss of his brother and his inability to understand the how and the why of the loss. Mickey was just a boy at the time and Morty had been the ideal big brother. Not that he was exceptional in terms of personal qualities. His letters from his time in service, when Sabbath finally finds them, turn out to be commonplace in the extreme: just a few details about what was keeping him busy, the usual assurances to the family, the banal expressions of love for them and the injunctions not to worry about him. In fact, it’s the very ordinariness of the letters that brought tears to the eyes of this reader.

Near the end of the book, Sabbath finds himself thinking of a joke he would like to share with Morty. To be able to do so, Sabbath thinks, would be:

Rapture itself, to reach out my hand and give him a laugh, a body, a voice, a life with some of the fun in it of being alive, the fun of existing that even a flea must feel, the pleasure of existence, pure and simple, that practically anyone this side of the cancer ward gets a glimmer of occasionally, uninspiring as his fortunes overall may be.

...the fun of existing that even a flea must feel! If a guy goes through life wishing he could offer that to a lost sibling, then I can forgive that guy an awful lot.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com