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John Donne
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Philip Roth
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The Theatre of the Self

part 8

To become aware of the distance Zuckerman has travelled, The Counterlife’s ending is most usefully compared to The Ghost Writer. Although Zuckerman Bound is a structural whole, with a “thematic architecture”27 of its own, The Counterlife is not just a separate sequel; its ties with the trilogy consist of more than just subject matter and characters. The Counterlife and Zuckerman Bound might together be regarded as a diptych. I have already remarked on how marital problems are employed as a running commentary on issues of fiction and truth in the Zuckerman novels. Thus, the marriage of Zuckerman and Maria can be seen in useful contrast to that of the Lonoffs – the one young, hopeful and promising, the other old, unhappy and stale. If it seems a little unfair to compare Zuckerman’s marriage, which has only just begun, to Lonoff’s, which is visibly at the end of its tether, one has to bear in mind that that is exactly part of the point that Roth wants to make.

I have already discussed the failed marriage of the Lonoffs. I will therefore mention here only two points. The first is that the conflict seems to be over authority. In this respect, Lonoff’s mistake may well have something to do with his profession: as a husband, he cannot relinquish the authority he is used to having as an author. Nathan, in his turn, seems to make essentially the same mistake, not only in his unhappy affairs, but also in his books. His brother certainly feels silenced by them:

when Nathan began publishing those stories that hardly went unnoticed, and after them the books, it was as though Henry had been condemned to silence. ... Whenever he sat down to read one of the dutifully inscribed books ..., Henry would immediately begin to sketch in his head a kind of counterbook to redeem from distortion the lives that were recognizably, to him, Nathan’s starting point.
(The Counterlife 209)

And a few pages further on we find Henry fulminating once more against

his version, his interpretation, his picture refuting and impugning everyone else’s and swarming over everything! And where was his authority? Where? If I couldn’t breathe around him, it’s no wonder – lashing out from behind a fortress of fiction, exerting his mind-control right down to the end over every ego-threatening challenge! ... Everyone speaking that bastard’s words, everyone a dummy up on his knee ventriloquizing his mouthful! My life dedicated to repairing mouths, his spent stopping them up – his spent thrusting those words down everybody’s throat! In his words was our fate – in our mouths were his words!
(The Counterlife 235‑6)

But Nathan’s “monologism” is not quite Roth’s, of course. In Roth’s novels, Zuckerman’s voice is frequently overshouted and proved wrong by others, so that these works can be seen as the product of a more “dialogic imagination.” This is not to say that his novels present a totally democratic (or anarchic) interplay of voices entirely. Even when Henry finally gets his say in chapter four of The Counterlife, his words are slightly undermined from within; although less biased than Zuckerman’s own three thousand word account of his brother, Henry’s account of Nathan is not entirely fair either (probably because Roth is inevitably slightly more in sympathy with the writer than with the dentist brother). Yet that too is part of Roth’s intention, which is to show the impossibility of both total “monologism” or total “dialogism.” In the novels, dialogism operates exactly within the bounds of a single personality. It is not possible to ignore “the other” entirely, every self is a self shot through with discourse from and about others.

It is exactly this that Zuckerman finally comes to acknowledge himself in the plurality of his novel in process (for The Counterlife can also partly be read as a novel by Zuckerman, like The Ghost Writer):

I suppose it can be said that I do sometimes desire, or even require, a certain role to be rather clearly played that other people aren’t always interested enough to want to perform. I can only say in my defense that I ask no less of myself. Being Zuckerman is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself. In fact, those who most seem to be themselves appear to me people impersonating what they think they might like to be, believe they ought to be, or wish to be taken to be by whoever is setting standards. So in earnest are they that they don’t even recognize that being in earnest is the act. ... All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self, and that I am unwilling or unable to perpetrate upon myself the joke of a self. It certainly does strike me as a joke about my self. What I have instead is a variety of impersonations I can do, and not only of myself – a troupe of players that I have internalized, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that forms my repertoire. But I certainly have no self independent of my imposturing, artistic efforts to have one. Nor would I want one. I am a theater and nothing more than a theater.
(The Counterlife 323, 324‑5)

This, then, is Zuckerman’s version of having no self “in the everyday sense of the word,” as Lonoff said of himself. But there are two differences. First, Zuckerman implies that no one really has such a self: other people impersonate too, only in many cases their repertoire is more limited. More importantly, Zuckerman realizes the importance of choosing one’s role – in this case, that of a loving husband. In a lot of what Lonoff says a kind of stoic fatalism shimmers through – “this is the way I am and I’m sorry, Hope, if I can’t change myself or be more accommodating.” The need to accommodate, however, is exactly what Zuckerman touchingly puts forward at the end of The Counterlife, in his imagined letter to Maria:

We could have great times as Homo Ludens and wife, inventing the imperfect future. We can pretend to be anything we want. All it takes is impersonation. That is like saying that it takes only courage, I know. I am saying just that. I am willing to go on impersonating a Jewish man who still adores you, if only you will return pretending to be the Gentile woman carrying our minuscule unbaptized baby-to-be.
(The Counterlife 325)

It was exactly the will to construct such a more positive “domestic fiction” that seemed lacking in Lonoff.

The happy end of The Counterlife is, of course, both ambiguous and precarious. It is ambiguous in that it is possible to read the “Christendom” chapter merely as a posthumous novella from a novelist deceased on the operation table, and precarious in that it actually ends with a quarrel – we read about Zuckerman’s good intentions, but we don’t actually witness the couple make up. Still, the overall tone is hopeful. This final hopeful note is rather new in Roth’s fiction. Joy and glee had always been pervasive, but truly affirmative endings did not really seem to agree with him. In “Writing American Fiction” (1960) he had concluded with the observation that many contemporary novels ended with a celebration of the self. “What I have tried to point out is that the vision of self as inviolable, powerful, and nervy, self imagined as the only seemingly real thing in an unreal-seeming environment, has given some of our writers joy, solace, and muscle” (Reading Myself and Others 191). This was obviously not the kind of celebration he himself was looking for: “Finally, for me there is something unconvincing about a regenerated Henderson up on the pure white lining of the world dancing around that shining airplane” (Reading Myself and Others 191). Yet although Roth’s ideas about the self differ from those of the novelists he discusses – notably Saul Bellow – still in The Counterlife we do get his version of a celebration of the self: the self as performance.

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27: Roth talks of “a certain thematic architecture” in the first three novels of Zuckerman Bound in an interview with The London Sunday Times (Reading Myself and Others 137). (Back.)

More about Roth:
Roths 'Late Years'
Over Exit Ghost

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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