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Fame and Pain
on December 26, 2007
Zuckerman is Roth's equivalent to that other 20th Century fictional alter-ego, Updike's Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom. But while Updike's character is an American everyman, his average desires, inclinations, career and relationships drawn with the fine pen, the two inches of ivory of Updike's conventional East Coast suburbs; Roth's Zuckerman swings wildly through the American beserk on a roiling stream of consciousness that takes him from noble, high purpose striving writer in his early twenties, visiting his hero E.I. Lonoff, to wrecked, neurotic acclaimed (and reviled) man of letters in his forties.
Roth's Zuckerman books are perhaps his string of writing where the gap between the banks of life and art are at their narrowest. Zuckerman finds fame with his novel of Jewish sexual guilt (Carnovsky) and has to cope out with the fall out of that success - accosted on the bus, in the street, outside his appartment, by cranks, the media, people accusing him of being an anti Semitic Jew, his family accusing him of betraying their secrets.
Zuckerman's great contradiction - yearning for liberty, but recognising the innate drive towards inhibition and security leads to a fastinating portrayal of themes towards the middle and end of the trilogy plus coda. By middle age Zuckerman, wracked with pain, drugs and an emotional life more messy than Woody Allen's (a nice counterpoint, there, considering Allen's 1998 Roth-lite film 'Deconstructing Harry') decides his pursuit of literary greatness has lead to his unravelling and decides to train as a doctor. A ludicrous and comic plan that leads to an encounter with a pornographer, and a journey to the heart of darkness of the health system.
The coda, 'The Prague Orgy', is a fitting finale. Shorter than the others, a novella of some eighty pages, the scene changes to Communist Prague as Zuckerman travels there in a futile attempt to claim the manuscript of some Yiddish short stories for a Czech friend of his in New York. There he meets Olga, a trashy vamp of a woman, wife of the deceased artist, whose desperate plight forces Zuckerman to review his own precarious and turbulent liberty. He also gets a lecture from the Czech authorities who take a very different view of the value of culture and freedom to Zuckerman.
Overall, a fascinating portrait of a late 20th Century American literary celebrity. But what an ego! Roth, like Updike, thinks the importance of his own life is of such supreme magnitude that the whole world should take notice and listen. Roth is not Zuckerman, of course, but when he says things such as 'When there are banners across Manhattan calling for the return of Portnoy, I might act', you realise that he shares with his fictional creation a concern to write his own will on world. The great American novelists of this period -Bellow (gone), Roth and Updike (going, slowly) are all in this mould. There is a world outside their own neurosis, their own back problems, their own concerns with mortality. This world is glimpsed at in 'The Prague Orgy'. Roth also grasped this nettle during his late period flowering - The Human Stain, American Pastoral etc.. Were that he had discovered this external world earlier on in the Zuckerman trilogy.