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Mar 7, 2013

Everyman: Philip Roth

Source: Tom Cono
Everyman, Philip Roth’s 2006 novella, is a meditation on life and death. It takes its name from the ghastly fifteenth century allegories in which a man is told by Death to prepare for judgement day. One by one his friends desert him, along with his wealth and his health and his strength and his beauty. Finally, he is alone before the almighty with only the sum of the good deeds he has done throughout his life to stand beside him as he awaits the final judgement. Such are the ways the Churches use guilt and fear to rein us in.

Roth is having none of that. His main character, an unnamed man, is approaching death – indeed we start with his funeral – but while this is indeed a novella about atonement, it is a very human atonement and it is peopled by real human beings, in all their frail, failing discomfiture. Religion, for this man, ‘was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.’

Instead of that, then, we have a study of character, and particularly of character shaped by death and the fear of death and the mourning for it. Death stalks these pages. (Indeed, possibly too much: at one point, he discovers the death of one former colleague, the terminal cancer of another and the suicide attempt of a third, all in the same morning, and later we have two members of his art class dying of cancer ‘within a week’ of one another. Pathos can easily become bathos.) But, those examples aside, death here is a powerful adversary. We are told: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’ And we, the readers, are placed centre stage for each enactment of this massacre, uncomfortably, unavoidably complicit. 

‘Worry about oblivion when you’re seventy-five!’ the man tells us on page 32. He can swim across the bay. He is at the height of his powers. He has no need to worry. ‘The remote future will be time enough to anguish over the ultimate catastrophe!’ he tells us. And that is how humans live their lives, day-by-day, trying to deny the curse that is uniquely humanity’s, that we are burdened by foreknowledge of our own deaths. And so it is that, by page 161 we find, ‘It was time to worry about oblivion. It was the remote future.’

The character in this novella is a flawed individual (naturally, since he is an ‘everyman’) who has been married three times, only once to a woman he loved, and has three children, only one of whom matters to him. The novel catalogues his illnesses, from the trivial hernia for which he is treated as a child, to the series of increasingly complex problems which meant that, in later life, ‘not a year went by when he wasn’t hospitalized’ and, ‘now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

His story is told through his eyes and through the eyes of his family. There is the ‘incomparable’ Phoebe, his second wife, and their daughter, the ‘incorruptible’ and ‘miraculous’ Nancy. There are his sons, Randy and Lonny, the younger of the two, who, standing by his father’s graveside, ‘was overcome with a feeling for his father that wasn’t antagonism but that his antagonism denied him the means to release.’ There is Merete, the third wife, a Danish model twenty years younger than him who is ‘basically an absence and not a presence.’ And there is his brother Howie, six years older, but indestructibly fit, in contrast to the increasing frailties of the younger man.

Roth doesn’t deal in black and whites. The man is neither good nor bad. The true loves in his life were his second wife, Phoebe, and their daughter, Nancy, but he deserted them both to live with the feckless Merete. Their break-up is painful, and relayed in detail. We are assured that he loved his older brother, a ‘very good man’ who had been the ‘one solid thing throughout his life’ but, as illness and fear overtook him, we are told, ‘He hated Howie because of his robust good health.’ Later, he describes his sons as ‘You wicked bastards! You sulky fuckers! You condemning little shits!’

All of this could come across as unpleasantly self-pitying, but Roth is clever in the way he fleshes out the character, who at one stage calls himself a ‘cunthound’, a superbly violent demolition of his own ego, and any self-pity is immediately dissipated by the depth of his self-loathing. As his catalogue of illness unfolds, and as he becomes ‘a decidely lonelier, less confident man’ we are made to confront, with him, the nature of death. And, of course, we don’t – we cannot – approach it with equanimity. There is little honour in the way we sidle towards it. A woman weeps uncontrollably at the two funerals of the art class cancer sufferers and her husband asks the man why he thinks she is doing so. “Because life’s most disturbing intensity is death,’ the man replies. No, says the husband. “She’s like that all the time… She’s like that because she isn’t eighteen anymore.”

It is a truth, uncomfortable though it may be, that all grief is felt through the prism of our own mortality. When we mourn, we mourn for ourselves, too. All we can do, suggests Roth, is try our best and, at the end, come to an accommodation with ourselves. This is what Nietzsche was trying to tell us a hundred years ago, but we are slow learners. There is no day of judgement. Atonement is not a matter for the sky gods, but for oneself and one’s own. In a moving scene at the end of the novella, the man stands at the graves of his parents and speaks to them:

“I’m seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one.” “Good. You lived,” his mother replied and his father said, “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”

It is that final statement that is so important. Make the best of what’s left, because what is done is done. Nietzsche pointed out one of the great tragedies of humanity:

The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time’s desire – that is the will’s most lonely affliction.

Atonement is only possible in one’s own mind, as a personal act. Time cannot be recreated. The man’s treatment of Phoebe cannot be changed. He cannot undo the damage he did to her and Nancy by leaving them for Merete. Nor is there time to discover love of his sons. He has done what he has done. “There’s no remaking reality,” is his repeated stricture to his daughter and, at the start of the novel, standing by his grave, she repeats his words to him. As the novella unfolds, both the truth and the lie of those words becomes clear. The past remains, but atonement is possible, in the shape of memory.

As he leaves the cemetery, he gives some money to the gravedigger, who he knows will soon dig his own grave. He tells him: “My father always said, ‘It’s best to give while your hand is still warm.”’ And with that one act of warmth the man finds redemption.

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