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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Anatomy Lesson

The burden isn’t that everything has to be a book. It’s that everything can be a book. And doesn’t count as life until it is. – Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson
 
The Anatomy Lesson is about the imprisonment of self-absorption, of inscribing the guilt in the flesh; it is also about hurting fathers and needing their blessings.” So wrote Alan Cooper in Philip Roth and the Jews. He’s not wrong but it’s about much more and being Jewish at the end of the twentieth century is certainly a focal point (Roth may not be the quintessential Jewish writer but he’s certainly never managed to escape his Jewishness); it’s about self-identity (and especially loss of self-esteem), grief, remorse, celebrity (which isn’t quite the same as either fame or infamy), sensitivity, purposelessness and, according to Roth himself writing in Reading Myself and Other Stories, “physical pain and the havoc it wrecks on one’s human credentials.” For me, however, the book is quite simply about that cliché of all clichés: a novelist with writer’s block. It’s a subject I address in my own novel, The More Things Change, where my protagonist complains, “Someone should invent a new word, wroter, past tense of writer, one who once wrote but no longer writes.” That sentence could be slipped seamlessly into The Anatomy Lesson.
 
Roth puts it baldly: “[Zuckerman] had nothing left to write, and with nothing to write, no reason to be.” If you’re not a writer what are you? Many people aren’t writers and get by just fine. Most people aren’t writers but writing’s like sex—and Roth’s had a lot to say on the subject over the years—once you’ve had a taste you can’t claim your virginity back:
[W]hat became colossal was the next page. He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead. Inherent in this choice was a paradox that he had never foreseen. When, some years later, he went to see a production of Waiting for Godot, he said afterwards to the woman who was then his lonely wife, “What’s so harrowing? It’s any writer’s ordinary day. Except you don’t get Pozzo and Lucky.”
Again, it’s as I wrote in The More Things Change: “Writers don’t have lives. They have on-going research” or as Terence Davies has Emily Dickinson tell her sister-in-law in A Quiet Passion: “You have a life, I have a routine.”
 
Nathan Zuckerman’s routine, at the start of The Anatomy Lesson, is nothing less than stultifying:
When he could no longer bear sitting up, he stretched supine upon the playmat, his head supported by Roget’s Thesaurus. He’d come to conduct most of the business of his waking life on the playmat. From there, no longer laden with an upper torso or saddled with fifteen pounds of head, he made phone calls, received visitors, and followed Watergate on TV.
[…]
Writing the last page of a book was as close as he’d ever come to sublimity, and that hadn’t happened in four years. He couldn’t remember when he’d written a readable page.
Zuckerman has been in pain for eighteen months. Why he’s been unable to write for the previous thirty months is another matter particularly since he’d had no problem writing for the twenty years prior to that. In fact most people would’ve described him as a successful novelist especially following the furore that accompanied publication of his latest and best-known novel, Carnovsky.
 
As everyone knows (or assumes) Roth is Zuckerman and Carnovsky is Portnoy's Complaint, the novel that turned Roth into an overnight celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality—containing detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including an empty milk bottle, a sock, a baseball mitt and, famously, a piece of liver—coupled with its irreverent portrait of Jewish identity (at one point he famously screams at his therapist: “LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”) but as Roth was quick to remind the journalist Daniel Sandstrom, “Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s ‘thoughts’ violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel.”
 
In the real world Portnoy’s Complaint, despite having its fans, was not, as you can well imagine, universally praised. Far from it. On 31 March 1969 the National Literature Board of Review deemed it “‘obscene,’ ‘filthy’, and entirely inappropriate for Australian readers” [their punctuation] and it was classified as a prohibited import. Even reviews of the book were targeted by the censor. Private imports of the book were also confiscated. In The Anatomy Lesson we learn that Carnovsky has received its harshest review from the critic Milton Appel:
Appel had unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical. Zuckerman should have been so lucky as to come away with decapitation. A head wasn’t enough for Appel; he tore you limb from limb.
Zuckerman never quite recovers from the assault and since he can’t work on fiction finds himself obsessing over Appel:
[L]ong after the reasonable quarter hour had passed, he remained shocked and outraged and hurt, not so much by Appel’s reconsidered judgment as by the polemical overkill, the exhaustive reprimand that just asked for a fight. This set Zuckerman’s teeth on edge. It couldn’t miss.
What brings things to a head is an offhand remark made by Appel in a letter to Zuckerman’s friend Ivan Felt:
Why don’t you ask your friend Nate Zuckerman to write something on behalf of Israel for the Times Op Ed page? He could surely get in there. If I come out in support of Israel there, that’s not exactly news; it’s expected. But if Zuckerman came out with a forthright statement, that would be news of a kind, since he has prestige with segments of the public that don’t care for the rest of us. Maybe he has spoken up on this but if so I haven’t seen it. Or does he still feel that, as his Carnovsky says, the Jews can stick their historical suffering up their ass? (And yes, I know that there’s a difference between characters and authors; but I also know that grown-ups should not pretend that it’s quite the difference they tell their students it is.) Anyway, brushing aside my evident hostility to his view on these matters, which is neither here nor there, I honestly believe that if he were to come out publicly, it would be of some interest. I think we’re at the point where the whole world is getting ready to screw the Jews. At such points even the most independent of souls might find it worth saying a word.
Unwisely Felt forwards a copy of the letter to Zuckerman and this proves to be something of a tipping point. From then until the end of the book Zuckerman goes into free-fall. All writers struggle with self-doubt—as Zuckerman puts it, “[D]oubt is half a writer’s life. Two-thirds. Nine-tenths. Another day, another doubt. The only thing I never doubted was the doubt”—and one day we’re all convinced it’ll win. Zuckerman decides to give up on writing and, at the late age of forty and with no talent for (or interest in) science, to go to medical school (his father who died in the previous novel, Zuckerman Unbound, had been an obstetrician):
A year’s grind as an undergraduate, four of medical studies, three of residency and at forty-eight he’d be ready to open an office. That would give him twenty-five years in practice—if he could depend on his health. It was the change of professions that would restore his health. The pain would just dwindle away…
While he’s waiting on the dwindling beginning pain killers, vodka and marijuana would have to suffice:
Percodan was to Zuckerman what sucking stones were to Molloy—without ’em he couldn’t go on.
No sooner has the suggestion been made, though, than we readers know he’s going to fail and fail dismally. The real question is: Will he ever write again? As the actor in Roth’s 2009 novel The Humbling (who has a similar problem (he’s lost his “magic”)) notes, “The reconstruction of a life ha[s] to begin somewhere.” That somewhere is usually rock bottom and Zuckerman hits it face first and I’m not being metaphorical.
 
Interestingly, Roth writes, again in Reading Myself and Others, that he included the character of Milton Appel in the book “not … because I was once demolished in print by Irving Howe [but] because half of being a writer is being indignant. And being right. […] Show me a writer who isn’t furious about being misrepresented, misread, or unread, and who isn’t sure he’s right.” I get where he’s coming from—I would be lying if I said I didn’t—but most of us suffer the slaps and bite our tongues. Were it not for the pain and his attempts to self-medicate no doubt Zuckerman would’ve done so too—seethe for, as he puts it, “fifteen minutes” and then get on with the next book. 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint was followed in quick succession by Our Gang (1971), The Breast (1972) and The Great American Novel (1972) so, yes, there are autobiographical elements to this book but only as a springboard, nothing more. Zuckerman is “an act.” As Roth explains, “Céline pretended to be a rather indifferent, even irresponsible physician when he seems in fact to have worked hard at his practice and to have been conscientious about his patients. But that wasn’t interesting.”
 
If he hadn’t decided to name the book The Anatomy Lesson a good title would’ve been Referred Pain. The epigraph to the novel, taken from the Textbook of Orthopaedic Medicine by James Cyriax, M.D., states: “The chief obstacle to correct diagnosis in painful conditions is the fact that the symptom is often felt at a distance from its source.” It’s a good choice because although it’s undeniable that Zuckerman is in pain the source of that pain proves elusive:
Since the pains had begun in earnest eighteen months before, he’d waited his tum in the offices of three orthopaedists, two neurologists, a physiotherapist, a rheumatologist, a radiologist, an osteopath, a vitamin doctor, an acupuncturist, and now the analyst.
Oh, and a decent old dolorologist he bumps into whilst waiting in line to cash a cheque.
 
The pain stops him in his tracks and forces him to look at himself and in particular at the validity of his chosen profession. Why do we write? I suspect all writers fall into two camps, the storytellers and the answer seekers. I’m firmly one of the latter and I suspect Roth is, too, from what he says at the start of his Paris Review interview given shortly after publishing The Anatomy Lesson. He writes it out and in doing so (hopefully) the true source of the pain or the itch or the niggle or whatever the hell’s bugging him comes to light and can be exorcised. “Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening;” he says in the interview, “fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.” The Anatomy Lesson is certainly not a kneejerk response to the mixed reviews Portnoy’s Complaint got—fourteen years separate the two books—but when reading this I was reminded of Eric Morecombe who kept a newspaper clipping from 1954 in his wallet that read: “Definition of the week:- TV Set: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in.” Things like that don’t go away:
Everybody wants to make pain interesting—first the religions, then the poets, then, not to be left behind, even the doctors getting in on the act with their psychosomatic obsession. They want to give it significance. What does it mean? What are you hiding? What are you showing? It's impossible to suffer just the pain, you have to suffer its meaning. But it's not interesting and it has no meaning—it's just plain stupid pain, it’s the opposite of interesting…
I related very strongly to this book. Not to all of it. But most of it. You don’t have to be a writer to get it. The fundamental fear the book tackles is one everyone can understand (e.g. when someone is diagnosed with some form of dementia): what if you can no longer be you?
 
This is my tenth Roth and my fifth Zuckerman novel. Oddly enough I’ve never read Portnoy’s Complaint although I did locate a copy of the 1972 film adaptation featuring Richard Benjamin which I didn’t think much of and did nothing to encourage me to check out the source material. I will, however, keep plodding my way through the remaining Zuckerman novels.
 
And just as an aside (for those few who might’ve read my novel The More Things Change) when Jim notices the copy of The Anatomy Lesson on his bookshelf it is not the Roth novel despite the fact Jim is also a forty-year-old writer who can’t write. When I wrote the first draft of the novel I hadn’t read anything by Philip Roth. What I’m actually referencing is the Saga of the Swamp Thing comic by Alan Moore.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

#746



The Secret Place



(for J.)

Though not too far
it is difficult to reach.

I sent my eyes
but they misread the signs.

And then my tears
though they broke down on the way.

Now it's just me
and I'm not going away

till you let me in from the cold.


15 July 1994
 
 
J. never opened up about everything. She told me stuff she’d told nobody—or at least not many bodies—before but not all. It’s a mistake we often make. We learn something shocking about someone (or at least something that shocks us) and assume that’s it; lightning doesn’t strike twice and all that guff. I pressed J. to reveal more because I could tell there was more but whatever had happened to her or she’d done wouldn’t say. Did I need to know? No. Would it have helped me understand her better? Maybe but probably not because even what I’d learned only told me so much. None of us really understand each other and the bare facts don’t help. Because we weren’t there. 

Let me give tell you a secret. When I was at the academy a thing started: two boys set upon a third and, for no good reason, gave him a beating. Afterwards the third joined their gang which sought out a fourth to initiate. At the time I was the fastest boy in the school so by the time they came looking for me it was a mob and until you’ve had what felt like the whole school chase you intent on beating you to a pulp you can’t possibly understand how I felt fleeing for my life. They never caught me—the second-fastest led the chase but I outran him—and the whole thing simply went away after that; they never tried a second time. Does it help knowing that about me? Sure, it’s an interesting anecdote but it really had no great effect on me in the long-term.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

#745



Holding On



(for J.)

She cradled the receiver
like an extension of him
hanging onto the moment

and wrapped her arms around herself –
a surrogate embrace –
while his gentle words warmed her.

Someone out there loved her.


10 July 1994
 
 
Mobile phones existed in 1994. The Nokia 2110 was available then and the Ericsson EH237 but I never had one. I didn’t even have a landline where I was staying; I had to use a public telephone. Kids nowadays won’t understand what that was like. It sounds horrible but I have some fond (and not so fond) memories of standing in call boxes, frozen stiff and fast running out of change. It took effort to make a call. You had to go out of your way. I’m not saying mobiles phones are necessarily a bad thing—it’s not as cut and dried as that—but not all change is for the better. 

This poem’s showing its age. Much like Blondie’s ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. You could cradle a receiver back then. It had a comforting shape. I can’t feel the same about modern designs. They’re functional but that’s about it.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

#744



Moment of Truth



(for J.)

She found herself
alone with the truth;
it was an awkward moment –
they'd not been introduced.

They'd seen each other
over the years, of course,
a nodding acquaintance
in a small town.

He wasn't what she'd imagined –
quite a gentle man –
but then neither was she
what she purported to be.

He wanted to talk first.
No – he never said, "first:"
he just wanted to talk
and she was confused.

Until he explained
how it was meant to be,
the nature of their universe
and this thing called love.


10 July 1994
 
 
Two years from now I’ll write a poem entitled ‘The Impossibility of Crows’ (#792). It was for and about J. and no one else will get it but it wasn’t for anyone else. In our letters and our phone calls (but especially in the letters) we revealed ourselves to each other. Taking off your clothes is easy. Baring your soul is another thing entirely. What I learned about J. surprised and saddened me and I came to see her in a completely different light. We think we know people because we are people but that’s like a glass of lukewarm water imagining it can understand an ice floe or a fog bank. I had no idea who J. was, not the slightest clue. Mostly because she didn’t want people to know or was trying to convince herself she was no longer that person. A bit of both most likely.

Why “first”? Because when you’ve spent a lifetime seeing one thing in the mirror it’s hard to see anything else. A victim only ever sees a victim, a sinner only ever sees a sinner, a lost cause only ever sees a lost cause. It’s not for me to tell J.’s story. I still have her letters, all of them, apart from the pages she asked me to destroy after I’d read them. But I remember them. All of them.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

#743



Promises



(for J.)

It seemed such an appropriate place
to begin a journey
that would never end:

a beach that went on forever
beside a sea that wrapped
itself around the globe;

the symbolism had not
escaped him, nor her,
as she reached for his hand.

The future has to begin somewhere.


10 July 1994
 
 
How we got here’s not important. At least not as important as the fact we are here. You can’t change the past. I’m not even sure you can learn that much from it since it never repeats itself. It’s the old you-can’t-step-in-the-same-river-twice catch. J. wasn’t B. who wasn’t F. who wasn’t M. who wasn’t the other F. who wasn’t the other J. who wasn’t A and would not be C. And there’re lots of lowercase letters in there who never got poems dedicated to or written about them. 

I’d no idea what was going to happen between J. and me. Okay, I had a pretty good idea. We might not have had much of a past but the future was wide open. That said what promises could I possibly make? We never strolled hand in hand on a beach. We held hands, once—twice, if you count my mother’s funeral—and we kissed just the once; not sure how many times we hugged but not many. At the time I didn’t know how little time we were going to have but that’s true of every day of every life. There’re some promises we should never make.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

#742



A Voice to Need



(for J.)

I lay on my bed last night,
grafted your face
on a past we could never have

and filled it with memories –
only good ones –
where all the rows ended in love.

But the images were stills,
just photographs
of a dream waiting to happen.

I miss you so much.


10 July 1994
 
 
How did we get here? I could’ve asked that question more than once over the years. Mostly I wouldn’t have been able to answer it though. I don’t think you can put it down to not paying attention. I don’t think that’s it. I just think it’s hard to isolate the key moments that lead up to whatever “here” we’re on about. I have no idea how J. became so important to me. She was always… well, not “always” but for a long time… there in the background, on the periphery of my life but when did she take centre stage? When I can answer. It was 1994. How’s not so easy. Even with the gift of hindsight it’s hard to answer. We were just suddenly there for each other. When I think about who she was to me prior to 1994 “stills” is as good an expression as any to describe it. She didn’t have an active part in my life. I can picture her there—“picture” as in “photograph”—but that’s it. 

I find the choice of tense in the third line interesting. I don’t write of a past we never had but of a past we could never have suggesting that the present we were experiencing would never turn into that kind of past and, in truth, it never did.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

#741



Messages



(for J.)

Words can be filled
with all sorts of things:
meanings and feelings
and secrets and lies.

I found some of yours
in a sentence today
hiding in a letter
packed full of truths.

I wasn't sure what
they meant at first;
it scared me,
but I want you too.


26 June 1994
 

“‘I want’ doesn’t get.” My parents never said that to me. It’s the kind of thing they would’ve said had the expression been one they were familiar with. Instead I was told not to be covetous. I’ve always thought that an odd word to come out of my parents’ mouths—they both used it but I can only hear my mother saying it—because they were plain speakers the rest of the time. I don’t think I was an especially greedy child—except when it came to chocolate biscuits—and they did tell me my eyes were bigger than my belly on more than one occasion but they reserved ‘covetous’ for the times I took something off my little brother simply because I wanted it. It is the tenth commandment after all: “Thou shalt not covet.” I was never told growing up that wanting was bad per se but it wasn’t encouraged. Didn’t all the world’s problems begin with Eve wanting something that wasn’t hers? Which led to covetousness. Which led to theft. Which led to enticement. Which led to death. 

I had a dream a couple of nights ago. I don’t normally remember my dreams for long after waking and am seriously jealous of those who do but because I grabbed pencil and paper as soon as I woke up I have a clear record of one particular scene. I was in a car with Sean and two girls and we were each trying to tell the girls something. By “girls” I mean young women. I agreed to relocate and the next thing I know I’m out of the car and in bed—fully clothed—with my girl (who turned out to be B. but I don’t think that’s especially important; think of her more as a place-holder) and I was trying to explain how I felt about her. This is what I wrote down on waking: 
I need to clarify how I feel about you. It's not enough that I love you or want you—it's not enough that I possess you or dote on you—I want to be with you; I want to expand my notion of existence to encompass you so that when I think about going home at night I'm going home to you and when I think of getting up in the morning I'm getting up with you. I know this is probably the least romantic declaration of affection you'll ever hear but it will be the most honest. 
There was more but the above was all I got down. 

Had I written ‘Messages’ a few years earlier I would’ve written ‘love’ and not ‘want’ and not batted an eye but I wasn’t convinced what I felt for J. was love, at least not romantic love; I was on the rebound and didn’t trust my own feelings and this was all happening so quickly. The reason I chose ‘want’ rather than ‘love’ in the end—I do remember swithering—was because of the Bob Dylan song; the guy who ran off with my first wife was a big Dylan fan and one night explained to me why ‘want’ was more powerful than ‘love’.
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