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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.

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