Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over. This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out. --- Sabbath's Theater
I rely on Roth's work of madness about aging, failure and loss of potency, Sabbath's Theater. Along with Goodbye Columbus and Letting Go, they are the tomes I turn to when I forget how to write or feel.
But when Roth recently announced he was hanging up the keyboard, something in me snuffed. For some reason I kept on rereading that damned mission statement of mine, "I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world." I started to question everything. Roth declared he was done. My feel for the heart and soul of the sentence was sapped. Even rereading him didn't help. This time it felt final.
Fuck you, Philip Roth. I never knew I was that impressionable, but we seem to be linked on a much deeper level than I had ever imagined.
Of course my trauma is not his fault. I was writing before I heard the snickered name of Portnoy. My love for Roth came much later. I had already decided to gamble with my life and throw all I had into writing, I was plotting my return to New York City. But, on a disastrous trip to damp northern California with a Mickey Sabbath of my own,( a mistake) I gave Roth another chance, (I had been bored with Portnoy.) and found The Counterlife. It was as if Zuckerman found yet another doppelgänger--me-- but forgot to give me the same talent to temper the inevitability of doom.
I read all I could, elevating two of his works above all his others. And finally when in 1995 that first Foreswear all others chapter appeared in The New Yorker I waited for the book release with characteristic impatience. I was swallowed whole by the chapter and everything that followed. It was primal. It cut to the blood of all of us who have loved insanely and who know what its like to feel close to madness. There are scattered scenes of flash; the embalming scene, rendered with flesh and thistle. The yearning and loss and the stupidity in death and desire, nibbled down to the bone.
I know with modern convention, with the current love for pre-boxed structure- if I brought Roth's opening graf into my writing group as my own, they would invariably say: There's too much going on. There's too much telling. Not enough showing. Too many clauses. Too many dates. Too much volatility. Too much brett. Too much stuff I have no idea how to describe. "The character isn't likeable." Whoever says that is lying and denying the bits of failure we all carry within. The genius of Sabbath is that he is able to disappoint the reader, he, brilliant-genius-gone-wrong, goes forth and distinguishes himself in tragedy. He becomes the satyr, the aging, failed satyr he could not avoid being.
When I read the New York Magazine article on Roth I was troubled at the absence of women who stood up for short, stubby, horny- without -purpose Sabbath and his creator. The guys? They love him. After all Sabbath is their worst fear, they lose the woman they love and are reduced to masturbating on her grave. They fear they ARE Sabbath. Woman on the other hand fear that one day, they'll wake up in the morning and find themselves lying next to snoring sack like Sabbath. Another essay for another time.
No matter what my writing group feels, the character doesn't have to be likeable he or she just has to be riveting, talented and burrows into your skin. What about Gabrio Vini wines, Serragghia from Pantelleria, such as the extreme orange blossom-water-like Zibibbo Secco? Or a more kindly wine, such as Claire Naudin's Orchis? Or the wines of Georgia or of my beloved pond scum saving a wine that is so pure it's a chick with martinet posture and fat pearls who doesn't heave the breast. The most important element is to take the reader and drinker in, no matter what the person or point of view or the conventional talent.
So, Roth is coming to dinner. I fear he would love Harlan. I have no Harlan and I'm not getting him some. Nor will I get him anything like it. I don't even know if he drinks anymore, in Letting Go there was a reference to 1951 (assuming Bordeaux). And some wine connoisseurship along the way. But no. If Roth came over tonight, if he called me up and he said, pull the cork babe, I want to see why you dare invoke my name, you imbecile, I told you to give up writing, didn't I? Didn't I tell you it was a crass, vulger way to make a living and no one in the end gives a shit? Anyway now when The Atlantic Monthly is asking writers to write for free...see? Well, if he did this right now, and I had to look around, I'd give him two of the most contentious Mickey Sabbath wines I could get my hands on. Vino Ambiz, cloudy Airén sitting on my bench? Why not? And then, because I'm a glutton for punishment, I'd open a trousseau of beauty, and feel my heart sink and beg him, do not do this to me.