remembering, repeating

by Megan Abbott

Almost back to back this morning, I heard the news that Philip Roth had just been awarded the Man Booker International prize and that one of the judges—author and publisher Carmen Callil—had withdrawn in protest. According to The Guardian, Callil said that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

I think Philip Roth takes up more shelf space in my apartment than almost any other author. I have a complicated love for both him and his work that seems to mirror my feelings for Sinatra and Freud, except I never grow weary of Sinatra and Freud and never, ever feel the need to defend my complicated love.

With Roth, however, I am sometimes frustrated, even bored. I have, after reading some of his books, said things similar to Callil’s comments. How many times, Mr. Roth, must I read about the older intellectual in sexual thrall with the beautiful, brilliant young woman a fraction of his age?

There is a wonderful quote that I am going to butcher by a writer whom I can’t recall now. It says something to the effect of every writer has one story to tell and he tells it over and over. And I have to admit, it feels true to me. But maybe that’s the kind of writer I am drawn to.  But the authors I love The other authors on my shelves that take up similar amounts of space are Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ellroy, Salinger. And certainly the same could be said of them.  The plots may change, the time period, the arc of the tale. But something at the core remains, some irresolvable issue or obsession that can’t help but sneak it.

I’m distinguishing here from authors who recycle plots, etc. Instead, I’m talking about recurring themes, dynamics, obsessions, fixations that seem to form the spine of many of their books and other times just seem to push their way in as if the writer can’t control it.

The risk of an artist returning to touchstones is an insularity of world which I sometimes find in Roth (that suffocating quality Callil cites does resonate with me; Roth’s Manhattan, for instance, seems trapped in amber at times). But when these authors discover a new way into their obsession, a new vantage point, or a new subject that may ultimately lead us back to their recurring story—it can be their greatest achievement.

Because, after all,  we are drawn to these authors to begin with because something about their story feels like ours.

James M. Cain may have written a half-dozen books dealing with the unstoppable lure of sex and money and the dark corners it drops us down, but, as discussed here before, when he becomes fascinated with the restaurant business (Mildred Pierce), or insurance (Double Indemnity), or taps his own love of opera (Serenade), the tale is reinvigorated even as it may follow the same deep treads he’s set down before.

Roth’s fascination with the glove industry or diamond business have produced some of his most exquisite prose ever. The vitalizing energy of American Pastoral seems to come from him wanting to use his alter ego, Zuckerman, to tunnel us into a very un-Roth-like pair of characters, an all-American straight-arrow and his beauty queen wife and what happens when their lives unfurl. His hero, Swede Levov, simply wouldn’t do the things Zuckerman and so many of his other heroes would. As a result, everything changes, and yet feels too like we’re returning to many of his fascinations—American success models, the family romance, Jewish identity and Roth’s own, often-blinding nostalgia for post-WWII-pre-counterculture moment—but from a new place. Which changes everything for us. And it’s thrilling.

But I guess I’m not really writing this post to talk about Roth. I guess I’m wondering how universal this feels. Are all writers writing variations on the same story? (Story, not plot–though I know there are writers who do that too!).  Is in fact what sparks writing is the desire to work through something? If so, it’s likely he or she doesn’t really want to work through it because then it would be over, and they don’t want it ever to be over.

For myself, I have trouble stepping back and looking at my books in concert. I don’t think I’d want to see what elements, obsessions keep returning across the books. Because once you see it, then what might happen? What would be left?

17 Comments to “remembering, repeating”

  1. This is the greatest typo ever: “I feels true to me.” You even capitalized the “I”! It has Freud all over it but I can’t interpret it exactly.

  2. HA! Now I have the title for my next book!
    (the sad truth: I don’t feels true to me!)

  3. This makes me think of William Maxwell who said at age 71 or so, after winning an award for So Long, See You Tomorrow (a book I loved, as I have loved all of his work), I guess I can stop writing about my mother. His mother died when he was quite young and more often than not his novels follow a young boy or man who loses his mother. I the story resonates, I don’t know that we have to worry that it is a variation on a theme. Composers and artists do it all the time. Very interesting post. Many thanks.

    • Helen, gosh, I love that Maxwell story–he knew he was finally done when he had told that story at last in the way he wanted. And I think that be a gift for readers. And speaks powerfully to the intimate experience between readers and their favorite writers.

  4. Oddly, NEMESIS isn’t really like any of Roth’s other books (at least none that I’ve read)—which makes me wonder if the judge even read the book! It *is* set in Newark, but the voice, approach, and subject are quite different.

    • Ed, you do get the feeling, based on her comments, that Callil was the one unable to separate the oeuvre from the book….is that your sense?

  5. You feels true to me! PS Was it Graham Greene who said that thing about writing the same book? I don’t know why I think that. I keep writing about a dumb jerk with a big dream that never comes true. Gee, I wonder what that means!

  6. “every writer has one story to tell and he tells it over and over.” Oh, yeah, I think that’s SO true (and I too have heard it but also can’t remember where it comes from!). I definitely feel it’s true about my own books. Roth is kind of the most blatant example but I think fundamentally we all do it. Until, you know, we can stop writing about our mothers, and then we move on to the next thing and abuse that for 40 years~

  7. By the way, do you know what that second picture is, not the gloves? I like it!

  8. I really like your perspective here. I’m a big Roth fan myself, and have an entire shelf devoted to his novels. You’re right. When he’s on, he’s on — American Pastoral, certainly, though my own favorite is The Human Stain. An energy and intensity to those books that wows me. Some of his smaller, more recent novels cover a lot of the same territory, themes, etc., but don’t hit the mark in the same way, maybe because of the smaller canvas? And yet I keep reading, book after book, almost as soon as they come out, sometimes disappointed, sometimes surprised (in little ways, if not in large ones), seeing the familiar aspects, intrigued by new twists, a complex series of reactions. (And yeah, your mention of Ellroy here is a good one too; I find myself experiencing across the arc of books the same feelings of excitement and unevenness and repetition and…. and sometimes even in a single novel!)

  9. Just how can Salinger take up as much space as Roth? Salinger had, what, three books in his lifetime, while Roth has at least twenty?

  10. Art, you put it so much better than me–it becomes so interactive when we read these authors because we feel so close to them. And with Ellroy — yes, sometimes you feel like it’s ALL one big novel!

  11. The next book or story is another chance to get it right. When we do, we stop. (Harper Lee anyone?)

    • I guess the issue here is if it resonates with the reader–clearly Calill finds Roth’s particular story suffocating (and then issues of literary value vs. a kind of personal connection/shared sensibility can be separated at all, by judges or critics or anyone!)

  12. hey Megan!! Yeah people just recycle their obsessions (don’t you?) and that’s why we love Roth, or Elmore Leonard, or Jim Thompson, or Cain, or J.G. Ballard, or Ellroy as mentioned, etc etc. I find I dig every third Roth book and not really more frequently than that but since dude is so prolific that’s a lotta stuff

    Don’t people do this in relationships, really every aspect of our lives, cycles and patterns and whirls

    this is why I read something like Ellroy’s last one about his mom and at the end when he’s talking about his new girl you’re just like oh here we fucking go

    I fully plan on/ assume I will leave a bunch of work behind that is basically all about the same shit cos in writing about IT I hope to come to understand why IT possesses me so, but I think the nature of IT is IT will always elude you, which is why we’re obsessed with IT

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