Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Everyman ~ Philip Roth

I promised last week that I would write about our book group discussion of Philip Roth's Everyman but I had to put it on the back burner for a while until I had time to think about what turned out to be an unexpectedly mixed reaction to the work. As a group our only other encounter with Roth was about eighteen months ago, when we read and  thoroughly enjoyed, The Human Stain.  There wasn't one of us who didn't want to go back and re-read it straight away because there was so obviously so much there to think about and learn from.  Everyman, however, split the group in two, those of us who had not only 'enjoyed' it but thought that there was something extremely profound being explored in the text and those who had struggled to engage at any level and really couldn't see the point.

The book tells the story of an unnamed main character who I am going to call Everyman, beginning at the moment of his funeral and then building up his life through a patchwork of scenes until, in the final pages, we return to the moment of his death on the operating table. During a scant two hundred pages we learn about his childhood as the younger son of a Jewish Jeweller, his time working in a Design Business, his three unsuccessful marriages and his  final years spent in a retirement complex on America's East Coast.  And throughout the figure of Death walks with him. We are never for a moment allowed to forget this man's mortality, the fact that at any moment something may go wrong with the intricate and delicate instrument that is the human body.  It is no coincidence that there is an image of the inner workings of a watch on the cover of my copy.  In its concrete form it is a reminder of the clocks and watches with which Everyman's father worked; as an image it serves to reinforce the unpalatable truth that it only needs one element to go out of balance and the entire mechanism will fail.  

So, we are with Everyman, when as a child of nine he makes his first visit to hospital for a hernia operation and witnesses the death of a fellow patient.  In the Star Beach Retirement Village we experience vicariously the incredible pain of one of the women who lives there, pain that eventually drives her to the ultimate answer of suicide.   And, we follow the progress of Everyman's own bodily weaknesses as one by one the valves in his heart fail and have to be shored up artificially.  But perhaps the most damaging failures, weaknesses and deaths are not the physical ones, but those which occur in his relationships with his family.  We learn little about his first wife, or why he found the marriage so unsatisfactory, but the break-up leaves him alienated not only from her but also from his two sons.  While it seems that his second marriage, to Phoebe, is far more successful and their daughter, Nancy, does retain her feelings for her father, again he destroys the relationship almost on a whim and marries a woman with whom he has nothing in common and who soon goes the same way as her predecessors.  Even the closeness he feels for his older brother, Howie, is destroyed by his jealousy of Howie's loving family life, business success and continuing good health.  This is a man who walks with Death in one form or another all his life.

And yet, this is not, on the surface at least, a religious book.  There is no suggestion that we should read this as a warning that Death might call at any moment and we should therefore look to the content of our lives in case we should be called to answer for our deeds and be found wanting.  In fact, if anything I felt there was a measure of moral ambiguity here.  Everyman may feel that he has lost all and that Howie has everything and we, as readers, may feel that we want to point out that Howie has lived a pretty much unblemished life, working hard, loving his family and hurting no one and thus perhaps deserves what he has, but in the final pages I think Roth raises a caveat to this easy response.  Everyman is in the graveyard where his parents lie buried and this is what Roth writes:

His mother had died at eighty, his father at ninety.  Aloud he said 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."

"You lived."  It seems to me that there is implicit in that phrase the idea that we cannot spend our lives in the shade of Death, we have to live and that not to live is in itself a death.  "Atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left."  What is asked of Everyman in the Morality play is not only unrealistic, it is also in one sense a sin against the life we have been given, whoever or whatever you may believe we have been given it by.  I don't end up much liking Roth's Everyman figure, I'm pretty sure I would have rather known Howie any day of the week, but I'm not certain that I can in anyway condemn him.  Morality stands on far less resolute foundations now than in did in the early sixteenth century.


  1. I think I can see why this book might split opinions, but it sounds fascinating to me. I've never read anything by Philip Roth but I would like to try this one. Hopefully I'll agree with you and not the half of your group who failed to engage with it!

  2. I stopped by your blog today. Great post.

  3. Helen, I'm not certain this would be the best place to start. 'The Human Stain' is a much longer book, but it tells a more riveting story and has a superb twist at the end. I'd pitch in there if I were you.

    Ann, nice to meet you.

  4. Annie, may I ask where your book discussion group meets and if it is open to new members? I've been looking for a book group since I moved to London and always find your blog fascinating! Rebecca

  5. Rebecca, what a lovely compliment, thank you. I'm afraid that one of my groups meets in the Birmingham/Stourbridge area and the other in Bromsgrove, so we're really not close enough for you to join us. But do feel free to read along with us and comment here. I know it's not the same but better than nothing. Have you tried asking your local library about groups. I know that my librarians keep a list of what's available in the area.

  6. When I think Philip Roth, I think Portnoy's Complaint, and although I view it as one of the most informative books I have ever read, I've never been able to face another. Your two posts on Everyman have been fascinating, though.

  7. Really interesting review Annie, I am tempted to read it. I have read Roth before, American Pastoral, and although his style is not always easy,I really enjoyed it because it gave me loads to think about. I have recommended it many times to those I thought might like it. Not for those who want something fluffy or lighthearted. I may try this one or The Human Stain. About time I read another by this author.

  8. I very much enjoyed The Human Stain but have hesitated ever since over which Roth to subsequently read. American Pastoral is the one that tempts me the most although I did very much enjoy your review of this. It strikes me as a really good book club book, though.

  9. Thanks for talking about this! It sounds really interesting especially in comparison to the play you read prior to. Do you think you appreciated Roth's book more for having read the morality play first?

  10. Karyn, there are people in the group who have read 'Portnoy's Complaint' and feel pretty much the same way about it as you do, but they have all been glad that they went on to read other things by Roth. I'd say do give him another chance.

    Leah, I think what attracts me most to Roth is that he gives me so much pause for thought. That and the fact that his writing is so incredible well crafted. I do think you need to give some space between forays into his work though, so I will put 'American Pastoral on the list for 2012.

    Litlove, it looks as though 'American Pastoral' might be a good way to go given what Leah says. It is an exceptionally good book group. The other people are so well read and so thoughtful and whoever is leading always so well prepared. It's a privilege to belong to it.

    Stefanie, I definitely appreciated the novel the more for having read the play again first. Apparently Roth says somewhere that he wasn't influenced by the play other than the concept of Everyman, but I think he's being disingenuous. I certainly was prompted to think about the ethics of his character's situation in a way that I wouldn't have done if I hadn't had in mind the prevailing religious situation of the time.

  11. Hello Annie,

    I can see exactly why there may have been divided opinions about this book.

    I haven't read any Roth books, but that is one gap in my reading that definitely needs addressing, as he sounds like an author who constantly courts controversy and discussion about his writing.

    The analogy of comparing one's life to a moving timepiece, that could falter and fail, as a result of one false move, is just so true. So do you err on the side of caution and live a cautious life, or fly in the face of caution and live life to the full.

    Living life to the full, is all well and good, but you have to be prepared to accept the consequences of those actions and the responses of the people those actions may hurt along the way.

    Me, I'm of the more cautious nature and tend to live a more orthodox and mundane life, but I shall also go to my grave with regrets about all the things I haven't done.

    Which really leaves me stuck in the middle of the debate, wanting 'to have my cake and eat it', not really an option is it?

    So long as my time piece just gives up and stops instantly and is beyond repair, rather than just keep losing time and continually in for repair, I don't really mind!!


  12. Yvonne, I'm definitely the more cautious type as well. I once heard the singer, Emma Kirkby describe herself as a small scale person and that's me summed up to a tee.

  13. I've enjoyed the Roth novels I've read (American Pastoral, Portnoy's Complaint, I Married a Communist), but I'm not sure how many Roth novels I want to read in my lifetime! This one sounds very good, but I think if I'm tempted to read him again, I might turn to The Human Stain. But with so many wonderful books out there, perhaps three Roth novels is enough??

  14. It seems like books like these--that split a group in two opinion-wise are often the books that start the best discussions. I have yet to read a single Roth book, though I have American Pastoral on my pile and it seems like it might be a good place to start. How does your group choose books? A vote by the group or each member chooses one that everyone else will read?

  15. Dorothy, I'm not certain about three Roth being 'enough', but I do find that he's a writer I need to leave long gaps between, simply because he asks so much of me as a reader. I don't mind that at all, in fact, I enjoy that, but you do need some breathing space before you give that amount of concentration to another work.

    Danielle, funnily enough for once it almost stifled the discussion because those who weren't enthusiastic had simply failed to engage and so had very little to say. Normally I would agree with you though. This group has been reading award winners so we've had lists in front of us and have selected books as a group and then people have offered to lead the discussion. Our primary question has been whether or not the book deserved to win an award and I have to say that in only one instance, C S Sansom's "Winter in Madrid' could we not see the justification. We're just about to move on to looking at Booker short lists on a mission to identify the one's that got away.

  16. I thought I'd commented here but must have come, got distracted, and gone away. I have only read one Roth, The plot against America, which I rather liked, but I have a feeling it's not typical Roth, if there is such a thing. I feel I should read more - one day - and this, actually, sounds like the sort of book I'd like to get my teeth into.

  17. WG, I haven't read that one, so I can't say whether it's typical or not. I would recommend trying something else though. As you will probably have gathered from the comments here, I really enjoyed 'The Human Stain'. I definitely think that is worth anyone's attention.