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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Philip Roth's "Indignation" and Mozart's Silly Music

Aside from "Patrimony," "The Human Stain" and "Portnoy's Complaint" I haven't at all covered Philip Roth's body of work.  Reading "Indignation" simply because I saw it as an "easy read" from the start has proven a bit more challenging and gratifying than just grabbing a book, reading it and finishing it.  It reminds me of years ago, while engaged as the cellist for the orchestra's quartet (an ensemble primarily occupied with playing for the orchestra sponsors, i.e., banks, airline headquarter's lobby gigs, promotional music, etc.) we were on the habit of playing W.A. Mozart's Three Divertimenti simply because they were "easy" to play--literally, music you could play without having to rehearse; that was, to some extent, the opinion of some of us that rotated in and out of "quartet duty" in the course of several seasons.  One time, J.G., the principal cellist came over to me and said in his quiet Armenian accent, "It's not Silly Mozart, as you call it... you may be able to play the notes, but try playing what's behind the notes... it won't be so silly then."  Perhaps this is a bit of a forced comparison, but as readable as "Indignation" is proving to be, I couldn't help but to remember the anecdote and conveying it here as an opening salvo.

I love "Indignation," as I have loved the little I have read by Roth.  The story of one Marcus Messner, a young college student intent in escaping his father's obsessive protectiveness, the narrative is more conventional than the other two novels by Roth I have read.  Marcus is very intelligent and has a promising future, albeit the menacing social forces around him (it's 1951 and the Korean War is in full motion... the fear of failing out of college, getting drafted and being killed overseas never far from Marcus imagination).  He's also difficult to understand simply because he is the process of understanding himself.  His intensity about life and the seriousness with which he sees his studies as a catapult to the future sets him apart from others his age.  To get as far away as possible from his father's torturing protectiveness, Marcus transfers to Winesburg College in Ohio (he is a Jewish boy from New Jersey), and this is where the narrative really begins to take on non-traditional structures.  One interesting aspect of the novel that struck me personally (actually several) is the fact that I, too, went to a mid-western Ohio, extremely conservative liberal arts college.  Also, as Marcus meets Olivia Hutton, his love interest after his transfer to Winesburg, we find that she is a sophomore who just transferred to Winesburg from none other than Mount Holyoke in Amherst, MA. because of her parents divorce.  I laughed out loud simply because my first love interest when I came to college (from where I graduated) was a sophomore transfer from Mount Holyoke whose parents had just gotten divorced that very summer.  But that's where the similarities end.

Marcus and Olivia shared a moment of intimacy that leads readers to the threshold of what the narrative evolves into.  There are numerous time abstractions as half-way through the first part (titled "Under Morphine") he find that Marcus has died and is telling us all of this in retrospect.  Roth makes this as clear as possible, albeit suddenly, so it is not as if one had to go back and re-read in order to try and process what takes place so shockingly.  What gave me pause (did not work, in my opinion) in this section of the book was the long examination of existence (or lack thereof) that Philip Roth takes Marcus on for several pages.  "What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterward.  And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those more that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.  Even now (if 'now' can be said to mean anything any longer), beyond corporeal existence, alive as I am here (if 'here' or 'I' means anything) as memory alone (if 'memory,' strictly speaking, is the all-embracing medium in which I am being sustained as 'myself'), I continue to puzzle over Olivia's actions.  Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime's minutiae?  Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component?  Or can it be that this is merely that afterlife that is mine, and as each life is unique, so too is each afterlife, each an imperishable fingerprint of an afterlife unlike anyone else's?  I have no means of telling.  As in life, I know only what is, and in death what is turns out to be what it was.  You are not just shackled to your life while living it, you continue to be stuck with it after you're gone.  Or, again, maybe I do, I alone.  Who could have told me?  And on and on and on it goes for a few pages.  Now, I can read this long passage that goes back and forth regarding the definition (or Marcus' definition) of life and death as part of Marcus' existential meanderings (alive he was an extremely dedicated intellectual, always looking for answers and very diligent in his inquiries), or I could be more critical and sense that perhaps the whole passage went on for far too long.  Either way it is very readable, even if at the end of it we are left with the feeling the whole rant was a bit tedious.

Yet "Indignation" is clearly far more than young ranting; it is a first-look at a landscape of a momentous shift in American history.  Through Marcus' voice, 1951 appears poised for the changes that turned American society upside down in the mid 1960s.  It was the post-World War era, but it was also an era of undoing the conservative chains that ruled society during the first half of the 20th Century.  At this point in the novel, Marcus is being challenged by the college's administration over their "concern" regarding Marcus' welfare (isn't it always with administrators? "Our main concern it the safety of our students!" What bullshit, really!) because he has had three dormitory room changes in the course of one semester.  But Marcus' meeting with the Dean of Students becomes a tug of war between religious/atheist positions, with Marcus' citing extensively from Bertrand Russell's "Why I am Not a Christian" much the dismay of the Dean.

I am already halfway through "Indignation" and I've only been reading for a day.  It is the book's readability that's making it enjoyable, all the while its content (what's behind the notes) making it fulfilling and engaging.  I recommend it without reserve.

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