On “Letting Go”
To the Editor:
. . . Irving Feldman, in his review of Philip Roth’s Letting Go [September 1962] . . . avoids a direct consideration of the novel by comparing it to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. . . . Mr. Feldman uses the comparative method to escape the effort of comprehension . . . he hides behind the very doubtful assertion that the similar patterning of the books was “perhaps inevitable” . . . without a scintilla of proof. In the absence of documented evidence, the comparison would be “inevitable” only if Mr. Feldman revealed such significant similarities as to persuade us of the inevitability. He does not. He mentions common qualities such as “bitter reality,” “disillusionment,” and sex, but he never explores or revealingly defines these general likenesses. The comparison, then, is executed throughout on the crude and mechanical plot level (with only a fragment of one parallel scene discussed in any detail). . . .
This sterile technique of evading meaningful analysis is most fully displayed when Mr. Feldman quotes a passage from Letting Go and comments upon it in this manner: “The text is from Kierkegaard, Paul’s gesture and vision from Camus, there is perhaps a little Sartre, and, certainly, a lot of ‘Seize the Day.’” This tells us absolutely nothing! . . . If it gives any information at all, it is that Irving Feldman reads books as if they were concocted from intellectually impressive recipes. Are we to imagine that all of Philip Roth’s artistic achievement (which is doubtless considerable) boils down to a dash of Kierkegaard, a spice of Camus, and a grain of Sartre? . . . And isn’t Mr. Feldman embarrassed by the fact that he can write this sentence and then go on to deprecate a scene in Letting Go because it is “so cluttered with literary furniture”?
Finally. . . Mr. Feldman . . . interprets the 630 pages of the book as adding up to this exhortation: “don’t clutch, don’t push and pull, and let go—that is, fail in order to seize the day.” This kind of razor-blade ad nonsense is the fruit of Mr. Feldman’s searching and appreciative analysis. Would that [Mr. Feldman] had read, in COMMENTARY [November 1960] Alfred Kazin’s observation that in order to succeed a critic must “possess . . . through the integral force of his intelligence, the work of art that someone else has created.”
Sadly, the only thing Mr. Feldman possessed was the 630 printed pages.
To the Editor:
It is very reassuring to the reader to know that reviewer Irving Feldman is so well acquainted with Kafka, Flaubert, Kierkegaard, Camus, Gide, Bellow, and Sartre. There must, of course, be a host of other authors whom Mr. Feldman could cite if he had time and space, but may I suggest that in reviewing a book it is a good idea to practice “letting go” of schoolroom techniques and deal specifically with the artistic and literary merit of the work in hand.
(Mrs.) Martin M. Perley
To the Editor:
The review of Philip Roth’s book . . . does not at all convey the beauty of his insights or the fidelity and excellence with which they are communicated. Instead, the review . . . rambles through irrelevant and sometimes inaccurate criticisms. Despite what Feldman says, the characters do have friends, careers, jobs, and these do connect them with the world at large—even if the 1956 Hungarian Revolution does not merit headlines in the book. Why should the novel have a “cramped and fetid” air just because everything allegedly takes place, “indoors, in apartments, in offices,” etc.? Because Roth’s characters live in Chicago or New York, as millions of others do, and enact their roles indoors, in apartments, does it render their behavior less vital? . . .
New Paltz, New York
Mr. Feldman writes:
Maybe Mr. Port and Mrs. Perley are really serious, but they sound very much like kibitzers. I don’t find that they disagree with the concrete remarks my review made about Letting Go, they just don’t like the way I played my hand and want to advise me on Critical Principles and Methods in Reviewing Books. Mr. Port’s version of my review is, moreover, elaborately garbled. Since I can’t reconstruct the entire review for him, let me give Mr. Port one small sample of what my review said.
The passage that Mr. Port quotes as ending with “. . . and, certainly, a lot of ‘Seize the Day,’” continues: “But the Absurd here seems to me quite beside the point and helps make this passage shrill and unconvincing. The healing, the joining of the man of duty (Abraham) and of feeling (Isaac) can take place because the funeral is a public event.” I did not “then go on to deprecate a scene in Letting Go because it is ‘so cluttered with literary furniture.’” This was, in fact, how I had characterized the scene from which I proceeded to liberate all these literary moths. Now: did this say “nothing about Philip Roth?” Did Mr. Port not find this climactic passage in Letting Go trumped up, shrill, and unconvincing? Does Mr. Port think I’ve invented these literary allusions or does he agree that the Roth passage is moth-eaten with them? Mr. Port’s letter nowhere disagrees with my conclusions. Then perhaps he agrees? (Ditto Mrs. Perley.) If so, he ought to lodge his complaints not with me but with Mr. Roth, as I did. If Mr. Port and Mrs. Perley really think that I failed to understand or appreciate this work, their letters ought to have furnished the praise and understanding they think proper. This might do Letting Go some real service. As it is, I’m afraid they were only trying to express themselves.
Mr. Haas makes one real point. . . . He categorically denies the accuracy of one section of my review. I haven’t changed my mind and can only categorically reaffirm my original statements and leave it to the reader to decide. No doubt, millions who live in New York or Chicago apartments have vital lives. I can see quite well in the vague poem Mr. Haas seems to be writing in his mind this grand and public vision. The trouble is there isn’t enough of this vitality and vision in the novel Mr. Roth wrote.