Letting Go, by Philip Roth
A Sentimental Education Circa 1956
by Philip Roth.
Random House. 630 pp. $5.95.
Young men must grow up, must lose their illusions about themselves and their circumstances. Set on the anvil of reality, they will have to bear up under an indictment like that made by the father in Kafka’s “The Judgment”: “So now you know what else there was in the world besides yourself! An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly you have been a devilish human being!” And they will not leave the anvil until a death—that of a father or a child—has purchased their release. Such is the sentimental education through which Philip Roth conducts the two heroes of his long, uneven novel, Letting Go. They meet as graduate students, pursue their difficult friendship—one is married, grindingly poor, and dedicated to a life of stingy self-sacrifice, the other is at loose ends—and finally separate five years later as teachers.
“Devilish,” however, is not quite the word for Gabe Wallach and Paul Herz, Roth’s two unhappy young men, for their sins are, typically, those of omission, of failure. Rather, Letting Go seems to be patterned—not intentionally, so far as I know, but perhaps inevitably—on Flaubert’s masterpiece of boredom, failure, and waste, A Sentimental Education. The comparison is, I think, worth pursuing. In both works the author wields the birch of bitter reality with harsh and depressing regularity on the backs of his heroes. In both, the twin heroes complement one another, though, characteristically, they are scaled down in the Roth novel. Gabe Wallach is a butterfly of sentiment, though without the strong romantic appetite of Frederic Moreau, his counterpart; he is, we are given to understand, always playing it safe, risking little in order to lose little; half-heartedly available, merely amenable, he has no clear idea of what he wants or of what others expect of him; his sentiments are, in fact, notably weak, he never gets behind on grading papers. Paul Herz, on the other hand, is a mole of duty where Flaubert’s Deslauriers is a man of action, though of petty and blundering action. And there are a number of other resemblances, in the class backgrounds of these pairs, in the kinds of women who are available or not available to them, etc. What is more important is the similar disillusionment from which both novels spring. Flaubert wrote Sentimental Education in the 1860’s looking back, under Louis Napoleon, on the betrayed hopes of the 1848 Revolution. And the broad subject of Letting Go, which begins at the end of the Korean War and concludes with the Recession of 1957, is the underlying hopelessness of the Eisenhower era.
This, I think, is at the heart of the reductions of Letting Go, it is what makes the man of feeling half-hearted and the man of duty torment and squander himself. Much of this is clearly calculated. The impoverished Paul Herz has, on first view, “the look about him of a dissatisfied civil servant, the product of some nineteenth-century Russian imagination.” Yet he turns out to be not at all the Alienated Man of the 40’s—he has gone “underground” not to subvert but to bear the world on his back. An industrious pursuer of scholarships, diligent at unhappiness, and something of a mama’s boy. Like Gabe Wallach, he is a man of good will who succeeds only in acting in bad faith. Both, moreover, are arrayed against the background of their romantic elders: Gabe’s father, Wallaceite, Reichian, yoga-ist, the romantic of health; Paul’s Uncle Jerry, the romantic of (psychoanalytic) love; his Uncle Asher (who with his slangy, erudite, breakneck spieling is clearly meant to be Augie March at 50), the romantic of Bellovian (or Gidean) availability to experience; and, finally, Paul’s father, the four-time failure, the romantic of business. Indeed, they are all failures—the health-maniac is terrified of his loneliness, the middle-aged lover is twice divorced, the bohemian Asher is a painter of buckeyes. Each of these paths is marked No Exit. And, generally, the past provides no issue for these young men; they are tethered to a sense of the limitations of their moral and biological inheritance, and even the children they must care for (or destroy) have been fathered by other men.
What, then, remains open to them? The future, except for the needle’s eye of failure, is also closed. Unlike Flaubert’s young men, they have no ambitions (except for a quite vague decency and happiness) and no careers. We are told that one is a writer and the other a scholar and that both are teachers, but, aside from some literary chitchat and some slight satire on academic types, we have no sense that they have any work. (Indeed, their work is so unimportant to Roth that he has implausibly made Herz the writer and Wallach the scholar, where the reverse would have been more plausible.) What, after all, are they doing in this world? And, amazingly, they have no contemporaries, no friends, no connection, that is, with the world at large; they have only their elders and their women and can measure themselves only against the demands made on them by their parents and their women. Let me give an example. The high point of Gabe Wallach’s affair with the woman available to him comes at the onset of a brief illness. After two days of fever and sex he wakes up still ill but happy and convalescent. This is a characteristic moment—the passions have been exhausted and the world can be freely encountered. So, in Sentimental Education, Frederic Moreau finally gets a woman into bed. Unhappily, it is a courtesan who has come to the bed he had prepared for the woman he desires but can’t have. Nevertheless, he is wakened at dawn by the sound of musketry and goes out into the streets of a Paris excited with its freedom. It is 1848! And Gabe? He listens to the old soap operas.
Yes, there harassing the air waves were those same luckless couples who had struggled through my childhood . . . and who turned out to be struggling still. And recovering from a minor ailment, I discovered . . . reading in today’s newspaper what the temperature had been the day before in all the major cities of the world, poring over the woman’s page and racing results with little foothold in either world—it was all as cocoonish and heartwarming on the south side of Chicago as it had been fifteen years before on the west side of New York.
It is December 1956 and there are no more revolutions, not even in Hungary. There is no world, only yesterday’s trivia and the balm of Pig Heaven. It is a sad sad fact, Roth’s young men have only private lives.
And yet it seems to me that Roth is writing as much out of this wretched privacy as about it, for he seems to regard these exclusions of friendship and work, this public vacuum, as being serious, ultimate. Hence, the tedious earnestness with which he straps his young men to the problems of commitment to wife and family. Hence, for all the liveliness of much of the writing, the novel’s cramped and fetid air. Everything takes place indoors, in apartments, in offices, in cars, in stores. The novel has only one public event, which is so cluttered with literary furniture that I wonder whether Roth himself clearly sees its significance. Paul Herz is returning to attend his dying father whom he has not seen since he had been turned out of the house for marrying a shiksa. He examines his life:
It occurred to him now . . . that, no, he was not a man of feeling; it occurred to him that if he was anything at all it was a man of duty. And that when his two selves had become confused—one self, one invention—when he had felt it his duty to be feeling, that then his heart had been a stone, and his will, instead of turning out toward action, had remained a presence in his body, a concrete setting for the rock of his heart.
However, he resists seeing his father until, at the last moment, he rushes alone to his funeral. There, in the cemetery, all the people from his past are assembled:
No one moved, just himself, and what rushed to meet him: a figure in black. And now at last he saw who that was too, yes, and now he closed his eyes and opened his arms and what he saw next was his life—he saw it for the sacrifice it was. Isaac under the knife, Abraham wielding it. Both! While his mother kissed his neck and moaned his name, he saw his place in the world. Yes. And the world itself—without admiration, without pity. Yes! Oh yes! What he saw filled him for a moment with strength. . . . . He kissed nothing—only held out his arms, open, and stood still at last, momentarily at rest in the center of the storm through which he had been traveling all these years. For his truth was revealed to him, his final premise melted away. What he had taken for order was chaos. Justice was an illusion. Abraham and Isaac were one.
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.” 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.
Roth’s moral vocabulary is similarly contemporary: don’t clutch, don’t push and pull, and let go—that is, fail, in order to seize the day. And he is unremitting in dogging Herz and Wallach through their failures to a final tentative generosity opposed to the self-consciousness implicit in their difficulties of “feeling.” But that one can win only by losing—perhaps this is the sentimentality of disillusionment. So, Gabe Wallach succeeds in saving the Herzes’ adopted child for them only when he collapses before his intractable adversary. But it may be that the angel presents himself for the wrestling match precisely to those who will triumph over him. Why, in seeking to engage his characters, should Roth put it that freedom comes from responsibility and not responsibility from freedom? Maybe the answer is, 1956: Only careers in domesticity open to talent. Similarly, Letting Go shows a healthy but constricting determination to avoid the other current sentimentalities—of individualism, of love, of identity-finding, of availability. But, then, what excitement and openness has life to offer in 1956? or in 1962? I recall that Flaubert, in the midst of his dour and unrelenting realism, gives Frederic Moreau a wonderfully magical love idyll at Fontainebleau. He is still with the wrong woman, but such is the power of “love and Nature the eternal”! Gabe Wallach’s convalescence from the flu also has some magical qualities. It’s the fever. Anti-heroism is fine—when done on a large enough scale.
What seems to me the best thing in the novel comes where Roth exceeds this scale. It is an awkward thing but a pleasure to see in a writer who has won acclaim for being fresh, bright, sharpsighted, and winning, as Roth has. I am thinking of Paul Herz who, portrayed out of a venomous hatred, heavy and ugly at the beginning of the novel and comically predictable at its end, is often a memorable and powerfully drawn figure, though perhaps less a character than a portmanteau of insights. Gabe Wallach, on the other hand, is as absent and incredible a character as Neil Klugman of “Goodbye, Columbus.” Since he is the narrator of about half the novel, this is a major misfortune. He is not a character, but a position: Central Park West, third-generation Jewish, Harvard, Henry James scholar, handsome, healthy, charming, cautious, gently guilty about his good fortune, wantless, sniffish, but not convincingly any of these. He is intended to be a sort of blank, the starved soul of the 50’s, and a blank is all I get. He is outfitted, too, with a sodden, adenoidal prose (Harvard, I guess) that only quickens for some of Roth’s satirical interludes (the one on the pure Brooklyn couple, Maur and Dor Horvitz, is particularly good). It is clear that Wallach’s agreeableness is to be taken as a weakness, but when he is being agreeable he is just not interesting. I suppose it must be very difficult to put such a character at the center of a novel. I don’t think Roth has brought it off. Given such a narrator and Roth’s penchant for demonstrating everything and for showing off his fine ear for dialogue, of which there are a number of long, trivial, and distractingly colloquial tracts, it is no wonder that much of the last third of Letting Go should read like one of those heavy tomes with which women often carry on protracted affairs and which are called best sellers.