Thursday, June 29, 2006

In Praise of Serious Art

In his introduction to the "Portable Faulkner", Malcolm Cowley makes the point that it is not Faulkner's individual novels which are the masterpiece, but parts thereof, and, most of all, the entire sequence of Yoknapatawpha county stories and novels. Having just finished Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" I'm tempted to say the same thing about his Newark, New Jersey. Since "American Pastoral" - but not excluding what went before - Roth's subjects have widened to the whole of American living memory whilst focussing on his own experience, his family, the Jewish community, and Newark. "The Plot Against America" has its faults - is in parts brilliant - and adds yet another dimension to Roth's American pastoral. An alternate history of America during the 2nd World War, delaying America's entry into that war; siding with Hitler, with a pro-Hitler president imagined in the election of aviation pioneer Lindbergh; but told against the backdrop of one family - the Roths - and the memories of the 9 year old younger son, Philip. This mixture of the political and the personal has characterised much of his recent work. His phenomenal unfolding sentences are still here; albeit curtailed somewhat in the voice of a child. Yet it is the view of the child - seeing things only partially, which lets the horror unwind. If an adult's role is to keep the true horrors of the world from their children, then in times of terror, doubly so. Yet that same child is here manipulative, part of the "cause", as well as the victim of "effect." The poor, decent Roth family are connected by birth and marriage to the city's Jewish aristocracy, who consider themselves American first, Jewish second - and therefore immune to the historical terrors afflicting their forefathers. This is not an alternate history in the manner of "The Man in the High Castle" or "SSGB", but a "what if" certain small things changed - and how that will affect everyone. It doesn't seem coincidental that it is post-9/11 - that "small thing" had it not happened, would have altered several histories; but how much, its too early to show. There are longeurs; to the 9 year old (and perhaps the elderly) Roth everything has equal importance, equal value. Whereas the glovemaking episode in "American Pastoral" was a masterly aside, here the asides sometimes feel a little force, a little unedited. Here, Roth is a nostalgist, like DeLillo in "Underworld", Scorsese in "Goodfellas" or Woody Allen, fascinated by the detail. It's a thin line. Yet, the "stamp collection" that means so much to the young Philip means much less to us. The "Winchell riots" section, where America's own Kristallnacht is underway sees a different writing - the clipped newspaper tautness of James Elroy's "American Tabloid" - interesting that Elroy's brutally effective reportage should find such a welcome home as a Philip Roth novel. Perhaps there's a limit to what Roth can envisage in an America that has gone to pot, (and I'm talking George W. Bush's America here), but which is still the promised land - and the allegory is occasionally a little heavy - for Roth still thinks America is good, and that Americans are good, and that the cancer of Nazism, though able to take a localised hold on this reimagined America, can never spread to the whole patient. Again, the second world war, from this perspective is reimagined through the terrible prism of the Holocaust; yet its hard to imagine what would have happened to a valiant Britain left to fight alone? It is worth recalling, that the second world war wasn't just a Jewish tragedy. Yet in all of this, despite some caveats, the force of this novel is that it makes you think - and in doing so reduces so many other writers to mere entertainers. Yet Roth also entertains, and adds another vital chapter to his expanding Americna pastoral. Coincidentally, or not, in between reading "The Plot Against America" I went to see "The Wind that Shakes the Barley", Ken Loach's latest excellent film about the Irish Free State. Like his Spanish Civil War dramatisation "Land and Freedom", this personalises a conflict that can easily become unimaginable. Yet it is even denser and bleaker than that earlier film. Loach doesn't shirk on the intensity, and the first hour of the movie is intense. Not that it lets off the tension much. Again, it is in the aftermath of the movie that you feel its accumulated power. Loach doesn't explain or lecture, he merely attempts to show - and in doing so, makes you think. In the 10th Anniversary of the largest ever bomb to go off in mainland Britain, here in Manchester, its a reminder that the roots of that explosion go back - in Sebastian Barry's phrase - a long, long way.

1 comment:

Adrian Slatcher said...

I've put a link on the side of the page - adrian.slatcher at if you want to email direct.