Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Goodbye Columbus - Philip Roth's Tender Side

What do we generally get when we read a Philip Roth novel? Lecherous old men (Mickey Sabbath), men who seem to be misogynistic , men constantly on the threshold of  boiling point ready to burst (Ira Ringold), men are colossus in their own way, magnificent in both success and failure (Swede Levov in American Pastoral is an example of the latter). They are morally ambivalent, selfish, trampling down other people's emotions, strong, stubborn, but never ever craving for sympathy, at least outwardly.  You may like or hate them but you simply cannot ignore them.  'Goodbye Columbus' Roth's first published work (1959) is an antithesis to whatever I have said above. This is Roth at his most tender self, a self we cannot see in most of his later works. The book is a collection of 5 short stories and a novella the title of which is the book's title. (Probably his only set of short stories). The full set of stories have as their common point, young Jewish Americans coming growing up and trying to assimilate into the greater American society, going beyond the ghettos

'Conversion of the Jews' is probably the most famous and celebrated story of the 5. It concerns Ozzie a boy just into his teens who is full of questions about God. His most insistent doubt is about the virgin Mary and the immaculate conception. The Rabbi who teaches Ozzie thinks that he is being impertinent and tries to avoid the question. When Ozzie persists, he slaps him. Ozzie snaps and runs on to the top of the building and threatens to jump. People try to dissuade him. Ozzie threatens that he would jump until all of them get down on their knees and accept that the immaculate conception of Mary is a truth. They do. But Ozzie jumps anyway only to be caught in a net which has been spread out by the firemen. This story could either be seem as a touching one about the innocence of the young or as a melodramatic piece of storytelling trying to thrust an message down our throats. I personally am ambivalent about the story's impact, but this is only on recollection of the story. When you read story however, you are sure to be sucked into it.  The other 4 stories are also good and all concern the jewish people trying to find their way in the American society. Epstein and Defender of the Faith are 2 stories that I particularly enjoyed the most than the other 3. 'Defender of the Faith' is both infuriating and funny at the same time, if such a thing can be possible. The stories could be taken as a self criticism/introspection done by an young author on his community/heritage or Roth could be seen a person hating the identity bestowed on him by his birth. I tend to go for the former.

The novella 'Goodbye Columbus' is the story of Neil Klugman a Jewish graduate belonging to the middle class and staying with his uncle and aunt and his ill fated romance with a wealthy Jewish girl over the period of a summer. They meet during a tennis match and Neil seems to fall in love with her. The remaining story is full of day to day incidents of their meetings, tennis matches, swimming, Neil staying at Brenda' house for a short while, as they work out their relationship. Though both are Jewish, the class divide between them seems to be too big for Neil to cross  Brenda and her parents are fully assimilated in their societal strata though both Neil and Brenda's families had started from the same place. (Brenda's  brother is a basketball player in college, supposed to be a gentile sport).Neil is still unsure about his way forward.  Both families are also not too keen on their union and Brenda's parents make Neil feel even worse with their condescending attitude towards him. Outwardly they are cordial to him and try to make him comfortable, but in doing so keep reminding him of his alienation from them. Neil and Brenda continue their relationship amidst all this, even have sex (remember this is set in the 50's so it would have been a big deal then), but the differences between them results in a gradual straining of the relationship between them and ultimately falls apart. The novella ends with their separation. One thinks that it was not love that bonded them, but casual lust. It was probably just the boredom of a summer and the excitement of crossing certain moral boundaries that got them together and once that was done they both lapsed back into their own worlds which could not be reconciled for any great amount of time. Also they were probably both two very different individuals who just could not coexist closely together. This again could be a result of their different upbringings which makes one think that the class divide is somehow more difficult or at least as difficult  to bridge than any differences in ethnicity or race.

This book shows a tender side of Roth which is not explicitly visible in his later works. In fact, in his later works you even feel that Roth is almost heartless and lacks empathy when dealing with his characters and consequently his characters too behave the same. The negligible female voice in this book also mirrors his latter works where female perspective is almost non-existence and if present, mostly in negative. The reconciliation of the Jewish identity with the American society that is touched upon is a recurrent theme in a lot of his works.  All in all, a solid read and a good introduction to Roth. But beware, if expect the same Roth here in his other works you would be disappointed, but those who have read his other works but not this, would be pleasantly surprised  by the change in tone here. 

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