Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sabbath's Theater- Philp Roth

"Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over",
Roth's 'Sabbath's Theater' begins with the above line. Mickey Sabbath a 64 year old washed out puppeteer,  serial adulterer,  high priest of debauchery   is having a conversation with  'Drenka' the woman with whom he has been having an affair for the past 13 years.  She wants monogamy in adultery and Sabbath obviously doesn't want to have anything to do with it and tries to dissuade her.  Soon after the conversation 'Drenka' dies of cancer (the reason for her wanting monogamy) and Sabbath whose whole life has been one big orgy with obscenity trials, multiple affairs, seductions and who has seen his brother die young, his mother becoming an near invalid due to that, who has been dismissed from the college where he was teaching due to his alleged misconduct with a student, who at age 64 doesn't think twice about bedding a 20 year old girl,  is aroused at that age by a pregnant woman, he of the unlimited libido and mental fortitude, his life now spirals out of control the rest of the book is about his tragicomic unraveling and snapshots from his past life.

As with all Roth books there is a vitality coursing through the entire novel. This energy is not a life affirming one,  it is the energy caused by anxiety of the characters which borders on the hysterical. The energy too is more mental than physical.  An offspring of the union of anxiety and energy is that many scenarios are king sized and could seem exaggerated. Like how Sabbath goes to the grave of Drenka and jacks off over it. A lover would indeed go to his beloved's grave, but jacking off and that too braving blizzards and extreme cold? And to add to this, Drenka's another lover too comes and jacks off there!!!. It's Roth's writing, a lush, voluptuous prose that is appropriate for a book dealing mainly in carnal pursuit that  makes us overlook and indeed enjoy such exaggerations.  It is in the dialogues that Roth's greatness comes to the fore.  Whether it be a discussion of the pitfalls of monogamy, Sabbath's recalling of an old obscenity trial that he had to face, the recalling of which which he subverts by knowingly replacing a female witness's name by the name of his host's daughter the writing crackles with verve, the chutzpah and the high pitched tone that fits perfectly with the libido driven character of Sabbath and indeed the theme of the book. And Roth can change the tone too if needed, as in the case of the letters written by his father-in-law to Sabbath's wife, Sabbath's brother's letter to his family which are not testosterone driving writing.

Roth has been accused of being a 'misogynist' and one can see in this novel why this tag is attached to him. To say that the female characters are not treated well would be an understatement. Sabbath's first wife is a neurotic who is  more at home on a theater stage enacting different characters than confronting her true self. His second wife is a recovering alcoholic and in therapy. Drenka for her part is sex crazed, a fine match to Sabbath in this regard and probably the only one who gets a bit of detailing from Roth.  In fact other than Sabbath there are no other characters (even male) worth speaking about and that's probably the way Roth wants it too (again a typical Roth template). Sabbath is a gargantuan sexual behemoth who towers over everyone else. Gargantuan not just in size, (at 64 he is but a withered old man) but in his mentality. Whether it be lusting after other women, (as young as 20), indulging in all sorts of sexual debasement, abusing his host's trust or generally being a prick to everyone else whatever he does is king sized in the great Roth tradition of male characters.  Yes, the whole book is indeed Sabbath's theater of indecency and and immorality and Sabbath is the lead actor, director and lord of all that he surveys from the stage.

To be fair to Roth though, he doesn't shy away from indicting Sabbath for all his indiscretions.  Yes, Sabbath abuses his host Norman who puts him up in his daughter's room by jacking off his her underclothes, even makes a pass at Norman's wife but it is never justified.  He agrees that that he is purveyor of immorality.  So while the misogynist tag may be a bit unfair, the fact is that this is a text written by a male with a predominantly male perspective and considering this with the general treatment of female characters in his other works, one does have to say that he maybe does have a deep rooted bias against women. 

As loathsome as Sabbath may be, as depraved are his actions are, when someone writes his own epitaph as Sabbath does
"Beloved Whoremonger, Seducer, Sodomist, Abuser of Women, Destroyer of Morals, Ensnarer of Youth, Uxoricide, Suicide"
it is difficult not to like at least a little bit about the unapologetically antagonistic old man who at the age of 64 is still capable of becoming indignant when monogamy is suggested and who is refreshingly honest about his predilections.  It doesn't make him a paragon of virtues, but neither does it make him a completely hateful character, which would result in the entire book collapsing. The key in books like these where the main character is a voice against conventional morality is that while there should be no disingenuous justification for his acts,  the reader should not be completely repulsed by him and Roth achieves it here. You feel that all the carousing, antagonizing others is just a sham, a play that Sabbath is enacting for him and himself alone and that at the heart of the matter, there is a young kid who never got over his brother being killed in war and his mother losing it completely after that. But then you also feel that maybe even that is put on and Sabbath could be using the events of the past to somehow make sense of his debauched lifestyle. At the end when Sabbath is left at non-man's land (a mental purgatory for him) in the pursuit of his own suicide that he had started off soon after the death of Drenka, you do not know whether to feel happy that he is alive or to kill him and put him out of his misery. 

If you are able to look past the hysterical exaggeration, the high pitched narrative that is present for most of the novel, if you can put up with the sexual deviancy, the treatment of the female characters, then this novel is for you and the glory of Roth's writing is for you to savor.  This is not applicable for just this novel but to all his works.


  1. Roth is a difficult writer for me as there are some books that I think are wonderful (Everyman, American Pastoral) and others that I gave up on (The Human Stain). I find the subject matter quite difficult sometimes and I think this one might be no different.
    Good review though!

  2. Yes Sarah, Roth can cause very diverse reactions. I agree with you on 'The Human Stain', a very provocative and subversive theme that didn't rise to the level it should have.