Classic Books: Indignation

There’s a Stephen King story set in a university during the Vietnam War. His student protagonist has avoided the draft thanks to his college acceptance and he knows that higher education is a thin membrane that keeps him from the army and that academic failure could mean disfigurement, paralysis, mental collapse and physical death. Despite this, college life absorbs him and he neglects his studies in favour of casual sex and a card game called ‘Hearts’ to which he and his fellow scholars have become hopelessly addicted. The plot is little more than card games, backseat shagging and arguments with a crusty old dean, but it has a tension to it – we know that the next hand may be his last.

‘Beyond your domitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear,’ the college president bellows at misbehaving students in Philip Roth’s Indignation. ‘Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?’ Coleridge could have told him that the young lack perspective. Our everyday knockbacks and disappointments feel like the worst suffering in the world. From ‘The Nightingale’:

But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced

With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,

Or slow distemper, or neglected love,

(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,

And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale

Of his own sorrow)

The converse of this lack of perspective means that when our youth is full of fun we forget the world outside. We are the party guests in Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: ‘happy and dauntless and sagacious’ despite the plague teeming outside, and enjoying ‘a gay and magnificent revel’. A phenomenal couplet: ‘There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.”

Contemporary culture is obsessed with youth, and there have been many comic TV and novel treatments of the development of boys into men. In the twenty-first century West, growing up is all but riskless and there is something creepy and invidious about the Inbetweeners-style chronicling of the rites of maturity: efforts to appear cool, experiments with parents’ drink and bad drugs, those first adolescent fumblings (and why is it always ‘fumbling’?)  This is why it’s essential to read authors in their sixties and seventies. They remember the days when young men had more to worry about than being caught masturbating. They remember the days where you could hear the roar of the Red Death no matter how much wine you drank and how loud the musicians played. And they know that the plague could be back one day.

At eighteen Marcus Messner is already one of Roth’s intense and relentless working class males. This son of a Newark butcher has got himself into a prestigious Ohio college on the strength of superb grades and family sacrifice. ‘You are here so you don’t have to be a Messner like your grandfather and your father and work in a butcher shop for the rest of your life,’ his mother tells him. And Messner is no hedonist or angst merchant. ‘I’m interested in the things that matter,’ he says. Memories of having to eviscerate chickens in his father’s shop harden into a credo and work ethic: ‘even that was wonderful in its way, because it was something you did, and did well, that you didn’t care to do.’ He studies hard, abstains from drink, and works in the campus bar all weekend. The book is set in 1951 and Messner has an acute awareness of his potential fate should he fail college – he could be drafted and sent to the Korean war: ‘a lowly infantry private with an M-1 rifle and a fixed bayonet in a freezing Korean foxhole awaiting the bugles’ blare.’

And yet there is a rebellious streak in Messner – a certain flint, steel, sand, intensity, indignation that sets him against his time and finally destroys him. Like Olaf in the e e cummings poem of Roth’s epigraph, there is some shit he will not eat. This is well before the sexual revolution and there is a certain Holden Caulfield-style contempt in Messner’s voice when he talks about the WASP Ohio college where – as a nominal Jew – he is tacitly regarded as a second class citizen. In clear, declarative sentences (for Roth tells this story in Hemingwayesque brevity and clarity rather than in his usual manner of piling clause upon florid clause) Messner nails the puritanism of the age. ‘Pinned as a junior, engaged as a senior, and married upon graduation – these were the innocent ends pursued by most of the Winesburg virgins during my own virginal tenure there.’ He even has conflicts with a crusty old dean.

It’s this spark that draws him to Olivia Hutton, another rebel who has been transferred from a more liberal college after being hospitalised for alcoholism and suicide attempts. She’s a bright and voracious woman who gives Messner a blowjob on their first date – almost unprecedented given the time and locale. Messner underestimates her – he can’t quite get past the Victorian idea that women don’t really enjoy sex: ‘As far as I knew, girls didn’t get fired up by desire like that; they got fired up by limits, by prohibitions, by outright taboos’. This despite Olivia’s frankness: ‘I said I did that because I liked you… I know you can’t figure it out.’ And later: ‘You should be studying philosophy at the Sorbonne and living in a garrette in Montparnasse. We both should. Farewell, beauticious man!’ This is maybe why there is so much sex in Roth: he remembers a time before the sexual revolution and its freedoms that we take for granted.

Without giving too much away, Indignation is perhaps the most moving of Roth’s novels, an exploration of the fragility of life and how, by accidents of time and place, even the best of us can be blown away.

Update: This year I am preparing myself to reenter the harsh and frightening world of literary fiction that is not written by Philip Roth. For some more Roth stuff, here’s an interview I read before writing this, a piece on Exit Ghost and a review of Nemesis at 3:AM, where you can also see 3:AM‘s year in review and the 2010 awards longlist.

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