Page 101 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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LOWIN / PHILLIP ROTH AND THE NOVEL OF REDEMPTION
9 3
novels preceding
The Counterlife,
Nathan Zuckerman is pro­
pelled on a mission similar to Anne Frank’s. His goal is to be­
come the “Messiah of Prague,” to save a dead Jewish au thor’s
Yiddish manuscript from oblivion. That he fails in this mission
serves to highlight and emphasize the redemptive vision that
Zuckerman has of the city of Prague.
As a child, he says, he would go out after dinner with his
blue-and-white Jewish National Fund collection can — the ubi­
quitous
pushka.
The Jewish city that the young boy imagined
the Jews wanted to rebuild into a homeland with the money
he collected resembles uncannily the broken city of Prague. Cu­
riously, and most significantly for Roth, the redemption of this
locality was to come about not by working the land and making
the desert bloom but by the telling of stories. “In this used city,
one would hear endless stories being told, . . . anxious tales of
harassment and flight, stories of fantastic endurance and pitiful
collapse, . . . the construction of narrative out of the exertions
o f survival. . . . This is the national anthem of the Jewish home­
land. (PO, pp. 761-62)
In
The Counterlife,
everyone, it seems, has redemption on the
brain. That Henry Zuckerman travels to Judea in Israel to seek
to redeem his past life as a non-Jewish Jew represents only the
surface. Such a Henry, we learn, is, after all, merely a figment
of Nathan’s imagination. The counter Henry, the one who is
supposed to be real, when he reads what his brother has written
about him, accuses Nathan of saying that Henry suffocates from
bourgeois confinement in order to “redeem him from patho­
logical ordinariness.” (TC, p. 231) Henry’s wife Carol, happily
ensconced in secular America and totally opposed to Jewishness,
recognizes dimly that Judaism equals redemption. She frames
her protest against her husband’s new-found religiosity in the
most certain terms, insisting that “nobody is going around this
house blowing the horn of Jewish redemption!” (TC, p. 155)
What Carol means is that if Henry comes back to her from
Judea it will be only as the non-Jewish Jew she has married.
And yet, lest we be led astray by both Carol and Henry, we
are told, in somewhat surprising fashion, that Henry himself
is an author of redemption, not redeeming Jewish homelands,
to be sure, but redeeming Nathan’s books. “Whenever he sat
down to read one of the dutifully inscribed books that used
to arrive in the mail just before publication, Henry would im­