Page 98 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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A Man:
“Are you planning to continue to write Zuckerman vari­
ations until you have constructed a kind of full-length fictional
fugue?” (MLM, p. 113)
From counterpoint to counterlife is but one small step. Story­
telling for Roth is a way of inventing a new self. It is
to create a troublesome self that is stylized enough so as to bring
about a measure of redemption for one’s eternally deficient re­
The Counterlife
has been divided by Philip Roth into five parts
— Basel, Judea, Aloft, Gloucester, and Christendon — each
part being an alternative flight plan for the fantastic voyage
of Nathan Zuckerman. One might also think of the novel as
a painting in five panels — a quintych — in which the first
two panels reflect each other, the last two panels reflect each
other, and each of the reflecting pairs reflects the other reflect­
ing pair. The central panel, “Aloft,” hovers above the others
and provides the key to their meaning. The esthetic difficulty
created for the reader derives from the impression given by
the novel that while something is happening, something else,
of a writerly nature, is going on.
The plot of the novel, relatively difficult to uncover, is rel­
atively simple to relate. Novelist Nathan Zuckerman is living
in an apartment house in New York City. Here dwells also a
British woman, named Maria, who lives upstairs with her infant
daughter Phoebe and her unloving but sexually active husband,
a member of Britain’s diplomatic corps at the United Nations.
One thing leads to another and Maria, the unhappy wife, finds
herself spending her days in Nathan’s apartment. There is, how­
ever, a hitch; Nathan is impotent. He has suffered a heart attack
and is taking a medication which curbs his sexual drive and
potency severely. Maria is a marvelous conversationalist and is
satisfied with talking and listening to Nathan. Nathan, whose
image of himself includes (to say the least) sexual activity, cannot
endure this situation. He decides to go for a by-pass operation
which, if successful, will get him off the medication and restore
his potency. The surgery fails, however, and Nathan Zuckerman
dies on the operating table.