Roth in one of his latest autobiographical novels ( the next Zuckerman volume ," Humbling " , his 30th book, is already out) reaches a poignancy and a sense of failure rarely attained in his work.Here our hero has to deal with the horrors of old age in the modern male, i.e. the American Jewish male who survived prostate cancer surgery. Possibly the creative artist suffers more than the average man since he needs recognition in order to survive . We can recognize immediately some famous Rothian themes, namely shame and humiliation , in the decline and disintegration of the body. This decline is spelled out frankly , both incontinence and impotence happen, in one stroke at the age of 60 , irremediably. Some escape this consequences , but to Zuckerman it is instant old age for a man used to strength, sexual capacity and perfect use of his body functions, not to mention the delight of female intimacy . Zuckerman becomes a ghost and an exile who flees his old urban life and goes away to write all alone in an isolated western Mass cabin, but he is at peace. We read a meditation on death in " Everyman" by Roth, one of his great books , but not the becoming of the ghost of oneself. This is it.
Sexual potency and the erotic life having always been capital to the author of "Portnoy's complaint" of yore, are now withdrawn and acknowledged fully,as an humiliation of the first order , which is a difficult confession with the inevitable pathetic details of wetting oneself, of wearing diapers ,of having to clean oneself as an infant etc…No vulgarity or self pity here; it is simply abominable and one has to accept it . Physical losses are rarely or never confessed by women writers that I know of, which brings to the point the novelistic need to describe faithfully old age and its travails as Rembrandt did for ex . in his auto portraits .Old age is an extraordinary rich theme for novelists apart from the famous wisdom of old Nestor in the "Iliad", and sexual humiliation or shame is less felt by older women who have notably the pleasure of grand motherhood to sustain them and are less affected by sexual desertion, it seems.
The second remarkable thing of this harrowing novel is the plot and its New York city flavor ; Zuckerman having gone to the city to see an urologist , and having a vague hope of recovery, loses his peace of mind because of a series of irresistible impulses . Impulses , or bad Instincts are lethal , serve only the young and should be resisted absolutely, Roth insists on this point .
He falls crazily in love with a young female writer, a rich Texan Wasp , beautiful and vain: first disaster . Then he quarrels ridiculously with a young male rival, a literary fraud: second disaster .Finally he finds an old flame who is disfigured by brain cancer and also loses her memory plus her dead husband's manuscript : third disaster. All these are followed by a flight back to the mountain cabin or the life of a Zen monk which he should have never left , as big cities with their fury,are an impossible challenge for the old. But It is not enough suffering and humiliation , as he finds now that he is affected by memory losses and is quite certain that his intellect will fail him also.
What a book to write but what a book to read .We can now look forward to reading the last of the Zuckerman series, already announced : "Nemesis." We can hardly wait.