Roth, Philip: Sabbath’s Theatre

Roth, Philip: “Sabbath’s Theatre”.  Discussed 26/7/12.

 “Then turn me inside out over your cock. Like somebody peels off a glove”. The puppet master speaks. Is this literature of the highest order, or pornography that aims to shock rather than entertain and inform? That was the main question that faced a full house of book readers of similar age who wondered where it had all gone wrong. Perhaps it had gone right?

The host and proposer suggested Philip Roth was surely not to everyone’s taste, but was very highly regarded in the USA. This was confirmed by the proportion of favourable reviews, both professional and amateur, on the e-verse. Some thought him shallow, some offensive, but most admired his quality of writing. One who did not admire his work was Carmen Calli, a feminist who resigned when Roth won the Booker International prize in 2011. Claire Bloom, his former wife had described him as a “self-involved, all-controlling misogynist”.  Not one for the ladies perhaps? Was he a man who writes for men and one who portrays his female characters as less than human? Was Nikki less than human in Sabbath’s Theater? Did the characters come alive? What about Drenka? Nikki was no-one till she came alive as an actress and as Mickey’s muse.

Overall, we did not subscribe to Calli’s idea of a woman, but maybe many women are less than Calli’s idea of a woman, irrespective of their portrayal by Philip Roth. If ever a book group needed a mixture of the sexes in discussing a book this was the time. One member noted that his wife had commented ‘Are you reading that’? Had she read it, we wondered? Did she know it by experience or reputation?

As with many books, the proposer felt that it really should be read again; he had read much more into it second time round.  Another found the outrageous sex scenes very funny. He liked the Dickensian comments on life, and the tirades against the several targets. He suggested that Roth was skilled in portraying loss, death and bereavement. The book was clearly humorous. There were brilliantly funny scenes throughout, for example the wonderful rummaging about in Deborah’s drawers, in among the panties looking for the Polaroids when Norman or Rosa the maid came in.

Again, like other books, there was a feeling that this book could be judiciously edited (like these comments … Ed.), and as such could be a greater work. There was an element of overdrive in the book, producing purple passages of prose and then away, free in one bound. Such brilliant passages ranged from sex to death to manipulation of people as puppets. They were very effective descriptions, with some of the most erotic writing in the canon. Some made comparisons to Chaucer. In those days people were much more liberal; it was much easier to write about sex.

Hold on, not everyone agrees! An alternative view was that Sabbath was a self-aggrandising s**t. Roth was, as usual, working in his own character. Another echoed that he did not enjoy the book. As he considered himself a bit puritanical, he felt exposed to the book, rather than enjoying it. Another wondered if the language was that used in a homosexual group. He compared his experience of the language in the book to meeting such a group. He also suggested that favourable criticism was jumping on the bandwagon. A discussion ensued. Was the explicit sex a shield against criticism because criticism of the writer or book would be taken as prudery? Another wondered if criticism would be construed as anti-Semitic. Was this used in the USA as a protection; was it more difficult to prosecute Jewish writers?

We turned to the main themes of the book in our view, sex and death. In the frequent visits to Drenka’s grave by a variety of suitors as well as Sabbath, these themes were explicitly linked. “Birth, and copulation, and death. That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” (This taken from T.S. Eliot, not the book!) Other strong themes included addiction, alcohol and drug dependency. Was this more to do with obsession rather than addiction? Another suggested that, really, this was more to do with completely amoral and selfish behaviour. However, the theme of the book in suggesting that so many characters enjoyed such behaviour was subversive. Perhaps the theme of the book was the regret of lost sex, and the need for death as desire fades, as there was no sense of purpose.

Was this just porn? Certainly the telephone sex passage was written to arouse. It was also very funny and a successful literary device. In the trial scene, Roth satirised himself as the judge dismisses the ‘art’ defence out of court. This was an extremely well written scene, funny and sharp, and sad as the brave girl who defended pornography as art was bullied by the lawyer. Roth rehearsed his own literary defence for posterity, as he drew the parallel between the puppet master and real life.. There were ~45 references to Rabelais, Miller, Lawrence, etc. justifying Mickey’s life and art, and by extension Roth’s.

So this book was considered close to the bone of sexual perversion. Which other books had similar notoriety? One of us had bought “The Story of O” at the Church Jumble Sale, so that was obviously well endorsed. Another contemporary example that came to mind was the film ‘Shame’, with Michael Fassbinder as a similarly obsessed male. None of our book group was under 17, so we could all read the book and see the film. This book also explored taboos, e.g. people p***ing on each other and drinking the product. Roth addressed the issues of old people having sex. As Mickey says, you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever.

Could Mickey establish a long lasting relationship with women? His later inability through arthritis to manipulate puppets was linked to his loss of control of the female characters. The book further explored other elements of old age and loss of function.

What of Matthew, the policeman, Drenka’s son, a force for good, a noble character or the village idiot? The last passage is ironic. Matthew calls him a “filthy sick son of a bitch” maybe echoing the feminist, and some of the group’s, view on Roth. Mickey could not f**ing die, he could not leave, everything he hated was here. Do you know the addictive feeling?

Someone suggested to the proposer that a book cannot be considered good if it has to be read twice. Wow, that is some generalisation! By extension, this book should have been edited and given structure. Slightly differently, the English Literature graduate suggested a good book was enjoyed at the first read, and yet more was achieved in each reading. This was not an easy book. Can we have an easy book? Can we have a short book? Please?

Turning again to Roth’s motives, why was it written? One suggested it was just written for literary position? Was it about excess? Was it a joke on the public to see what the public would take? Could he get away with it? The general view did not support this argument.

Next, there was a pernickety diversion; perhaps so much talk about sex was becoming difficult. Can a Mitchell B25 really fly at 4848 miles per hour? Aha, so we spotted the Ferrari in Ben Hur – gotcha! (Actually, there was no Ferrari, just tyre marks… Ed.)

As the discussion concluded, a detractor suggested that Roth’s problem was to write from a very limited perspective. For example, Graham Greene would travel, meet people, absorb the atmosphere and hence write new material. Perhaps Roth would benefit from ‘getting out more’?

So the overall conclusion was a lack of a conclusion. Taking a straw poll, two or three thought the book definite rubbish; two or three were very impressed with the prose, the humour, the tilting at taboos; and the others sat on the fence. There was a uniform distribution of opinion. You will just have to read it yourself.