Throwing Snowballs at Philip Roth

February 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

snow

Snow, snow, snow. Pretty and all but I don’t go sledding or ice-skating anymore and I never liked snowball fights. The boys always threw better and put rocks in the balls.

Lola the Rat Cat saw snow for the first time: she sat on the windowsill staring fixedly at the swirling flakes like every other cat in the history of windowsills. Though Charles is obsessive about the animals’ diet, Lola has gotten quite fat all of a sudden: she looks like one of those fairytale illustrations of a creature eating, let’s say, three or four children—who then emerge just fine when the hero(ine) slits the monster’s belly open. And when she puts her butt up for me to rub…let’s just say, that’s when you know why she’s called Lola the Rat Cat. But I love her anyway. Not like my two, but in a stepmother kind of way—a stepmother not as I used to be (young, know-nothing) but worldly and wrung out, drinking all day while slowly attending to chores.

Actually, I’m not drinking all day or most of the day or every day. I meant that metaphorically. How I think, what I do, what I read, what I can’t write is equivalent to drinking all day. But also in a positive sense: playing with Venetian glass and pearls reminds me of the glamour of liquor, the pretty colors of scotch and crème de menthe and red wine, the ambience of fine restaurants when you’re dressed up for a date.

So think of this character, who’s me at an angle, as if she were someone who drank all day without becoming violent or maudlin or ill—one of those literary creations who embody the fallen Dionysus, post-Olympus, post-youth. I live here because the writer wants me to; I could vanish like smoke. I appear to be wise but can’t solve any problem. I enjoy the company of animals and in my company they gradually become more human. When I feel like crying, it rains.

When it snows, I’m reminded of what once made me humble: I loved like that, so fresh, so light, without aggression. Although when 30 inches fall overnight, there is the unfortunate chance of accident and death. There’s nothing without aggression. But the memory of lightness remains.

I joined an argument on Facebook about an article by Elizabeth Gilbert saying that Philip Roth was a big liar for telling a young, newly published author who approached him while he was having breakfast that writing was a terrible career, that he should get out while he could, that the first publication is thrilling and it’s all downhill from there. Gilbert insisted in her prayerful way on what a privilege it is to be a writer: how blessed to be able to be in one’s own mind all day!

Sez you, I said. Some of us would rather be in the mind of a saloon monkey. Some of the finest minds ever born—as attested to by what they wrote or painted or composed—were crossroads of ferocious winds, open to gods and demons, hateful parents and murderous children, cold-eyed collectors of impossible bills.

Whatever it might be, Mr. Roth has earned his opinion. No one can call it sour grapes. He did it all, won it all, and he’s 79 years old. If he says—in a private conversation—that the writing life is a terrible mistake, he may not be accurately predicting the other writer’s future, but he’s not whining. He’s not making an argument one can refute. He’s simply saying what seemed true to him that particular morning: I got everything I worked for and it wasn’t worth the shit.

Reading the quote didn’t make me think If I were that famous, respected, etc, I’d be happy, I’d never complain. Rather, It’s a privilege to say what you mean. And anyone can do it.

***
I think I read this poem as a teenager, but just thought it was weird. Now it reminds me of Proust, of many other writers, of therapists trying earnestly to clarify this dynamic so it will quietly tuck its tail between its legs and leave; and of course of myself and my friends. It doesn’t remind me of Philip Roth. He holds to a grittier tradition.

Against Fruition

Fye upon hearts that burn with mutual fire;
I hate two minds that breath but one desire:
Were I to curse th’unhallow’d sort of men,
I’de wish them to love, and be lov’d agen.
Love’s a Camelion, that lives on meer ayre;
And surfets when it comes to grosser fare:
‘Tis petty Jealousies, and little fears,
Hopes joyn’d with doubts, and joyes with April tears,
That crowns our Love with pleasures: these are gone
When once we come to full Fruition.
Like waking in a morning, when all night
Our fancy hath been fed with true delight.
Oh! what a stroke’t would be! Sure I should die,
Should I but hear my mistresse once say, I.
That monster expectation feeds too high
For any Woman e’re to satisfie:
And no brave Spirit ever car’d for that
Which in Down-beds with ease he could come at.
Shee’s but an honest whore that yeelds, although
She be as cold as ice, as pure as snow:
He that enjoys her hath no more to say
But keep us Fasting if you’l have us pray.
Then fairest Mistresse, hold the power you have,
By still denying what we still do crave:
In Keeping us in hopes strange things to see
That never were, nor are, nor e’re shall be.

Sir John Suckling

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