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Nonprophets. Roth's and Dylan's false memory banks
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 Article publié le 7 décembre 2004.

oOo

The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin (2004), 391 pages, $26

Chronicles : Volume One
by Bob Dylan
Simon & Schuster (2004), 293 pages, $24

One morning a couple of years ago-to be historically accurate, it was April 1, 2002-while visiting New York City, I was walking up Broadway on the Upper West Side, just above 77th Street, when I noticed coming toward me along the sidewalk a tall man who was unmistakably Philip Roth. Such celebrity sightings are not all that uncommon in Manhattan-in the past I’d crossed paths with Woody Allen, Peter Jennings, the actress Julia Stiles and other identifiable cultural personages-but running into Roth seemed to me especially serendipitous, akin to my encounter with Henry Miller in Los Angeles in 1975 when his car pulled up next to mine at a stoplight and we exchanged a few friendly words before the light turned green.

Roth, by critical consensus the top American novelist alive, is a personal favorite of mine in spite of that. He’s one of the few contemporaries whose mind is consistently interesting, his sentences ablaze with concentrated intelligence, his characters and ideas unsettling and compelling. Within the previous year I’d sent him clippings of two reviews I’d written of his books, and I also enclosed a copy of my poetry book After Modigliani (2000) because the year after its appearance he published a novella called The Dying Animal which also had a Modigliani nude on the cover. So when I saw him and our eyes met I must have had such a dopey grin on my face that he walked right up to me, stopped, and shook my hand with a curious look as if to say, Where do I know you from ?

I said, “You’re Philip Roth.’ He nodded. “I wrote to you last year,’ I said.
“Did I answer ?’
“No.’
“I get so much mail.’
I assured him I understood and remarked on the coincidence of our Modigliani cover art.
“Yes, that was strange.’ He sounded as if he remembered seeing my book.
“Not half as strange as meeting you on the street.’

After a minute or two of talk, in which I felt the intensity of his focus, the power of his attention, he excused himself and ducked into a nearby pharmacy. My eyes followed him, and after standing there stunned for a few seconds (was this some kind of April Fool’s joke ?), I continued north on Broadway, soon enough regretting that I hadn’t had the presence of mind to invite him out for a coffee and a more extended conversation. It was just six months or so since September 11, 2001, and I thought he might have some insight into what was going on, where history was headed, how politics were changing, what to expect. Of course in retrospect it’s ridiculous to have imagined him to have any more of a clue than anyone else about the meaning of the historic nightmare then unfolding, but it’s not uncommon to believe that great artists-precisely because they do so in their work-can also articulate in ordinary talk their visionary understanding of the times.

Just look at what happened to Bob Dylan. In a few quick years, from the early to middle 1960s, Dylan went from being a scrappy little folksinger in obscure Greenwich Village coffeehouses to rock-and-roll messiah on the world stage just because he’d written and recorded a few dozen extraordinary songs. His keen ear for the folk tradition combined with an uncanny gift for classic lyrics and a charged style of performance evolved into a musically irresistible series of albums that seemed to echo and magically transform the agitated energies in the atmosphere. Because of these musical accomplishments some people thought Dylan knew something they didn’t. Like for example where “it’ was at. Reading deep meanings into Bob Dylan’s records-not to mention his cryptic utterances in published interviews-became an industry that, while it has faded a bit over the years, continues to this day.

According to his recent memoir, by the late sixties Dylan just wanted to be left in peace with his wife and kids, but obsessed fans cum stalkers made his private life impossible. The fame he’d sought as a young folkie turned out to be far more trouble than he’d bargained for. It took innumerable evasive maneuvers, several changes of style, a terrible divorce, a couple of religious conversions and a long artistic slump before he more or less evaded his legions of idolatrous pursuers. (More recently he’s returned to the circuit better than ever, an itinerant legend with a remarkably tight band and an inexhaustible repertory making the rounds of venues large and small.)

Like Dylan’s Chronicles : Volume One, Roth’s new book, The Plot Against America, shot straight up the bestseller charts soon after its October publication, with a huge boost from a blizzard of critical attention and literary-political buzz that has yet to abate. A counterhistorical fiction of large ambition and considerable nerve, Roth’s novel dares to imagine an early-1940s United States taken over by the reactionary Republican administration of President Charles Lindbergh, who, except for the pilot’s outfit, bears little resemblance to George W. Bush. For one thing, Lindbergh is an isolationist trying to keep the country out of foreign wars, not an evangelist for “peace and democracy’ who goes around starting them ; for another, his demonized minority is not Muslims but Jews, whose fate during that specific historical period is one of Roth’s central concerns. But it is precisely this nonresemblance to actual events-or more accurately, an imagined or yearned-for resemblance-that has made the book such a sensation. Surely a great many readers hoped that Roth, whose portrayals of American life are nothing if not pungent, would have something revelatory to say about our current predicament.

Too bad. Roth himself has disclaimed any correlation between the historical fantasy of his Plot and the present crisis of American democracy. At most his book provides a retrospective faux-prophecy of a very different kind of right-wing government from the fictional one of his Llindbergh. It is in the intimate details of Roth’s family portrait that The Plot Against America is most vivid and moving, in part because he uses his real family as his protagonists, narrating their terror from the point of view of little nine-year-old Philip. Terror-there’s one parallel between the imagined then and the real now, a creeping dread of the next nauseating turn of events, events so unprecedented and scarcely comprehensible that children and adults alike suffer a common feeling of disorientation and helplessness.

In 1969, around the time of his scandalously popular fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth famously remarked that contemporary American reality was far more incredible than anything a novelist could invent. The cultural turmoil of the moment was such that fiction writers couldn’t keep up with actual events except by writing journalism. Norman Mailer’s novelistic report of the 1967 March on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night, was perhaps the most successful attempt to catch in prose the epic upheaval of that era. Roth’s Portnoy operated on a more intimate level, exploring through one very neurotic narrator the sexual obsessiveness of the time. It is from the eccentric intimacy of this personal (though not necessarily autobiographical) story that the novel derives its great comic power.

As Dylan might have warned him, the fame that came with Portnoy’s Complaint and its huge commercial success created large disturbances in the life of its author, disturbances Roth artfully converted to fiction in his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound, which chronicles the fallout of bestsellerdom and celebrity in the life of Roth’s alter-author Nathan Zuckerman. (Editors at The New York Times Book Review wittily headlined its review of Dylan’s memoir “Zimmerman Unbound,’ making a sly connection between these two middle-class Jewish boys who rose to the peaks of their respective professions.)

In several of Roth’s novels of the 1990s-Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain-the big picture of U.S. history is the background that informs but doesn’t overshadow the specific dramas of particular individuals. The Plot Against America, on the other hand, in its newsreel exposition of large-scale fictional history, loses that close-up focus on its characters and thereby fails to sustain its persuasiveness. It’s not that what’s described couldn’t have happened but that it didn’t and we know it, and the author is never quite able to bring us completely into his alternate world. As a picture of the Neward neighborhood of his childhood, yes ; but as an evocation of an America gone fascist, not quite. Even today’s dire situation has not devolved into racist pogroms-though some Arab-Americans might dispute that-and besides, Roth’s Plot has a happy ending : Lindbergh vanishes, Roosevelt is restored to the White House, the Allies go onto defeat Hitler, Philip grows up to become a famous writer.

Roth has called his novel a “false Memoir.’ Dylan calls his memoir Chronicles, but its five chapters (as in the Five Books of Moses) are wildly digressive in the richest sense and goofily erratic in the poorest-one senses, as so often with this artist, that he’s taking the reader on a shaggy-dog hunt down a crooked trail crossed with countless red herrings. His eagerness to ditch his overbearing fans of the late sixties, which he describes rather sourly, is carried over into much of this book as he coyly avoids discussing whole decades and major episodes of his life and career. Presumably, various left-out parts will be taken up in future volumes.

Meanwhile what comes most completely alive in Volume One are the sections of the book-nearly hald, as it turn out-that recollect his first winter in New York City. The kid is 19 or 20 and on fire with the fervor of folk music. In recounting his meetings with near-mythic figures of the downtown music scene and beyond ; his readings in the libraries of friends who let the homeless minstrel sleep on their spare couches ; his listenings to the records in their collections ; his breathless efforts to break through in the clubs and cafés of the Village ; his appreciation of a great range of fellow performers from harry Belafonte to Neil Sedaka ; and most of all in his love for traditional American music of all kinds-in all these sketches and evocations and anecdotes Dylan conveys his passionate enthusiasm, then and now, for the wonders of a particular cultural tradition and of his own creative awakening.

Among the many fleeting and telling scenes he brings to life, perhaps my favorite is the young singer’s meeting with Thelonious Monk one afternoon while the jazz giant is practicing in the Blue Note. “I . . . told him that I played folk music up the street. ‘We all play folk music,’ he said.’

On the next-to-last page of these Chronicles Dylan lists a roster of heavy hitters from Minnesota-Roger Maris, who was just then breaking B abe Ruth’s home run record ; novelists Sinclair Lewis and Scott Fitzgerald ; and aviator (and Philip Roth’s imaginary president) Charles Lindbergh-noting his North Country kinship with these forerunners, each of whom, he writes, “would have understood what my inarticulate dreams were about. I felt like I was one of them or all of them put together.’ Home run king, satiric storyteller, romantic fabulist, solo flyer, Dylan sees aspects of his own aspirations and eventual accomplishments wherever he looks. If his memoir is evasive in its omission of great swaths of experience, it’s faithful in its portrait of the artist as a force of nature on the make. The great irony is that when he catches up with fame-or it with him-it’s so much more catastrophic than he expected.

The confluence of history with Dylan’s emergence as a singer and songwriter accounts in part for his calamitous collision with stardom. His genius just happened to come into its own at a time when a war was ripping the country apart and social and political turbulence was in the air. He was perceived as leading a revolution because he caught in his music something of the moment’s hallucinatory reality. 

He also notes that, at the time, his favorite politician was Barry Goldwater because the Arizona senator reminded him of movie cowboy Tom Mix. Whether Dylan is putting us on or not is an open question (especially in light of his memorable lines “I’m liberal but to a degree, I want everyone to be free, but if you think I’ll let Barry Goldwater move in next door or marry my daughter, you must think I’m crazy’) but the truth, as revealed in this book, is that Bob Dylan is deeply conservative-in his profession of “family values,’ in his fascination with history, but most of all in his reverence for and active conservation and renewal of American musical traditions. He hears in the songs of the old folk, country, blues and jazz artists a reservoir of inexhaustible wisdom to which he pledges permanent allegiance. His fidelity to that commitment can be heard as clearly as ever in his latest work.

Roth too, in reaching back to his childhood and the small world of his family invaded by the shadows of war, is attempting to revive a lost time, a time before history intruded to wreck everything. Registering his disbelief at the terrible developments he’s witnessing, young Philip’s father asks : “How can this be happening in America ? How can people like these be in charge of our country ? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.’ It’s the kind of question that feels eerily familiar in the aftermath of the 2004 election. But as Roth’s narrator notes with the dismay of a child whose illusions of safety have been shattered, “Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me [that] the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.’ He should know ; that’s what he’s doing in the art of his fiction. And as the unforeseen unfolds before us, we look in vain to writers like Roth-as I did on that April Fool’s morning-to tell us what to expect.

The most dynamic chapter of Dylan’s memoir is called “The Lost Land,’ invoking a time and an innocence he’ll never know again, a time of optimism and discovery while President Kennedy was still alive and the civil rights movement was gaining momentum and Vietnam, much less Iraq, was not yet a household word. Roth’s book recalls a lost paradise of familial security smashed by historical forces beyond anyone’s control. In both cases the artist’s only viable response to cataclysmic events is to retreat strategically into creative imagination and forge from the most traditional forms and materials-timeless songs, the historical (or antihistorical) novel-a voice of individual defiance, an artifact of human integrity, a record of hope in the ruins of the Republic.

This essay was published in The Redwood Coast Review, edited by Stephen Kessler.

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