Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short StoriesGoodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing - who knows - into winning?"

With Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959) Philip Roth had debuted on the U.S. literary scene on which he remained a major presence until 2010, when his 31st book, Nemesis was published. I very much liked his Portnoy's Complaint , a widely acclaimed novel, even considered a masterpiece by some critics, and I quite like Goodbye, which I had first read over 40 years ago, but it has lost some of its appeal to me since then.

The title novella is a love story: Neil falls in love with Brenda when she asks him to hold her glasses so that she can dive into the pool. Neil works in a public library and is three years out of Newark Colleges of Rutgers, an institution serving mainly non-traditional students, while Brenda is at Radcliffe, which at that time is the country's most prestigious liberal arts college for women. Brenda owes the much higher social standing to her father being the proprietor of a successful business, "Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks." Brenda's family tolerates Neil's presence but does not find him a suitable boyfriend. Most literary critics promote the story as an illustration how the differences in social status, class (whatever that means), or unequal degrees of assimilation in the non-Jewish culture can destroy love between two people. I disagree. As the author says himself, Neil is in love with Brenda only because he has told himself he is in love. Many first loves end like this one, particularly when the young lovers are separated for a longer time, and often the tragedy is not that they end, but that they end in a dreadful marriage. So let's cheer for the "unhappy" ending.

Great writing! The hilarious scene of dinner at Patimkins and the account of Ron's wedding are spectacularly vivid and rich in details: they exude authenticity and realism more than any documentary would be able to. The enchanting thread with the black boy and the Gauguin album provides a strong counterpoint to the main story. Most characters are full-bodied and compelling and I can easily find a bit of my long gone young self in Neil.

The five stories are a mixed bag. I quite like the first one, The Conversion of the Jews. It strikes a wonderful balance between humor and depth: Ozzie cries out "You should never hit anybody about God-" and scores a goal for wisdom against orthodoxy. Lighting the Shabbat candles is a moving passage. Epstein story is totally hilarious: we witness the dire consequences of the title character developing a rash. Alas I have been unable to appreciate the other three stories, which is - as usual - probably my fault. I recommend the collection, but perhaps not as enthusiastically as I would have in the 1970s.

Three and a quarter stars.

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