Saturday, February 25, 2006

Philip Roth: Goodbye, Columbus

Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends.
--Philip Roth

This week's novella for class discussion is Philip Roth's first, Goodbye, Columbus, which is still published with five short stories. It was first published in 1959 and won the National Book Award the following year. Other than this work, I have previously read "Sabbath's Theater" (1995) and I still have "The Plot Against America" (2004) on my bookshelf--a Christmas present I am still wading my way toward.

Here is a summary of the novel provided by

‘Goodbye, Columbus’’ is narrated from the point of view of Neil Klugman, a twenty-three-year-old Jewish man who lives with his aunt and uncle in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, and works at a public library. It concerns his relationship over the course of one summer with Brenda Patimkin, an upper-middle-class Jewish college student staying with her family in the suburbs. Their relationship is characterized by the stark contrast of their socioeconomic differences, despite the fact that they are both Jewish. The summer ends with Brenda's brother Ron's wedding, after which Brenda returns to Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. When the two arrange to meet at a hotel over the Jewish holidays, she tells him that her parents have discovered her diaphragm and have both written her letters expressing their dismay and their disdain for Neil as a result. As Brenda feels she can no longer continue the relationship, Neil leaves the hotel, ultimately achieving a new sense of self-knowledge, which is expressed by the dawning of the Jewish New Year as he arrives back in Newark.

Here is the New York Times May 17, 1959 Review of the novel:

By William Peden

Some years ago, in the vanguard of the Southern literary renascence, Ellen Glasgow commented that what the South needed was "blood and irony." The same might be said of some recent writers who have concerned themselves with depicting the role of the Jew in American society, which is the subject of Philip Roth's collection of short stories and a novella. An English instructor at the University of Chicago, 26-year-old Mr. Roth has published fiction in Harper's, The Paris Review, The New Yorker and other periodicals. "Goodbye, Columbus," a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award, is his first book, and an impressive one. There is blood here and vigor, love and hate, irony and compassion.
Mr. Roth's novella is a somewhat incongruous mingling of conventional boy-meets-girl material and portrait-of-the- intellectual-as-a-young-man, narrated with an occasional fondness for clinical detail reminiscent of Edmund Wilson's "The Princess With the Golden Hair." Young Neil Klugman ("Whenever anyone asks me where I went to school I come right out with it: Newark Colleges of Rutgers University") meets beautiful, wealthy Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe undergraduate. Neil pursues Brenda with the determination of a well-trained bird dog, and soon catches her. After a summer love affair, he rejects Brenda and the nouveau-riche Patimkins with the smug self-righteousness of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus.
Such a summary, however, does justice neither to the author nor to his people; out of such hackneyed materials Mr. Roth has written a perceptive, often witty and frequently moving piece of fiction. He is a good story-teller, a shrewd appraiser of character and a keen recorder of an indecisive generation. Although Brenda's family has "moved up" from Newark economically by virtue of Mr. Patimkin's Kitchen-and-Bathroom-Sinks Enterprise, and Neil has made the "migration" intellectually, they are all of them refugees haunted by echoes from a not-to-be-buried past, unsatisfied by the too-tasty viands of a sterile hedonism, and confused by the uncertainties of the future. Characteristically, at the wedding of Brenda's brother, Neil and Brenda are further apart than ever, and in the gray confusion of early morning Neil sees some of the Patimkins "from the back, round-shouldered, burdened, child- carrying--like people fleeing a captured city."
Most of Mr. Roth's protagonists are, like Neil Klugman, adrift in a limbo between past and present. The author seems to know his people inside and out, whether he writes of a boy arguing the Virgin Birth with an exasperated rabbi, ("The Conversion of the Jews"), or, in "Eli, the Fanatic," of a young Jewish lawyer trying to explain suburban mores to the leader of a rabbinical orphanage, or, in "Epstein," of the ludicrous yet pitiable aftermath of an aging man's search for love. These stories, though concerned with universal, archetypal experiences, are somewhat transmuted into that which is at once strange and familiar. "I'm a Jew," one character says. "I am different. Better, maybe not. But different."

It seems that there is little I can say about the author only because there are legions out there in the literary world who are making their living doing just that.

Check out a few of these links:

The Philip Roth Society

CNN/TIME: America's Best Novelist

New York Times Featured Author: Philip Roth
(needs free registration with New York Times)

Vocabulary and Great Lines from Goodbye, Columbus:

1 : a usually short poem in an inspired wild irregular strain
2 : a statement or writing in an exalted or enthusiastic vein
- dith·y·ram·bic /"di-thi-'ram-bik/ adjective
- dith·y·ram·bi·cal·ly /-bi-k(&-)lE/ adverb

"Actually we did not have the feelings we said we had until we spoke them -- at least I didn't; to phrase them was to invent them and own them."

"Sitting there in the park, I felt a deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection."

muscleless devotion

slashing my face with a smile

"His breath smelled of hair oil and his hair of breath and when he spoke, spittle cobwebbed the corners of his mouth."

1 a : given to or abounding in aphoristic expression b : given to or abounding in excessive moralizing
2 : terse, aphoristic, or moralistic in expression : PITHY, EPIGRAMMATIC
- sen·ten·tious·ly adverb
- sen·ten·tious·ness noun

"By the light of the window behind him I could see the hundreds of spaces between the hundreds of tiny black corkscrews that were his hair."

At the wedding:
"I stayed behind, mesmerized almost by the dissection, analysis, reconsideration, and finally, the embracing of the trivial."

I smiled as collusively as I knew how.
: secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose
- col·lu·sive /-'lü-siv, -ziv/ adjective
- col·lu·sive·ly adverb
". . . and I did not say a word, afraid what a word, any word, might do."

"I was getting no answers, but I went on. If we meet You at all, God, it's that we're carnal, and aquisitive, and thereby partake of You. I am carnal, and I know You approve, I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is You?"

". . .with just a little body-english"

"And then he exploded into silence."

"I looked, but the outside of me gave up little information about the inside of me."

"What was it inside of 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? I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn't any longer."

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