September 15, 2015

Hello Goodbye Columbus

I've often thought, and probably written a time or two, that as so much of my "serious reading" was done many years ago when I was young and stupid, my opinions on these books are unreliable and not to be trusted. The thing to do, if ever granted the time, say in the event of a long illness or big lottery win, would be to re-read everything methodically, book by book, and compare the results. I scorned Moby-Dick and went around casually disparaging it and its author for years on the basis of mere teenaged prejudice, till I re-read it (while recovering from a car accident as it happens) and was blown away by it. What changed? Well, apart from being older and more receptive to it, I'd recently also read the Bible-as-literature for the first time. This process, ideally, should be repeated with everything.

But of course there's no time to do this. The best I can manage is doing it here and there, on a random basis. In the present case it happened because I tripped over Goodbye, Columbus when I was looking for the silicon spray I use to maintain my swords. And of course the thing you do when you trip over a book, if you do have the time, is to plop down and start reading it, sword maintenance be damned. (But don't neglect your swords of course; you really don't want them to rust.)

So here's what I dashed off on the facebook thing in the aftermath of the re-reading:

re-read Goodbye, Columbus for the first time since I was a kid. 1. It is truly impressive how much is conveyed by the deceptively simple narrative; that the voice feels so casual and natural is a testament to a subtle artistry I had no way of recognizing the first time around, but rather just took for granted. 2. The sex and romance and the characters' struggles and conflict about it is, it seems to me, rather alien to contemporary folkways and behavior, while I'm sure at the time it was perceived as (and was actually) an unvarnished tell-it-like-it-is look at things you weren't supposed to talk about; nevertheless the character Brenda is splendidly drawn and feels as real as any genuine person, and the relationship dynamic between the two of them is likewise authentic despite the "retrograde" oddness. 3. This is embarrassing, but I think my memory had conflated this book with Dan Greenburg's Scoring and there were a couple of episodes that my memory had interpolated from the latter to the former, and I missed them. 4. The class satire still feels dead on. 5. Such vivid characterization in just 100 pages is really quite a feat. Appreciated it far more this time around.

I'd add that a great writer's first, shambling, perhaps comparatively naive attempt to thrust himself on the world can have a strange, dazzling energy and that's sure the case here. Of course, one of the many things that has changed for me in the past 35 years is that I started trying to write novels myself, and if I've learned anything from that experience it's not to take good writing for granted as I always used to. Great writing like this is a kind of miracle, really.

It'll be terribly time consuming to re-read every Philip Roth novel, and I probably won't ever manage that project, but in theory at least, I'm up for it.

Posted by Dr. Frank at September 15, 2015 03:14 PM