Sentences — July 28, 2008, 12:05 pm

This Incomprehensible Whatever-it-was

Philip Roth has an essay at the back of the paperback of Portnoy’s Complaint about how the first lines of his novels came to him. It’s a nice example of how Roth can take a tiny literality and squeeze more metaphorical substance from it than would seem possible (and, simultaneously, take a metaphor and squeeze it unto literality).

The essay is a piece of falsified autobiography ostensibly drawn from Roth’s twenties in Chicago. He’s teaching freshman comp, is involved with a woman whose father is in jail, and is trying to become a great writer, “to dazzle in my very own way and to dazzle myself no less than anyone else.” One rainy evening, Roth makes his way to a cafeteria to splurge on a dinner of rare roast beef. He loves going to the cafeteria to splurge $3 rather than the $2 he’d spend at the student commons, and he loves the sound of the “small Sicilian man with the big serving dippers who stood to the side of the guy who sliced up and served the roast beef.” We learn that beef is good, but words are better, for the small Sicilian, in a “singsong, accented delivery that gave a light musical emphasis to the first word,” repeats (“twenty-five to fifty times while I ate dinner”) an incantatory haiku: “Juice or gravy.”

Roth tells us that on one night, when he should have been grading a hundred freshman compositions and eating baked beans out of a can, he went to the cafeteria to eat alone at the same empty table and hear “the poet himself speak aloud the four-syllable haiku that always cheered me up.” Those four syllables get switched for the four chairs Roth finds empty at “his table” that night, and in front of “his” chair, empty as well, a sheet of typing paper waits “that a previous diner had forgotten or left behind at ‘my’ place”:

Typewritten on the paper, in the form of a long single-spaced unindented paragraph, were nineteen sentences that taken together made no sense at all. Though no author’s name appeared anywhere on either the front or the the back of the page, I figured that the nineteen sentences, amounting to some four hundred or so words, must be the work of a neighborhood avant-gardist with an interest in ‘experimental’ or ‘automatic’ writing. This page was surely a sample of one or the other. The author’s having forgotten this composition here at the cafeteria—while trying perhaps not to forget to remember to leave with his or her own umbrella—did not seem to me a catastrophe for literature or even for a literary career.

Roth reproduces the page. We read and recognize the nineteen first lines of his first nineteen books.

“Now this document—this gift—this burden—this prank—this incomprehensible whatever-it-was—this nothing” perplexes young Roth, but after several ensuing logical double-salchows, after young Roth and older Roth compare notes, we are led to the following disclosure: “What I eventually understood was that these were the first lines of the books that it had fallen to me to write.”

In a pig’s eye, says the reader, and all opinions of Roth’s sense of humor will line up neatly behind that utterance in two tonal rows, two very different articulations of those four syllables: either the derisive, or the delighted; the admonitory, or the altogether glad.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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