SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:
A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.
A Utah woman named Cameo Crispi pleaded guilty to having drunkenly attempted to burn down her ex-boyfriend’s house by igniting bacon on his kitchen stove.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”