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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2015

The War of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sharp Edge of Life

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Republican Land Heist

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Captive Market

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Day of the Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Great Republican Land Heist·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The wholesale transfer of public lands to state control may never be achieved. But the goal might be more subtle: to attack the value of public lands.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Sharp Edge of Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The struggle of the novelist has been to establish a measure, a view of human nature, and usually, though not always, as large a view as belief and imagination can wring from observable facts.”
Photo by Eddie Adams/Associated Press
Article
Captive Market·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Fear of random violence lives on, but the reality is that violent-crime rates have dropped to levels not seen since the early Seventies."
Photograph by Richard Ross
Article
The Day of the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Fifteen judges will then sit together in a wood-paneled room, in a city thousands of miles from the Andes, and decide whether the ocean Bolivia claims as its right will at last be returned to it.”
Photo by Fabio Cuttica/Contrasto/Redux
Post
Introducing the February Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ruin of the West
Christopher Ketcham investigates Cliven Bundy’s years-long battle with the BLM, Annie Murphy reflects on Bolivia’s lost coast, and more
Painting by Richard Prince, whose work was on view in October at Gagosian Gallery in New York City © The artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Percentage increase in the annual number of polio cases in Pakistan since 2005:

857

A bowl of 4,000-year-old noodles was found in northwestern China; and a spokesman for the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that “this is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.”

A federal judge sentenced the journalist Barrett Brown to 63 months in prison for sharing a link to information stolen from the private-intelligence firm Stratfor by a hacker in 2011. “Good news!” Brown said in a statement. “They’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

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.

Subscribe Today