Book Of A Lifetime: Everyman, by Philip Roth

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The Independent Culture

Philip Roth's Everyman draws on the "virtuous journey" of the 15th-century allegory in which God summons Death, his messenger, to go to Everyman and bid him come to heaven to be judged. This is a wise book which will unsettle you. Are you ready for this book? I have read it a few times and am still not sure that I am.

The hero has success in advertising, three children, three marriages and for a good period of his life he enjoys sexual pleasure, friendship and intimacy. But the music of the book has an ominous bass of recurrent illness. Death has him in its sights and there's no escape: perhaps a diversionary adventure or two, and the trick of the light, but no escape. The virtuous circle of the book clinches this suspicion; it begins with a graveside consideration of the man interred, and ends with him going alone into a final operation.

The passages on swimming offer some vivid scenes of life, and it is against the sea that Everyman tests his living strength. In youth, swimming evokes the apparent invincibility of physical health and the promise of sexuality.

Later, in a mid-life scene, he and his second wife swim and make love one August in Martha's Vineyard. At night, on the heels of those joyous days, comes the terror of the apprehension of death.

Living alone as an old man in his seventies, he tries to effect sexual contact with a younger woman and is rebuffed by her; but what shocks him the most is his realisation that he is not strong enough to enter the sea. Hope dies before the body here.

When you finish reading this very concise book, you will start it again, to reconsider the grave scene, and you will be struck by how meagre is his legacy. For while Everyman acquires magnanimity and compassion in his later years, and has never been a bad man, of the people standing there, there are perhaps only two who will keep him alive in their memory.

Anyone who reads this book will notice a line that is strikingly dissonant. "Why don't you use that little hole if you like it so much?" says the Danish Merete, when our hero is "diddling" around her arsehole during sexual play. In this careful book, this line seems laughable. But the tragedy is right there.

Roth punctures the grandiloquence of death, that idea that "death brings a nobility to life", with this small ignoble hole. Everyman leaves the wife he loves for the vapid and vain Merete.

For only we ourselves can bring a nobility to life, as Howie his brother seems to know; he outlives him. The allegorist shows his hand; it's the smaller greeds that will do for us. Reading the book is as painful as experience, and it has infected me like an illness.

I cannot cure it, I can scarcely move past it. The book leaves you reduced somehow, circumscribed, corrected, and it is a very curious thing to love it for that.

' The Idea of Love' by Louise Dean is published next week by Fig Tree