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From the whore's mouth

Philip Roth's new novel writhes with desire. By Robert Winder
Sabbath's Theatre

by Philip Roth

Cape, pounds 15.99

To say the least, Philip Roth's new book begins as it means to go on. "Either forswear fucking others," the hero, Mickey Sabbath, is warned, "or the affair is over". It is a bold ultimatum, coming as it does from a woman who glories in sleeping with four different men in a day (while Sabbath listens on the phone). And it sets the right tone for what follows, which is the last frantic spasm of an ageing puppeteer. Sabbath is a would-be De Sade, a career fornicator with a good line in cynical mockery. His finger puppet show is prosecuted because he manipulates (literally) the audience. And he is messianic about the hypocrisy of tidy lives. "For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive," he insists, "you can't beat the nasty side of existence." But he doesn't quite have the courage of these convictions. He yearns to be a callous seducer, but in fact is rapturously devoted to his lover, a sexual colossus called Drenka. Her death leaves him bereft and howling, plagued by memories of his own licentious life.

We get the full story, straight, as it were, from the whore's mouth. Sabbath is Portnoy with real women to talk to, which makes this a bigger book (if not quite so taboo-breaking sensational). Roth recreates half an hour of phone sex, right down to the "Oh! Oh! Oh! Mickey! Oh, my God! Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! Jesus Christ! Oh, my God! Uhhh! Uhhh!" Sabbath is lectured by his best friend: "Isn't it tiresome, in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion." But he's missing the point. Sabbath is not rebelling against anything; neither promoting the pleasures of the flesh, nor crowing over their destructive side-effects. Sex, here, is a form of panic, a desperate attempt to drown out the noise of death and loss. So beneath its raucous bitterness the novel does have a tender centre. For Sabbath, life without Drenka is unendurable. And other losses come to light: the death of his brother in the war; the disappearance of his first wife.

Roth is on top form rhetorically: the book shakes with savage eloquence. He does, however, seem to be reacting also to a parochial concern. Sabbath's monologues often sound like a cry on behalf of the male sex urge. At one point, he explodes in mock-outrage when a girl (the one at the other end of the phone line) says she loves him for his mind. "Help! I've been mentally harassed! Help! I am the victim of mental harassment! You have extracted mental favours from me without my even knowing and against my will! I have been belittled by you! Call the dean!" It's quite funny, but only as a joke against the campus-politics idea that sex is a crime visited on women by men. As the basis for Sabbath's philsophical pose it lacks grandeur, and leads to a very silly ending indeed: Sabbath watches his wife making love with another woman, and thumps his chest and barks in an expresion of primal male rage: Ich bin ein gorilla. It's deliberately farcical. But it's still farcical.

Still, the novel writhes with the desire to engage universal concerns - sex urges and death terrors - rather than merely topical controversies. The surprise is that Roth, so unbashful in physical matters, is timid when it comes to striking the tragic note, which seems to be what he is after. Sabbath is compared to King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet. This last makes sense - all Sabbath really wants to do is leap into Drenka's grave (he urinates on it instead, in a pungent theatrical gesture). But he hardly qualifies as a tragic hero; he is hardly more sinned against than sinning. And tragedy might have been too grand for him. On the other hand, maybe it's just that Roth wanted him alive, for Sabbath Theatre II.