The first line of Everyman is nearly enough to give the reader a heart attack by itself. "Around the grave in the rundown cemetery," writes Philip Roth, "were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him." It's difficult to imagine another opening sentence that so bleakly encapsulates the gifts reserved for age. A run-down cemetery, a handful of "former colleagues", a scattering of platitudes and then we're all the same under the sod.
Roth's 27th novel is a brief and matte-black 182 pages tracing the progression in an unnamed narrator's life of the fear and the fact of death. We find him as a boy during the Second World War, morbidly terrified that the corpse of a drowned sailor will swill up and nudge his legs as he walks the Jersey foreshore. We find him in hospital for a hernia, fearfully registering the midnight death of the boy in the next-door bed. We find him as a successful mid-thirties exec on holiday, paralysingly preoccupied with intimations of mortality: "He was not flamboyant or deformed or extreme in any way," Roth writes, "so why, at his age, should he be tormented by thoughts of dying? ... The remote future will be time enough to anguish over the ultimate catastrophe!"
And then we find him at the age of 71, in "the remote future". Remote from his friends, remote from three wives and three children, he lives by the sea in something bearing the euphemistic name of a retirement village, "time having transformed his own body into a storehouse for man-made contraptions designed to fend off collapse". Skipping back and forth in memory and time, Roth elucidates with the deft concision of a novelist at the top of his game the patchwork of recollection and regret that makes up the remainder of his character's life.
For most other authors this kind of material would sink under a freight of self-pity, recycled platitude or clumsy sentimentalism. But Roth has been a lifetime in the apprenticeship of form, and form is the stern consolation he allows himself here. Every sentence and every paragraph works with the coiled precision of the watch mechanisms that the narrator's father repairs, and glitters with the lapidary perfection of the diamonds he sells.
Frequently this means muzzling the glorious, snarling high irony that characterises much of Roth's mature writing. Faced with the ultimate catastrophe, the prose battens down the hatches, offering up passages of plain-seeming style that conceal an almost Flaubertian attention to nuance and cliché. But as the narrator begins to uncoil in rage against the dying of his light, the writing loosens to extraordinary effect. Consider the pity and the comedy in this description of a private agony, in which the character can't even beat his chest without the risk of wrecking the machinery: "... he began by striking his chest with his fist, striking in cadence with his self-admonition, and missing by mere inches his defibrillator ... This ordinarily even-tempered man struck furiously at his heart like a fanatic at prayer, and, assailed by remorse not just for this mistake but for all mistakes, all the ineradicable, stupid, inescapable mistakes - swept away by the misery of his limitations but acting as if life's every incomprehensible contingency were of his making - he said aloud, 'Without even Howie! To wind up like this, without even him!'"
It is the restraint Roth exercises over his astonishing command of language that hits hardest in Everyman. Drawn into old age, the narrator comes to populate a world of stents and infarcts, where "conversation invariably turned to matters of sickness and health, [people's] personal biographies having by this time become identical to their medical biographies". The apparatus and the machinery of surgery encroach steadily on the "dying animal" that gave the title to Roth's last novel of disease and disintegration, and what emerges, for what it's worth, is an unselfpitying respect for human interconnection in all its fragility and pointlessness.
"O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind," cries the protagonist of the 16th-century play that gave the title to this novel. That death comes when he has it least in mind is paradoxically the ultimate consolation for Roth's troubled Everyman in this bleakest of his masterpieces. But who, eventually, is consoled by that? Just after finishing this book, I glanced at the death notices in that day's newspaper. The first one gave a name, and then the word "Reluctantly".