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Sabbath's Theater

By Philip Roth

Original Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Current Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)

Ed Porter writes:        

Sabbath's Theater is a polarizing book.  Early on, sixty-four year old small-time puppeteer Mickey Sabbath reflects that he hates the word "sharing" the way good people hate the word "fuck."  That pretty much sums it up: it's not for good people.  But if—like me, and most people I know—you're not a good person but just a person, then its frankness, humor, and ambition come as a mind-blowing surprise and delight. 

It's dirty. The sex scenes arrive not as single spies but in battalions, and the unfaithful lovers are foul-mouthed, fleshy, middle-aged, and unrepentant. The point of the sex though is not titillation but the depiction of intimacy—an adult intimacy that makes many other fictional lovers seem flat and unconvincing in comparison.  Among other things, Sabbath's Theater is a celebration of the inexhaustible human need for carnality—as creative act, as vindication of individuality, as rebellion against failed marriage and other bad choices, and, most importantly, as fuck-you to the ever-present specter of death.

Underneath all the sex and bad behavior, Sabbath's Theater is an investigation of grief—inconsolable, unsupportable grief, for the dead, and for oneself.  The scene that I can never get out of my head (and I'm not alone in this) is that of Sabbath masturbating on the fresh grave of his lover Drenka, and then finding out to his horror that he's not alone in the practice.  It's an outrageous scene, but its porno-slapstick is infused with terrible pain.

Who but Roth could write a sentence as elaborate, lush, inclusive, and audacious as this one: "Lately, when Sabbath suckled at Drenka's uberous breasts—uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself  ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto's painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit—suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan (as Juno herself may once have groaned), 'I feel it deep down in my cunt,' he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother." 

The story of the book is Sabbath versus death—he loses his lover, wife, mother, and brother—as well as his innumerable failures and crimes.  It's a contest he can't win, and can't even lose in a way that would put an end to his suffering.  As the title suggests, the book is alive with a love of drama, and the play we're pointed towards is Lear.  All that rawness becomes a road to a deeper truth, and by the novel's end, its cumulative dose of human hope and woe had me (and again I'm not alone in this) on my knees.

Edward Porter's story "The Changing Station" will appear this fall in the anthology Best New American Voices.

ISBN: 9780679772590

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Madison Smartt Bell for All Souls' Rising
  • Edwidge Danticat for Krik? Krak!
  • Stephen Dixon for Interstate
  • Rosario Ferrè for The House on the Lagoon

Fiction Judges that Year:

Erica Jong, Michael Malone, Colleen McElroy, Thomas McGuane, Mark Richard

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • This was Philip Roth’s second National Book Award. His first came thirty-five years earlier, for Goodbye, Columbus. He was also a finalist for My Life as a Man in 1975, and for The Anatomy Lesson in 1984.
  • In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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Reader Comments (1)

You should probably attribute James Wood if you are going to....borrow from his book, How Fiction Works.

September 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDamian
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