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A Death in Books

A son faces the ghosts his father left behind

Marco Roth
February 22, 2007

When I was 15 or 16, I can no longer say which with any certainty, my father walked into my bedroom one morning, I’m fairly sure it was morning, and announced he had a present for me. If I throw myself into it, without regard for accuracy, I can almost picture what it must have been like: light pouring from the East River through the bank of windows overlooking Central Park; me, burrowing deep under the duvet, eyes shut against the day, a wall of orange under my lids. Back then, I never put the blinds down unless I wanted a 12-hour teenage sleep marathon. In those days of healthy fatigue, worn out from school and orchestra, or a weekend of street hockey and a night of illicitly purchased beer at some friend’s East Side apartment, I could sleep through any amount of noise and light. Somehow, though, I could hear my father’s signature two knocks, slow and soft, distinct from my mother’s quickly rapped out triplets, so I knew he was coming.

I must have been surprised. My father almost never entered my room. He had a nearly religious belief in the importance of privacy, his own, especially, but he was determined to apply the same standards to me. Perhaps, also, he feared me and treated me the way he treated the symptoms of the disease that had begun to ravage him: with humor and science. Boys would be boys as molecules would be molecules. If the right drugs were applied, you could lessen the blow of the inevitable. You could placate and forestall. Nothing I could do would surprise him. This was how he used to play chess, too, preferring the black pieces and letting me devise attacks that he always seemed to have blocked well before I’d thought of them.

I imagine him advancing over the threshold unsteadily, one parquet square at a time, wearing a long, silk, red paisley dressing gown over black trousers which probably needed to have the waist taken in—again—and a white undershirt. He’d already diminished so much from the gleefully plump man who, in photographs, hoisted infant me on his shoulders, or, later, started wild pillow fights. At 50, he looked and moved like 70, hair all but gone except for gray wisps at the sides, glasses—now too big for his shrunken face—hiding his calming and gray-flecked blue eyes. Sciatica-riven, in addition to everything else, he limped on long legs from which all muscle had apparently melted away. And how must he have seen me? Sleep-ruffled, I probably looked sullen and slow-witted, a young philistine, more like a younger version of his squat but still athletic father-in-law than anything he could acknowledge as his. My room, at the time, was a chaotic attempt at normal teenage life: an autographed Michel Petit hockey stick that stood guard over increasingly underused hockey equipment, a Bob Marley poster, an Asia Society advertisement showing a rampant ochre lion in a field of what I imagined to be poppies. And on a bulletin board hung another unsettling contrast: the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue calendar, alongside the now famous photo of the Afghan refugee girl, the one with the impossible eyes. In one corner, a steel bookcase, painted white, overflowed with science fiction and fantasy novels and old Asterix cartoons; along the windowsill beneath the windows were piled books on theater, books for school, collections of Civil War military histories, Dungeons and Dragons manuals, baseball cards, a tape collection as varied and inconsistent as the rest. As my small family fell apart, I’d become increasingly eclectic, desperate to find anything to attach myself to, to make my own, or be made into.

I imagine my father saw relatively little to make him feel at home. He despised sports and listened only to classical music. A scientist, he was suspicious of fantasy. A lover of great books, he looked down on comics and other sub-literary genres. To enter my room at all, then, must have been, as all journeys to strange lands with alien customs are, a minor but not insignificant act of bravery.
His present, too, was an aberration. Gifts were usually my mother’s department. On birthdays or Hanukkah they’d usually appear at my place at the kitchen table, carefully wrapped. The cards on top were signed by both my parents but unmistakably chosen by my mother: Sempé drawings, or museum postcards of Japanese landscapes I admired, or, sometimes, the purely awful “I love you more than chocolate itself” variety. In household matters, my mother had absorbed her own mother’s genius for the tchotchke. She sometimes succeeded in raising it above mere kitsch but fell short of achieving perfect taste. I never threw the cards away for fear she’d notice. They piled up in drawers or old shoeboxes. (I’m still in the habit. I will never love her enough.)

On that morning, which was not my birthday or any holiday, my father chose a simpler route. He presented the book to me unwrapped. It was a Penguin Classics edition of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. From the cover, a young man in a black coat and collarless white shirt looked me slyly in the eyes. If you know the novel, you’ll already have heard a heavy thump of foreshadowing. Groan knowingly, if you must. If you don’t, well, you’ll have to wait and see why this gift was so rich in irony, so massively overdetermined, and yet, as it will turn out, so ambiguously meaning-laden as to rob it of any of the salutary benefits that are supposed to accrue when books are passed from father’s hand to son’s, with all the weight of tradition, wisdom, and hope such gifts imply.

I think I thanked him, but I know for sure that the book went straight into that white metal case, squeezed past such childhood luminaries as Philip José Farmer and Raymond E. Feist and finding a home in the small section I’d already set aside for “serious literature.” The novel remained there, unopened. For how long? I can’t say. I know I read it before I went to college—perhaps as I recovered from my second knee operation. Nor can I remember, for that matter, what the occasion was that led my father to decide it was time for me to read Stendhal. We never discussed it. I associate that day with a time when I was in an almost daily battle with my parents over SAT tutoring. They wanted to pay for a course. I refused on the grounds that it was “hypocritical,” that my father, in particular had always insisted that education was its own reward. They paid. I skipped the lessons. We fought again. Yet there were so many battles during this time, so many arguments. It could have been something entirely different from disagreement that led my father to bestow his gift, because he had always, for as long as I could remember, been plying me with books.

Now let me step back to introduce this column. It’s going to be, or supposed to be, an investigation into the way novels and stories affect our sense of who we are and where we come from, about the ways fiction can influence and structure our relationships with the people we love. We read alone, but we’re never entirely alone when we read. Ghosts haunt the margins: earlier readers, our friends, our parents. Sometimes we even haunt the pages ourselves, bringing our own dramas to the dramas we read about. For most of us, this spectral presence is a teacher, but the teacher is less quiet ghost than active spirit, looming over our shoulder, to be fought against, if possible, until he or she can be aggressively internalized or rejected. “Tradition” is the familiar name we use to make the crowded gallery where we read a less uncanny place. Literally something “handed down” or “passed on,” a tradition usually includes laws for mediating and ordering the transfer of knowledge and shared experience among generations. The ghostly reading I’ll be describing takes place within a recognizable tradition observed by secular, middle- and upper-class, intellectual Jews who attempted to transplant an old-world German and Austrian Enlightenment idea of culture to America. (For a while, this idea cohabited peacefully with American promises of self-betterment to lead towards an ideal of spiritual upward mobility, the fantasy of a liberal arts education.)

Yet the kind of encounters set down here will also go against the laws of culture and good breeding, against the serenity and reconciliation one might be expected to derive by submitting to such a tradition. The novels and stories I’ll deal with in the coming months all belong, in one way or another, to this old European notion of Bildung—acculturation or development—even as they represent an already belated and self-critical stage of this ideal: The Red and The Black, Goncharov’s Oblomov, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis comprise this selection from my father’s library. These were all books he told me to read, or even read with me, when I was still young enough to submit to being read to and not yet old enough to understand. Some of these I read while he was alive, others waited. Taken as a whole, they add up to a disturbing chronicle of failed social integration, development perverted; of alienation, failed families, and failed hopes; of lives damaged or cut short by historical circumstances.

It’s not an uplifting list, and most of what I write here will be dedicated to puzzling out what my father could possibly have been thinking by telling me to read these books in a context that could only be felt as somehow didactic. The command “Take it and read!” usually presages a moment of religious conversion. At the time, however, it was impossible to tell what he meant, whether these were gifts intended to bring us closer by showing me the world as he understood it, or to show me my own future and emotions as though in a magic mirror. Maybe he just wanted to save me for his peculiar version of “high culture,” in the hope that this culture would somehow provide me with the support he no longer could.

As we know too well, we live in the aftermath of the collapse of any such ideal of culture’s redemptive powers, Jews especially. While my father was dying and giving me books, agents of both the left and the right completed the demolition of humane, liberal, secular Judaism and returned us to a more tribal understanding of culture, identity, and religion. To mourn my father and read his books is also to mourn the passing of that hopelessly conflicted character, the American cultural Jew. What follows, then, is an inquiry into my father’s life between the pages of these books, into these books that stood between me and my father.

Let me say, too, that I go into it reluctantly. I hate myself for writing a memoir and I hate most contemporary memoirs. I take it as a worrisome sign that many Americans my age and of similar social and educational background now write them. Is it an indication that the uneasily privileged young have come to feel prematurely or precociously aged? Or maybe we are just so traumatized and sidelined by events beyond our control that all we can do is write about what’s already happened to us—the minor injustices and micro-histories of our childhood and adolescence.

Memoir used to be the genre of old men and courtiers, a look back on a life rich in achievements and events from the standpoint of someone with leisure to recollect them. America has also given us the memoir as survivor’s tale: The slave narrative and the captive narrative remain paradigmatic genres of “true stories.” Recent popular memoirists, like the notorious James Frey and less notorious Elizabeth Wurtzel, draw on something in those narratives: the heroic sense of freedom and survival won against great odds to describe their self-imposed slaveries of addictions and neurosis.

Also, as we know, memoir is an inherently untrustworthy genre, since all memory is unreliable. Our present constantly influences what we think we know about our past. We select experiences in order to shape a story, sometimes according to our wishes, sometimes involuntarily. I may emphasize my unhappier moments because they seem to reflect more accurately my adult unhappiness. “Truly though our element is time, we are not suited to the long perspective, open as we are, at each instant of our lives,” as the English poet Philip Larkin puts it in “Reference Back,” his jazzy, lyrical refutation of Proust. Even with the best of intentions, memoirs will have flaws and cracks. The living will be hurt, the dead cannot speak for themselves.

Most of all, I know my father would object, not just to the violation of privacy, but also to the necessary liberties we take with events when we sit down to arrange lives into patterns. He spent his professional life as a research hematologist and a practicing physician. His truths were found by breaking things down into their components and through the patient accumulation and sorting of data. Although he loved literature, he distrusted writers and thought most contemporary fiction was little better than a collection of self-serving lies and attention-seeking gestures. This cultural conservatism hardened as his disease advanced, but, even as I’ve taught myself to go on in spite of it, much of his attitude toward culture has infected me, too. A thing must be great or it must not be at all. Better then not to start, better to get an honest job that helps reduce other people’s suffering. That was my father’s choice and he would have had it be mine.

That I understand his wish makes most of what I do appear as betrayal. I already fear my own ability—yes, ability—to tell a story that will gratify a reader’s expectations of obstacles overcome, identities forged, conflicts harmoniously reconciled, all that we expect from the traditional coming-of-age tale. This is to say: Reader beware! I will not lie to you intentionally, but I may get many things no more than half right. The contemporary memoir is a bastard genre, neither truth nor art. But it sometimes takes a bastard to conjure the illegitimate world of hidden experiences and desires that exists, as between the pages of a novel, neither fully formed nor clear to the light of science. And even a bastard may love his father.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.