The Counterlife

by Philip Roth

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1235

The Counterlife continues the saga of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in a number of the author’s books over a two-decade period. The Counterlife is a highly speculative and highly playful work in the form of a novel in progress about the possibilities and hazards of fiction writing.

Asked why she enjoys Jane Austen’s work so much, one of Roth’s characters, a very proper Englishwoman, replies, “She simply records life truthfully, and what she has to say about life is very profound. She amuses me so much. The characters are so good.” In describing what Austen’s fiction is, Mrs. Freshfield unknowingly also describes what The Counterlife is not, at least not in any way that Mrs. Freshfield could ever understand. As comic as it is complex, The Counterlife consists of five narratives that, while interrelated, are not linearly developed in any conventional sense, are not resolved, either individually or together, and are often at odds with one another.

“Basel” begins with what the reader only later learns is a eulogy, written but because of its inappropriateness never delivered, by forty-four-year-old Nathan Zuckerman on the occasion of his brother Henry’s death at age thirty-nine. That discovery is just the first in a bewildering series of surprises in a novel of unexpected reversals that derive—or seem to derive—from Nathan’s efforts to understand his brother’s death and therefore his life in the only way Nathan knows, by writing about them. (Part 4 will suggest a very different, though parallel, point of departure for The Counterlife’s multiple narratives.) Henry elected surgery rather than accept the impotence that is a side effect of the drug prescribed to control his heart condition. Henry, it appears, wanted to become sexually active again in order to continue his affair with his dental assistant, Wendy, an affair that is itself the result of, as well as an attenuated version of, Henry’s tempestuous affair with a married Swiss woman named Maria some years before. That affair Henry has confessed to only one person, perversely enough, his brother Nathan, a novelist famous for turning family secrets into bestselling fiction. Having failed to give up his conventional life for a more satisfying, or at least exciting, counterlife in Switzerland with Maria, Henry chooses to risk death rather than give up his more perfunctory and even farcical after-hours dalliance with Wendy. This, of course, is not the version that Henry’s wife Carol offers in the eulogy she delivers in Nathan’s stead. Carol’s Henry is a dedicated family man willing to risk his life for the sake of a complete, which is to say sexually satisfying, marriage. Whether Carol actually believes this “version” of Henry, neither Nathan nor the reader can say for sure. What is clear is that in his uncertainty, Nathan finds ample room for narrative speculation.

Stories and counter-stories, as well as counterlives, continue to proliferate in part 2, “Judea.” Here Henry has survived not only surgery but also postoperative depression. He finds his cure for the latter in Israel, where he transforms himself into Hanoch, a disciple of a fanatical Zionist named Mordecai Lippman. A dismayed and desperate Carol dispatches Nathan—no longer living alone in New York but married to his very own and very English Maria—to bring Henry back to his senses and to his family. Although Nathan’s mission fails, his experiences in Israel cause him to ponder more deeply and more imaginatively Henry’s situation and his own, particularly as a Jewish American writer.

These speculations become the subject of the novel’s next section, “Aloft.” Aboard a flight from Tel Aviv to London, Nathan writes...

(This entire section contains 1235 words.)

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and rewrites a letter to Henry that he will never send and then ponders the letter that a friend, an Israeli journalist, gave him just before departure. His musings give way to farce when a fellow passenger dressed as a Hasidic Jew turns out to be Nathan’s biggest fan. Claiming Nathan as his inspiration, Jimmy Ben-Joseph Lustig tells Nathan that he is about to hijack the plane, though he also says that he is only joking. In any case, farce gives way to nightmare when two security men thwart the plan, if it is a plan, perhaps mistaking Jimmy’s joke, if it is a joke, for the real thing. Jimmy is brutally beaten, and Nathan tries, seemingly without success, to give his Kafkaesque interrogators what they want, an account of himself that they can believe.

In part 4, “Gloucestershire,” however, Nathan is the one with the heart problem and the desire to live a different life. He wants to live in London with Maria, who is not yet his wife, as she already was in “Judea.” Nathan desires exactly the kind of conventional life from which Henry wanted to escape in “Basel.” Now it is Henry who cannot deliver the eulogy and who listens to one he knows to be false. Afterward, he goes to his brother’s apartment, looking for the notebooks into which he is sure Nathan recorded Henry’s confession of his affair with Maria. Though he is aware of his brother’s propensity for “cannibalizing” family secrets for the sake of his fiction, Henry is still dismayed, as is the reader, though for a quite different reason, to find a manuscript labeled “Draft #2” which appears to be parts 1, 2, 3, and 5 of The Counterlife. Furious, Henry removes the incriminating sections and dumps them in a garbage bin at a rest stop along the Jersey Turnpike. At this point, the chapter switches form and point of view a second time. In an interview with a “restless soul,” presumably Nathan’s ghost, Maria discusses her visit to Nathan’s apartment and her decision to leave the manuscript as she found it, even though doing so will surely jeopardize her marriage. As the ghost shrewdly realizes, that may be the reason Maria leaves the manuscript intact, allowing it to do what she is too timid to.

Yet in “Christendom,” Nathan, like Henry in “Judea,” is back again, in London, following what is now described as a “quiet flight” (perhaps, therefore, with no attempted hijacking) from Israel. Maria is now, as she was in part 2, his wife. Nathan’s brief stay in Israel has, however, changed him, sensitizing (or perhaps oversensitizing) him to anti-Semitism, English style. At the restaurant to which he has taken Maria to celebrate her twenty-eighth birthday, Nathan sniffs anti-Semitism in another diner’s rather loud complaint about a foul smell. Well aware of her own mother’s anti-Semitism, Maria tries to calm Nathan; failing, she decides that perhaps a Jew and a Christian cannot live happily ever after. Alone at the house they are having renovated but have not yet occupied, Nathan wonders whether Maria may be gone for good, a possibility that Nathan, ever the novelist, quickly sees in narrative terms. First, he imagines her farewell note, in which she says she cannot endure “a lifetime of never knowing whether you’re fooling,” existing as nothing more than a character in some ongoing fiction of his devising. He then imagines his reply, which ends, as the novel does, “It may be as you say that this is no life, but use your enchanting, enrapturing brains: this life is as close to life as you, and I, and our child can ever hope to come.”