Every bend I drove round, the road ahead was empty.
Exit Ghost is a late novel by Philip Roth. I’ve just been listening to it on audiobook as I drove back to Napier. It was late afternoon, and after overtaking some stragglers I managed to get into that ideal space - a vast landscape with no traffic ahead or behind. Every bend I drove round, the road ahead was empty. This for me is the most perfect space within which to think. And Exit Ghost is a speculative work of fiction.
The novel muses on aging, on love, on lust.
In it Roth’s alter-character, an aging novelist, a womaniser, is now so old he has had his prostrate removed and he wears incontinence pads. He no longer achieves erection. He has lived in isolation but on returning to a post 9/11 New York, he falls in love - in lust - with a young Texan beauty. She’s in her late twenties.
Roth very cleverly writes a semi-sexual affair which only happens in the writer’s head. This gets round the yuk factor. But wrapped within the novel, to ensure that the novel is not read autobiographically, is an almost splenetic dialogue about biographers who seek to read fiction in the most simplistic biographical terms.
A cri de couer from a man who had once been highly sexual.
I chuckled to myself as I listened to him describing biography as a kind of rancid theft. But I also mused that the novelist was almost desperately trying to ensure that the reader did not identify the lead character with Philip Roth. On the other hand, the entire novel seemed a deeply felt personal cri de couer from a man who had once been highly sexually active, but who was now mourning his passing into a life of shade, of darkness.
I didn't care too much who survived.
The theme of aging is probably going to emerge as a huge one for the current baby boom generation. (Roth of course precedes my own generation by twenty, thirty years.) But we are all living longer and all around me I see people living into an unthought of older age. I include myself in this. As a young man in my twenties, I confidently expected the world to undergo some kind of apocalypse. I didn’t care too much who survived. Confidently, I assumed neither my own survival nor my death.
Instead, with noteable exceptions of Aids, cancer and suicide, most people have survived. I even had the extraordinary experience of finding an early lover, from the 1970s, alive. (He was interviewed in Nine to Noon. He is English. A Londoner. I had tried to contact him in the early 1990s. I could not find his name in any telephone book. I assumed, unwillingly, that he had died. Aids was unknown when we were sexually active.)
...the urgency of desire in a body which is no longer protected by the armour of youth.
So now we face something different from what any of us had imagined.
A longer life, and perhaps something else - the urgency of desire in a body which is no longer protected by the armour of youth.
I compare Roth’s careful, artful fiction with Edmund White’s much more straight forward, almost confessional nonfiction. Which is better? Which tells the story of the plaint better? Gide said that each age has its own gifts - and it is true, when I was actually young, I wasted time by diffidence, uncertainty and an almost tidal wave of neurotic anxiety. I was Totally Fucked Up. At the same time I appeared probably very driven, over-confident, assertive - I always thought I knew where I was going.
One always wants what one doesn't have.
At the moment I am writing, or trying to write nonfiction. Yet as always, one wants what one doesn’t have. Suddenly I feel the impulse of fiction again....it seems so fascinatingly tangential and protective. With someone like Roth it becomes an intricately layered narrative. Edmund White, on the other hand, almost prosaically, tells the story of his loss of looks, his abnegation of self, the men he hires for sex, his liking for masochism. He evades the mask, hiding only behind the assertiveness of a seemingly limitless truth. I saw this described in the NYer perjoratively as a gabby gay man’s talkativeness, telling things that nobody wants to know.
The young are beautiful and stupid.
Really both men are talking about the urgency of desire in a body which no longer evokes desire. The young are beautiful and stupid. The young think they know it all but really they know almost nothing of what lies ahead of them. Their careless beauty has about it a kind of terror. A vulnerability which ensures their protection (in some circumstances it opens them to exploitation and destruction.) I don’t have children to observe and love endlessly. But looking at the students I had for six weeks I ended by identifying that seemingly hard carapace they all had - a jaunty defiance against the odds, an assumption that somehow they’d all survive. I recognised its blindness - its almost animal dumbness - from my own youth. Does this sound harsh? Judgmental? Well, I include myself in this.
What do you learn as you age?
Different terrors and uncertainties. But there’s also those nuggets of knowledge, hard gained.
But like most people, I would abandon those nuggets in a second if I could go back into the body of youth for a day, even an hour....
But would I go back to the confusions of that age? The very real not knowing?
It’s very hard to learn what Van Vogh wrote.
‘One must seize the reality of one’s fate and that’s that.’