Published 2006 [first published 2006]
‘Everyman’ is a book that starts with a funeral and goes on to explore the life behind the kind and nostalgic words of the mourners present on the day. I read a tweet that said something along the lines of reading Philip Roth being like a nice day at the beach whilst swimming in shark-infested waters. That is true of ‘Everyman’.
Early on, we are told that there were people who would be pleased at his demise, we are made aware of an affair, yet his character is described as someone who is kind and loved. The novel is notes on a life of someone who lived as he chose at the time – not really thinking of the long-term consequences of his actions.
‘Everyman’ is another novel that explores life and death, dealing with mortality, and the musings of one at the evening of his life. In this book, the protagonist becomes aware of death at an early age and becomes almost obsessed with its prevalence all around him – probably something fairly natural in that this awareness emerges during wartime. This anxiety creeps up on him and is compounded as time goes on. It may be this constant fixation on death that makes him choose his course – almost uncontrollably acting on desire, the consequences of betrayal which he fails to evaluate in the long term. As age strips him of his confidence, the reader begins to contemplate his affairs as an endeavour to retain some sense of youthfulness.
The novel traces the years from one instance of ill-health to the next – the only real difference being the nature of the ailment and the identity of the women at the foot of the hospital bed. Through his early years, he puts off death – believing he will think of oblivion later in his life. That creeps up on him sooner than he realises, as he details how our bodies let us down and how no-one is immune. Emotional betrayal merges with the betrayal our bodies commit against our longevity.
As the book progresses, the physical ailments merge with the emotional showing the debilitating effect of illness on the spirit and how our medical histories begin to define us if we let them. In these pages is a yearning for life despite illness that befalls us all – in bodies that will eventually give up the fight. The inevitable despondency and foreboding creeps in, arriving with the sense of helplessness.
He is alone with the guilt he has harboured throughout his life. The only difference now that he is older is that it almost seems his chance to make it right has expired. In looking for comfort, he begins to wish that he had done things differently. The relative brevity of life doesn’t really afford us the opportunity to make up for the regrets we accrue over the course of a lifetime.
As Philip Roth retires from writing, perhaps it is fitting that I chose this novel to read this week (my first Philip Roth for years). As at the date of writing, he is 80, written 31 books, and, to our view, has had a very successful life. I was, however, somewhat disappointed by how superficially this enormous topic was dealt with, at times, by this world famous novelist. At the same time, his approach was very unique, real, and thought-provoking.
We will never have the answers to life’s grand questions. We will never have a uniform approach to life and death. But this novel is a reminder of the fact that death is one of the few certainties we are afforded and, for all of the musings it inspires on the subject, we have a perspective from this great novelist to add to the inevitable huge tracts of time we will spend thinking on this topic.