a s byatt on philip roth


Philip Roth is the great recorder of Darwinian Man – “unaccommodated man”, who is no more than “a poor, bare, forked animal”, as old King Lear observed. Roth has understood what it means to be a conscious creature, driven by sexual desire towards the death of the body, nothing more. He called an earlier novel The Dying Animal, taking his title from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, in which the poet describes his soul as “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal . . .”

Roth’s characters inhabit a truly post-religious world, in which we do not have immortal souls, only sick, lively desire, and the dying of the animal. The title of this new, bleak tale is taken from a mediaeval morality play in which Everyman, the human soul, is called by Death to appear before God’s judgement seat. He is deserted by his strength, discretion, beauty, knowledge and five wits, leaving only his Good Works to speak for him at the end. Hugo von Hofmannsthal reworked the play in 1911 for the Salzburg Festival, where it is still performed. Timor Mortis conturbat me is an ancient cry, but it sounds different in a world where the Four Last Things – death, judgement, heaven and hell – have been reduced to one, or maybe one and a half.

more from The New Statesman here.