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Jewish Journal

Life vs. Death

by Tom Teicholz

July 19, 2006 | 8:00 pm

In college, I wrote the same literature essay over and over again. Regardless of the novel, its plot or its country of origin, I found that I could always work up four pages on the subject of "Life vs. Death."

My ideas on this subject were not particularly original. In a high school English class, some intellectually precocious seniors had made impassioned references to Norman O. Brown's "Life Against Death" and Freud's discussion of the life force vs. the death force -- and to my morbid teenage brain, these ideas stuck. Although it would be years before I would actually read either author, I now had a critical prism by which to analyze literature. It turned out there was no shorter way to a professor's approbation than a mention of liebestot.

I bring this up not only because I find myself again with 1,000 words to write, not only because babies are still being born and people keep dying with alarming regularity, but because the struggle between the forces of life and death came to mind as I read several recent novels.

Phillip Roth's "Everyman," (Houghton Mifflin) is a short, and in some respects, slight work. Clocking in at around 200 pages, it recounts the life of one man through his medical history. As an organizing principle, this one's as valid as any, even if in this instance, it doesn't necessarily yield the most compelling, multidimensional portrait.

But let me give Roth his due: There are scenes in "Everyman" that continue to haunt me, simple descriptions of mundane events -- such as the experience of being wheeled into an operation or of attending a Jewish funeral and hearing the sound of freshly dug earth upon the coffin -- that made me experience them anew and deeply in ways that only underline Roth's mastery as a wordsmith and novelist.

The notion of categorization has always had appeal. Nancy Mitford divided the world into "U" (upper class) and "Non-U"; Lenny Bruce did the same but with Jew and non-Jew. I have always thought that Roth's novels could be divided into "good-boy" books and "bad-boy" books -- "Portnoy" being Roth's most famous bad-boy book; "The Ghost Writer" his best-known good-boy book.

Although the protagonist of "Everyman" may not be a good man (he is estranged from some of his children and treated some of his former wives cruelly), it is a good-boy book, reminding us of how suddenly sickness and death can come to dominate our life narrative. In "Everyman," the death force is not to be denied.

By contrast, "Sabbath's Theater," my favorite Roth novel of his recent hot streak, is about Mickey Sabbath, a character so awful, so debauched and degraded yet in whom the life force rages. So it seems, at least with Roth, that in the bad-boy books, the life force commits outrageous acts of defiance, while in the good-boy books ("American Pastoral" comes to mind, as well), the death force wins out -- as it does sometimes in life, as well.

Sometimes, we mourn those we barely know or those we know best by the literary works they gave to world. Wendy Wasserstein, who died Jan. 30, 2006, was someone I had met on occasion -- she was a contributor to a publication my wife worked for -- but did not know. But having seen so many of her plays, such as "Isn't It Romantic" or "The Sisters Rosensweig," I, like so many others, was a fan. Her untimely death at age 55, a single mother leaving a young child, deeply affected me (or to put it in less literary terms, really bummed me out).

Wasserstein also left behind a first novel, "Elements of Style" (Knopf). Published a few weeks after her death, it is a post-Sept. 11 tale of adultery among New York high society. Shallow person that I am, I had little trouble identifying many of the real-life counterparts from the gossip columns.

Wasserstein may have thought she had found 21st century incarnations of Edith Wharton characters -- but let's not forget "The House of Mirth" was anything but uplifting. Here, much to my regret, the life force wrestles the death force to a draw in a novel that, although compelling, was unsatisfying.

The sadness I felt after reading Roth's and Wasserstein's new novels sent me racing to re-read one of the most life-affirming and enjoyable novels I know: "Happy All the Time" by Laurie Colwin (HarperPerennial, 1978), a book I have often given as a gift to friends going through a rough patch. A tale of two couples and their ups and downs, "Happy All the Time" has a charm that is hard to resist and is filled with great lines like: "Sometimes I think it's love, and sometimes I think it's sickness."

Colwin also died too young in 1992 at age 48 of a heart attack in her sleep, also leaving behind a young daughter. A few years ago, Jonathan Yardley wrote a great tribute to Colwin and to "Happy All the Time" in the Washington Post, which does her greater justice than I can, in which he called the novel "a wise, big-hearted book by a wise, big-hearted writer."

Perhaps in this summer when the caped wonder has returned, we would be wise to remember the words of Don Juan in George Bernard Shaw's 1903 play "Man and Superman": "The life force is stupid; but it is not so stupid as the forces of Death and Degeneration. Besides, these are in its pay all the time. And so Life wins, after a fashion."

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