God, what a great writer Roth is. This short novel is superb. So wise and humane.
It is about a man reaching the end of his life. Its brilliance lies in the way it evokes a full and rounded personality, the good bits and the bad bits. It is a meditation on mortality and, in particular, mortality for those with no expectation of an afterlife. But it is also about immortality, the immortality that comes from inheritance and shared history. One of the questions framed by the book is: what, really, do we pass on to the next generation?
The central character is typically Roth-ian – Jewish but secular, intellectual and successful professionally. But the other characters in the book, his wives and children, even those with only walk-on parts, are also memorable and sketched with just a few perfect sentences.
Physical and mental decline is a theme, of course; you can’t write about dying without it. But it is balanced by a back-handed celebration of an appetite for life and the pursuit, even unconsciously, of self-knowledge. A self-knowledge that is double-edged, of course, as we are all a mix of the virtuous and the sinful.
A really, really good book.